Reading the Detectives: US Crime Overtakes British Romance

James Patterson's investigative genius Dr Alex Cross

Time was when you couldn’t move in a library in England for romance fiction: Dames Barbara and Catherine (Cartland and Cookson) dominated the shelves. Hundreds upon hundreds of copies of their titles (in large-print format very often) were loaned out by the armful.

For the second year in a row, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is the most borrowed book in UK libraries, and James Patterson is still the most borrowed author overall, a place he has occupied for the last five years. The Public Lending Right (PLR) is the organistion that tracks the frequency of loans for any particular author’s work and enables the royalty payments to reach them. Their figures, released 3 February 2012, represent the shifting trends in popular tastes, consistently moving towards crime and thrillers in the last ten years; and American (or US-based) writers are favourite.

Time was when you couldn’t move in a library in England for romance fiction: Dames Barbara and Catherine (Cartland and Cookson) dominated the shelves. Hundreds upon hundreds of copies of their titles (in large-print format very often) were loaned out by the armful. These were not only escapist and mostly historical, they were very English in their generic and plot signifiers. Cookson dealt with the working class, Cinderella-style tales of economic and romantic aspiration, mostly in the face of grave Depression-era hardship in the North East of England. Cartland offered even more fantastical fairy-tale romantic fare. Her formulaic romances were only outsold worldwide by the Bible and Shakespeare (or so she claimed).

You get the idea, anyway. It was often something of a joke about the public library lending system that it catered principally for these old-fashioned, escapist tastes.

But no more, it seems. Despite considerable cutbacks and even closures of public libraries in the UK over the past year, such books have never been more popular. Here are the comparative lists, a decade apart, showing the differences. Ian Rankin is the only UK based writer amongst the most borrowed.

UK’s Most Borrowed Titles 2010/11

1. The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown

2. 61 Hours, Lee Child

3. Private, James Patterson

4. 9th Judgement, James Patterson

5. Worst Case, James Patterson

6. Caught, Harlan Coben

7. Don’t Blink, James Patterson & Howard Roughan

8. The Postcard Killers, James Patterson & Lisa Marklund

9. The Complaints, Ian Rankin

10. Worth Dying For, Lee Child

UK’s Most Borrowed Titles 2000/1

1. The Thursday Friend, Catherine Cookson

2. The Blind Years, Catherine Cookson

3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling

4. The Solace of Sin, Catherine Cookson

5. The Lady on My Left, Catherine Cookson

6. A House Divided, Catherine Cookson

7. Second Wind, Dick Francis

8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling

9. Tara Road, Maeve Binchy

10. Black Notice, Patricia Cornwell

According to the PLR it’s crime, thrillers, horror and children’s books that are at the forefront of popular taste, indicating a significant shift in the demographic towards different (younger) age groups amongst library users. In the top ten most borrowed authors are Francesca Simon (the Horrid Henry series), Julia Donaldson (the Children’s Laureate), and Dame Jacqueline Wilson author of YA fiction (the Tracey Beaker series).

UK’s Most Borrowed Authors 2010/11

1. James Patterson

2. Daisy Meadows

3. Nora Roberts

4. Jacqueline Wilson

5. Francesca Simon

6. Danielle Steel

7. Julia Donaldson

8. MC Beaton

9. Mick Inkpen

10. Clive Cussler

Why this has happened has been attributed to the social anxiety engendered by first the 9/11 attacks and then the 7/7 bombings in London. I might concur with that if it weren’t for the fact that at the height of escapist romantic fiction’s popularity and the heyday of Cookson and Cartland (in the '70s and '80s) the UK was experiencing the ‘troubles’; with the most intensive mainland bombing campaign carried out by the IRA. Threat and intimidation from outside forces does, however, play a huge part in the shifting cultural barometer of a nation.

George Orwell remarked upon this extensively with his essay ‘The Decline of the English Murder’ (1946); in which he recounted the nation’s obsession with a spate of crimes carried out by a English waitress and her lover, a US army deserter, during the height of the London Blitz. They took advantage of the blackout, and whilst lives were in danger on a nightly basis, the populace devoured newspaper stories about the exploits of the young couple. The case was dramatised in the 1990 film starring Kiefer Sutherland and Emily Lloyd, Chicago Joe and the Showgirl. The inference was that the British public loved the excitement and thrills of specifically ‘American’ style crime (intimations of gangsters and mob violence) known from movies.

Perhaps this trend is shared by the 2012 readership and library lenders. The suggestion from the list presented by the PLR is that the British public desire different locations and ‘nationalities’ of crime – with bold detective characters in the style of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or international collaborations such as Patterson and Marklund’s The Postcard Killers. The latter also taps into the vogue for Scandinavian murder mystery and thrillers: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the Wallander series, et al.

What's also prominent is the fact that whilst the Rowling and Cookson dominance seemed unassailable ten years ago, there has been a marked shift in tastes and genre, and also a new wave in marketing for the current enthusiasms. It's interesting that the titans that are emerging are, however, to be expected: the late Danielle Steel and the brand that is James Patterson.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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