April 16, 2012

Suburban Angst

There seems to be a sub-genre of crime fiction developing that I'll call Suburban Angst. This genre of books is marked by the creation of a milieu that is white, middle-class, professional and populated by characters who still hark back to their glory days as jocks or cheerleaders. Harlan Coben in his non-Myron Bolitar books is an exponent of this sub-genre, as is Greg Iles, Linwood Barclay and the writer whose book I'm currently reading, William Landay.

The titles of these books are usually commonplace phrases - Fear The Worst, Tell No One - and they focus on commonplace people caught up in events beyond their experience. Often they involve children going missing, or husbands/wives finding something out about their spouse's past. Typically they don't involve private eyes or the police (except in a tangential way) and it's down to the resourceful ex-jock-now-lawyer or ex-jock-now-journalist to find out Exactly What the Hell is Going On.

If nothing else, these books offer a fascinating view of what middle America thinks is 'ordinary' or 'typical', because it's these ordinary worlds that are threatened by the disastrous events of the book, and therefore these worlds that the main characters struggle to reassert. And of course what the books also show is that beneath any display of the 'ordinary' there is usually a dark secret place that has always lay beneath the norm - a place where addiction, passion and violence lie dormant but are only waiting for the opportunity to rise again.

Most crime novels are based on the premise that the criminal act undercuts or questions the current status quo, and it's the role of the detective or policeman to weed out the criminal and therefore restore the world to its harmonious balance, where everyone knows their place. The difference perhaps in the Suburban Angst novels is that the disruption of the status quo is laid out so clearly - we don't need to use any literary critical faculties to infer that the world has been disrupted: we're told as much in so many words. This makes them rather naked in their ideological position and sometimes makes them difficult to read because we're expected to identify with characters who are leading such 'perfect' lives. Perhaps that makes them peculiarly American, and why I'm struggling to think of any parallels amongst UK crime writers.

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