William Shaw’s foreword to the 2020 Crime Fiction MA anthology, published by Egg Box
Crime fiction is an extraordinary genre. It’s one that doesn’t know its place, and it never really has.
From the moment print technology made the sale of stories possible, printers found that grisly tales sold better. To the disgust of those who thought ink should be used only for self-improvement, it was obvious that murder ballads were what the readers really wanted. As one street ballad vendor told Henry Mayhew in the 1850s, ‘There’s nothing beats a stunning good murder, after all.’
There is a reason why crime fiction is still so loved, and why the writers featured in the following pages are telling the stories we want to hear. The human appetite for the grisly is an entirely natural one. Blood, cruelty and deception lie behind the oldest stories we’ve been told.
Crime writers have always explored this indecent fascination, but as the genre evolved it has, I think, acquired much greater power. In this safer and less credulous age, writers like the ones you’re about to read, have had to work much harder than those ballad writers to make us believe in the horror of violent death.
The best post-war crime fiction was about world-building. In a few brilliant words Simenon could transport you to a bar on the Seine that you absolutely knew was real; the drink a character chose, marc or milk or calvados, would define his or her place and opinions. From that place, he could convince you of the grisliest murder. In Britain, writers like P. D. James, Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill resonated because of their deft observations of character and place, of social nuances. Having placed the crime into this very real world, the act of detection itself began to change. Whether by accident or design, crime fiction evolved into a kind of forensic examination itself. Writers find themselves exploring our society, our politics and our relationships.
Writers like Val McDermid and former UEA UNESCO Visiting Professor Ian Rankin aren’t just solving murders; their detectives are investigating a moral and social universe. As Ian wrote in the foreword to a previous edition to this book, ‘If I want to know about a nation, I will read its crime fiction.’ It was no coincidence that the #metoo movement and psychological fiction appeared at the same time; crime writers were already finding new ways to tell stories about domestic abuse and the power relationships that are hidden behind closed doors.
If crime fiction now dominates our storytelling culture, topping the book charts and filling the television schedules, it’s because it strikes a chord in the way it occupies this extraordinary ground, this uneasy and yet powerful place between fiction and non-fiction. And in that sense as well, it’s a genre that doesn’t know its place. The horrors and cruelties it depicts might be imaginary, but its writers convince you they are real by the quality of their insight and observation about everything else that surrounds them.
Which makes it all sound very worthy and serious. But the impulse behind writing it is just the same as was, I presume, behind those murder ballads. Above all, these writers create stories to entertain. The rest is extra. There’s nothing beats a stunning good murder, after all.