One of the major changes we seem to have seen in crime fiction, especially over the last few decades, is the crime novel in which we follow the protagonist’s home life as well as the criminal investigation. In fact, in some cases, the protagonist’s family is caught up in the web of crime.
I decided to take a closer look at this phenomenon and see whether there really are as many novels that detail the home life of protagonists as we think there are. To address this question, I chose 301 books from among those I’ve read. Then, I sorted them into two categories: those that feature home life scenes and sub-plots; and those that do not. This wasn’t as easy as you might think. Does a scene in which the sleuth has a cup of tea at home and then goes off to investigate ‘count’ as a home life scene? What’s more, the data was, as always, limited to books I’ve read. There are many thousands of crime novels I’ve not read. But that said, here’s what I found.
As you can see, there’s absolutely no question that the vast majority of novels (80%) in this data set are stories in which we learn more about the protagonist then, perhaps, whether she or he is married.
Why is this? One possibility is that readers all have home lives, too. It could be that authors and publishers have found that readers identify more closely with, and prefer, books in which the protagonist has a family and other home life obligations and interests. Or, it could be that that ‘home life’ dimension offers authors more possibilities for conflict, tension, story arcs and the like. The one thing we can say is that such books sell. Otherwise, I doubt that editors and publishers would go along with the ‘home life’ dimension.
Is this a recent phenomenon, or has it been going on all along, but we just haven’t noticed? I decided to look at my data a bit more closely to see if there might be some sort of answer there. I sorted the books in the data set into four categories, based on date of original publication. Here’s what I found.
As you see, we’ve got a really interesting trend here. Of the 37 books published before 1950, 28 of them (76%) have either no information about the sleuth/protagonist’s home life, or very little. For instance, we know that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is not married, and we do see some domestic scenes in those novels. But there aren’t really story arcs about her family, and we don’t really see her trying to juggle home life and her sleuthing. That seems to be the case with the majority of novels in this category.
As we move to the period between 1950 and 1980, things start to change. Of the 44 books in this category, 25 (57%) feature home life scenes. There are 19 (43%) that have no such scenes. Basically, it’s a more or less even match. Why the change? It might be the impact of developing interest in psychology. Or it might be growing reader interest in more fully rounded characters. And those aren’t the only possibilities. But we do see more books featuring protagonists’ home lives.
If this data is representative of what’s happening in the larger crime fiction world, there’s been a major shift since 1980. Among the 63 books in this set that were published between 1980 and 2000, 58 (92%) feature sub-plots or at least several scenes that involve the protagonist’s home life. That pattern is also quite obvious in the 157 books in this set that have been published since 2000. In that group, 149 (95%) feature such scenes and sub-plots.
Many readers enjoy stories where they feel they’re getting to know the main character beyond the criminal investigation. For the author, such scenes and sub-plots do offer some flexibility and lots of possibilities for conflict, tension, depth of story and the like. So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that publishers have seen this, have noticed what’s happened to sales of such books, and encourage authors to weave such scenes and sub-plots into their stories.
What do you think of all this? Do you enjoy books with domestic scenes and sub-plots? Do they annoy you? If you’re a writer, do you include such scenes? Why(not)? I’d love to hear from you about this. Please feel free to let your voice be heard in the poll below, too, and we’ll talk about this again in about a week.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charlie Smalls, Timothy Graphenreed, Zachary Walzer, Harold Wheeler and Luther Vandross.