Wearing my theatre critic hat, I’ve seen several shows recently which pressed the nostalgia button, leaving me with very mixed feelings.
I still love those songs. They had tunes (OK, some of them did; and yes, I know I’m starting to sound like my parents did way back then), and the lyrics were about simple things. And they’re the soundtrack to my youth. But it was all a very long time ago. You know you’re getting old, right, when you remember Hey, Baby the first time around: the Bruce Channel version, the one without the Unh! Unh! after the third bar.
And all that nostalgia was certain to get the thought processes whirring, one way or another, and my thought processes can be relied upon to take in books. I began to think about the way crime fiction has developed, and naturally enough, that took me to my bookshelves in search of evidence that change doesn’t always mean progress and improvement.
And you know what? In this particular case, I think it may mean exactly that.
There are many people who will disagree with me. Golden Age detective fiction has a huge following, and its devotees can get pretty passionate about it. When, as a small publisher, I used to attend book fairs, the blessed Agatha was far and away the most commonly offered name when I asked potential customers who their favourite author was. A pity in a way; if there’s one sub- genre a small publisher specializing in new authors can’t offer, it’s Aggie and her contemporaries.
Don’t get me wrong; I can see the charm, and I can enjoy an occasional taste of times on the page gone by. But when I sample Dorothy L Sayers’ rich literary style, or Josephine’s Tey’s bloodless crimes, or even, a little more recently, Evelyn Anthony’s simple plots, I am moved to wonder if they would get past first base at a publishing house today. Tastes change. New trends move in. Even P D James might struggle nowadays, if she wasn’t P D James; waiting over a hundred pages for the first murder simply isn’t on any more.
I’m probably over-simplifying, and if I am, I’m sure someone will tell me so in no uncertain terms, but the impression I get is that pre-1960s crime fiction falls into two, maybe three categories: quirky amateur detective outwits the professionals in a beautiful part of the world; hard-boiled professional PI roots out thoroughly bad guy threatening beautiful woman; and maybe the more lurid version that came to be called pulp fiction.
One development is that nowadays there’s so much more. More books of any kind get published; since crime fiction is far and away the best selling genre, that must mean there’s a lot more of it around. So maybe publishers have a greater need to ring the changes. And – here comes the really controversial suggestion – authors who might otherwise regard themselves as ‘literary’ can garner more sales by adopting the crime label.
Whatever the reason, my head is above the parapet on this one; I really think the quality of crime fiction has moved up a notch or seven since those ‘golden’ days.
Then again, would Denis Lehane or Reginald Hill have made it into print sixty or seventy years ago?