04 July 2018

Patriotic Gore

by Robert Lopresti

This being the Fourth of July I would like to say a few words about one of our country’s most successful exports. We didn’t invent it, but we have certainly helped spread it around.

In fact, this product has become so popular that even countries which objectively seem to be lacking in it will claim to be rolling in the stuff.

I am referring to democracy.

You may be thinking: well, sis boom bah, but what does this have to do with mystery fiction?

A lot, as it happens. I’m not the first to say this but it bears repeating: mystery fiction only becomes popular in democracies.  (Ahem.  Jeff Baker pointed out that ancient China, not known for its polling stations, brought us Judge Dee.  Okay then.)

I think I know why this is the case. If you live in a country where the laws themselves are secret (as used to be true in the Soviet Union) or the King/Ayatollah/Dear Leader can arbitrarily decide who is guilty, then what’s the point of reading about detectives? If trials are just public theatre to reveal what has already been decided behind the scenes, what use are crime novels?

The author of a cozy mystery believes (or pretends to believe) that he is describing a society in which justice can be done, and therefore investigation matters.

The hardboiled hero lives in a more cynical world, but even she believes that there is some possibility of justice that is worth fighting for. And the hardboiled author believes that she lives in a society in which she can get away with writing so cynically.

One of the earliest proto-detective stories is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. (It has a detective, a Watson character, interrogation of suspects, and a most unlikely killer.) And it is a product of Athenian democracy.

Yes, I know Athens wasn’t such a great democracy, allowing only male citizens to vote. On the other hand, ancient Athenians might argue that a country that only votes every few years and lets representatives decide all the specific issues is a funny kind of democracy, too.

Another play from that era is Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, which shows the punishment of crime moving from the realm of direct vengeance or divine punishment to the decisions of impartial juries.

I wrote most of what you see above a decade ago and it appeared then at Criminal Brief.  I can't say I have as much faith in democracy as I did back then.  Terms like collusion, emoluments, and interference may have something to do with that.

The last few years have shown us so many things that no fiction writer would dare to put in a novel.  As someone said authors have to be believable but God doesn't.  

Have sales of paranoid thrillers been rising while crime novels have dropped? Expand this to 300 pages and you can get a Ph.D.

But in the mean time, go ahead and wave a flag if you feel like it. It’s the mysterious thing to do.


  1. Happy Fourth!

    Science fiction & fantasy do seem to be the safer choice in dictatorships but there apparently now are a good number of mystery fiction novels popular in China.

  2. Happy 242nd Birthday, USA!

    For all those candle lighters out there - Be Safe and Sane - don't blow off those typing fingers!

    Detective fiction, like our democracy, remains strong. They both go through turbulent periods when readers and voters finally say, "we've had enough." Writers and reformers create a new twist that propels us forward as an industry and nation.

  3. Now, that's fascinating. I never thought about that before (crime fic needing democracy to flourish.) It could also explain why I don't really like historical crime fiction set in times before the turn of the 20th century, in that women didn't have the rights that they do today. Thanks for making me think, Rob.

  4. Someone at another forum pointed out that the Fourth of July isn't a holiday, but a day of remembrance.

    I'm not the patriotic type, especially not in recent times. I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. & have seen all the good fireworks.

  5. I'd never thought about that link - democracy/crime fiction - but it makes sense. However, I'd tweak that just a bit, to explain Judge Dee: Crime fiction requires respect for law and lawgivers and strict moral order, and the longing, if not the reality, for all of those were a constant of Confucian China. Crime fiction flourished in the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties, and wasn't limited to Judge Dee. In China, Justice Bao (Bao Zheng a/k/a Dragon Plan Bao a/k/a Lord Bao) was/is far more legendary, and had crime stories, novels, plays and even operas written about him.

  6. THanks all. Very interesting, Eve. Happy Indy Day all!

  7. I put up a comment on this first thing this morning. Wonder where it went. As I recall, I said, "Good post." That's about the extent of my insight.

  8. Happy 4th Rob! I think I'll take the nameless judges in Perry Mason over the China of Judge Dee (who might be fun to sip tea with!)


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