Alan Kovski © 2013  |  All Rights Reserved

A Crime Story

Why has our appetite for crime dramas metastasized into something consuming such a large percentage of our fiction and television entertainment? I don’t get it. I can enjoy crime stories, whether in print or on television, but I do not understand the overwhelming dominance of this particular form of trivial entertainment. And make no mistake about it: it is trivial. It is a way of wasting time, not a cultural enrichment.

Do not repeat that last point to the folks running public television in America. My impression is that public television was created to provide a broader diet of both news and entertainment than what we get on commercial TV. On commercial TV we get crime stories, sitcoms and soap operas for entertainment. The idea of PBS, by contrast, was cultural enrichment. Instead, PBS now gives us crime dramas with British accents, sitcoms with British accents, and soap operas with British accents (plus Edwardian dress in the case of the soap operas). Only a rube would genuinely think standard cheap entertainment becomes cultured when the accents of the actors are changed from American to British.

Crime dramas, or more broadly thrillers, and their close kin the espionage dramas, have become absurdly dominant in American popular culture. Anything with the name of Sherlock Holmes in it seems to be assured of publication or broadcast. Best-selling authors mostly seem to be crime writers. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a thriller with arcana thrown in. James Patterson writes crime dramas. John Grisham writes crime dramas. David Baldacci writes crime dramas. Patricia Cornwell writes crime dramas. Sandra Brown writes thrillers. These are among our most popular authors. I have nothing against these writers, and I wish them well, but I wonder why the public has such a ravenous appetite for crime stories?

Many wonderful writers have been enormously popular without the crutch of crime solving in their stories. When Charles Dickens began writing, the crime story was only just being invented across the Atlantic by that oddball Edgar Allan Poe, and it is doubtful that many people read Poe’s stories. A few decades later, Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone, the novel that many Brits consider the start of detective fiction. Well, the start of English detective fiction, anyway. To be followed, of course, by the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the first half of the 20th Century, crime stories were overshadowed by vastly superior fiction (and cheesy adventure fiction, for that matter). In the middle of the 20th Century, detective and espionage stories were being churned out at high speed in series, but there was the common recognition that much other fiction was far better and could often be elevated to the top of the best-seller lists. Am I looking back with rose-colored glasses? I don’t think so. As far as I can tell, crime stories did not become so strangely dominant until the 1980s.

Much science fiction today has reduced itself to the level of a mere crime drama set in the future. Just recently a new series started on television with crime-fighting main characters who include an android or robot or whatever. (I can’t bring myself to watch things like that.) The cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction is mostly detective and espionage fiction with future noir elements. Nice for a brief indulgence, a one-joke sort of book—but why in the world did any writers or readers want it to become a whole subgenre?

The science fiction writer Hugh Howey wrote an essay lamenting how U.S. news media misrepresent Third World countries as merely wretched and violent places, in contrast to his personal experiences of friendly people making the best they can of life without First World prosperity. A fair point. But what is our overuse of crime drama doing to perceptions of our own society in America? Both foreign and domestic perceptions? We are filling our minds with notions of serial killers in a wretched and violent nation rather than the likable and complicated folks who form most of our country. We are daydreaming of torture and murder, merging crime stories into horror. Yuck.

All of this is not to say crime fiction should not be enjoyed. This is just to suggest that it should be a modest part of a reading diet, preferably a wide-ranging diet of both fiction and nonfiction. This is to suggest that people should be well-rounded. After you have whiled away a few hours on a crime story, try reading something worthwhile.

December 2013