An inspector calls: why are crime novels so popular?

Sunday 31 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Lecture Theatre 2

From HBO’s The Wire to the international success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, crime fiction has rarely been so popular. While the detective story has always held a particular hold over the imagination of the reading public – from Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple through to Inspector Morse and Ian Rankin’s Rebus – in recent years the genre has moved from bestselling niche to global phenomenon. Yet while many praise the social critique present in the work of writers such as Henning Mankell and Dennis Lehane, others are concerned by the increasingly gruesome nature of the crimes on display, and particularly the way in which lurid violence against women and children is described with apparent relish.

Similarly, while audiences have lapped up troubled anti-heroes from the ‘shop-soiled Galahad’ Philip Marlowe onwards, today’s sleuths are less likely to be Chandleresque characters conflicted over morality than hyper-rational agents bringing order to the chaos around them. Hit series Dexter, for example, combines forensic investigation with vigilante revenge on criminal low-life; Millennium’s heroine Lisbeth Salander is an autistic super-hacker with a photographic memory and the only certainty in CSI is that ‘the evidence never lies.’

If, as GK Chesterton wrote, detectives represent the ‘unsleeping sentinels’ of civilisation, does the current fixation reflect an unhealthy obsession with the darkness at the fringes of that civilisation, and the potential killer inside all of us, or are fictional detectives simply the last bastions of virtue in a morally uncertain world? Given that today’s top sleuths are just as likely to work outside the law as within it, does their popularity reveal something about contemporary attitudes to the state and justice? Or is exploring society’s dark underbelly simple escapism for those living increasingly safe and risk-averse lives?

Listen to session audio:


Ruth Dudley Edwards
historian and journalist; author, The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic (forthcoming)

Gerry Feehily
Europe editor, Courrier International; author, Gunk

Sophie Hannah
poet; novelist; author, Pessimism for Beginners and A Room Swept White

Mick Hume
editor-at-large, online magazine spiked; author, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
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