Source: Review copy
Publication: 26 September 2018 from Palgrave MacMillan
This book analyses the ways in which twenty-first century detective fiction provides an understanding of the increasingly complex and often baffling contemporary world ― and what sociology, as a discipline, can learn from it.
Conventional sociological accounts of fiction generally comprehend its value in terms of the ways in which it can illustrate, enlarge or help to articulate a particular social theory. Evans, Moore, and Johnstone suggest a different approach, and demonstrate that by taking a group of detective novels, we can unveil so far unidentified, but crucial, theoretical ideas about what it means to be an individual in the twenty-first century.
More specifically, the authors argue that detective fiction of the last forty years illuminates the effects of urban isolation and separation, the invisibility of institutional power, financial insecurity, and the failure of public authorities to protect people. In doing so, this body of fiction traces out the fault-lines in our social arrangements, rehearses our collective fears, and captures a mood of restless disquiet. By engaging with detective stories in this way, the book revisits ideas about the promise and purpose of sociology.
Whilst this isn’t my usual kind of read, it is a rewarding one, not least because it bears out something that contemporary crime writers have been saying and crime readers have known for a long time. That is that you can learn an awful lot about our society from the pages of a contemporary crime novel.
If I am reading this correctly, the authors are having a bit of a pop at Sociology for being slower and perhaps even less able than crime fiction to identify some of the causes of our society’s social ills. In so doing, these authors highlight the intertwined relationship between the way in which contemporary crime fiction tackles social issues and how we live in our society today. They are sociologists, but they are also detective fiction readers, too and their aim is to see the value in detective fiction as a tool to help us read and makes sense of the social world.
There is a reason that crime is the most read genre and as Evans, Moore, and Johnstone demonstrate, part of that reason is that crime fiction is able to capture the space between fiction and fact, helping us to understand just why we are so perturbed at the way in which our society’s power mechanisms have shifted away from our grasp.
Through the use of contemporary fiction examples as well as comparing and contrasting with crime fiction in previous eras, the authors discuss how the past 40 years of crime fiction has been the genre which has highlighted the impact of an increasingly personal culture, by which I understand would reference Margaret Thatcher’s war cry, ‘there is no such thing as society’.
Crime and detective fiction, the authors suggest, illuminates the cracks in our social lives and domestic arrangements; highlights the isolation we can feel and captures the powerlessness that we often feel. By making us face head on what is happening in our society, whether that is institutional failure, poverty and homeless or the complete inability of the Police to stem the increase of knife crime; crime fiction makes us both face our fears and understand ourselves better. They also consider how the lines between what is and is not criminal have started to become very blurred (and nothing demonstrates that more than our current political mess).
Detecting the Social shows us that much of detective fiction since the 1970’s has concerned itself with an analysis of the relationship between the individual and society in the current capitalist system, alongside the impact of new technology. Utilising examples from Scandinavian and British detective fiction, including Stieg Larsson, Sarah Hilary and William Shaw, the authors delve into how detective fiction today is interrupting our ideas of social order, and what gives us meaning, identity and context. So not only can detective fiction be a snapshot of what our lives are like today, it can also be a way of identifying what the social is in our lives. Thus the decline in public trust in social authorities across liberal democracies is reflected in the corruption that lies in institutions at the heart of, inter alia, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
The authors have also considered gender and gender stereotyping in their book. From Breen and Tozer in William Shaw’s excellent novels, trying to break out of gender stereotyping, as Shaw’s novels ask questions about sexism and our attitudes to women and gay people, prompting consideration of how much, if anything has really changed in society’s attitudes? Shaw also deals with the understanding that male violence is learned violence and how the impact of that learning manifests itself in crime fiction.
That takes us to the role of women as victims in crime fiction and as the authors rightly point out, the fact that these tend to be predominantly young and female. They say “Though men are violent towards each other it is often women who are the victims of male violence. The novels of Jo Nesbo frequently revolve around physical danger to women; the men who control women through various forms of violence are as constant and present in detective fiction as they are in fact.”
Men who physically imprison women prior to killing them are taking control, needing to have them under their control perhaps as an antidote to what happens when you feel you are losing control of what’s happening round about you in society. So, this type of violence would be mirroring our political discourse on control as we see it through the language used in the Brexit debate, for example.
I’d love to see these three authors do more work around gender in crime fiction; there is no doubt that such work is much needed from authors who know and read the work and are able to look beyond apparent sensationalism.
Verdict: The authors have provided a scholarly study into an important body of work and one which will undoubtedly be returned to in years to come as we think about how crime fiction can be used to understand social issues.
Mary Evans is Leverhulme Emeritus Professor, Department of Gender Studies, London School of Economics, UK.
Sarah Moore is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences, University of Bath, UK.
Hazel Johnstone is Departmental Manager, Department of Gender Studies, London School of Economics, and Managing Editor, European Journal of Women’s Studies, UK.
They will be appearing at the Morecambe & Vice Crime Festival at the end of September. For more information and tickets click here.