Reading the Detectives: US Crime Overtakes British Romance

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.