Elly Griffiths’s foreword to UEA’s 2021 Crime Fiction MA anthology, published by Egg Box and available HERE.
‘Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach?’ asks Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. ‘I call it the detective fever.’
TS Eliot called The Moonstone, published in 1868, ‘the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective stories.’ Now, in 2021, there are probably many contenders for those accolades but there’s no doubt that Collins established some of what we now consider to be the conventions of the genre: the country house setting, the varied cast of suspects, the bumbling local constabulary, the all-knowing detective, the reconstruction of the crime and the final twist in the tale.
But even Collins, prescient as he was, could not have imagined the pandemic of 2020/21. During this terrible time, so unprecedented that the word ‘unprecedented’ became a cliché, the British nation turned to books and, in particular, to crime fiction. Why did people escape the horror of Covid-19 by immersing themselves in violent death? Crime fiction also saw a boom in popularity between the wars, the so-called Golden Age. The 1920s, like the 2020s, was an era of uncertainty and collective trauma. Perhaps, when people lose their trust in official government, there is something satisfying about a world where the wicked get their just deserts. Agatha Christie’s most popular books are still And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, novels where justice is meted out in unconventional, yet highly effective, ways.
For me, though, it’s the sheer scope of crime fiction that explains its continuing popularity. You can still find Collins’s country house setting, or variations of the locked room theme, including ski chalets and airplanes. You can find spy stories and so-called ‘cosy mysteries’. You can find searing indictments of social injustice and books narrated by cats. One of the advantages of writing crime is that you can cross social divides. Sergeant Cuff can interrogate Lady Verinder, much though she resents the experience. Hercule Poirot, an often-maligned foreigner, can investigate the death of Lord Edgware. This is not to say the literature always represents the world we live in. British publishing is not as diverse as it should be. Courses like this are helping to change the situation. Within this anthology, you will find wonderful stories that range across this most elastic and enduring of genres.
The only cure for detective fever is to read more crime fiction.