I’ve just read Colin Watson’s “Snobbery With Violence,” a classic study of crime fiction and its sociological relationship. Though originally published in 1971 and focusing primarily on British writers it remains an entertaining and interesting examination of the genre and how it reflects taste and attitudes of society.
Watson, of course, was himself a purveyor of the craft and noted for a series laced with satire. His primary purpose in “Snobbery” was to illustrate how popular crime fiction echoed the temper of the times in which it was written and he does an admiral job with examples from the beginning of the 20th century down to novels of Leslie Charteris and Ian Fleming.
This is not meant to be a review of his book. I simply intend to point out some factors which still hold true and may be of interest to my fellow writers.
For instance, Watson points out crime fiction is divided into two main categories—the mystery (detective story) and the thriller.
“The detective story stimulates, or is supposed to stimulate, the intellect because it contains a puzzle. People who cannot be bothered with puzzles do not read it. It diverts because it presents a situation outside the normal experience of the reader.” He adds, most importantly to its success, is the solution of the puzzle by the end of the book. But: “We do not like the outcome of a detective novel to be easily predictable.”
The thriller, on the other hand, need not include a puzzle. But it must have action, the more the better. Confusion and suspense add to the mix. “Just as there is no reason to doubt the assertion by some women that they like to go to the cinema to have ‘a good cry,’ one recognizes the fact that very many people feel better for a good chase or a few good murders.”
Another point which may be of interest to modern writers, who even more than those of the past find themselves in the position of having to promote themselves rather than having it done for them by their publishers, is found in the example of Edgar Wallace.
In the 1920s Wallace was the acknowledged king of thrillers. He churned out 173 books between 1906 and his death in 1932 and was responsible for 25 percent of British book sales at the height of his career. He was not a great writer, but he was a master of self-promotion.
As noted by Watson, “He took care always to be accessible, easy to interview, and unfailingly opinionated. He readily contributed articles on whatever matters happened at the moment to be uppermost in the bird-brains of Fleet Street.”