The British Library's new exhibition is Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction. Perhaps it will give readers a chance to discover the dazzling range of crime fiction available, and encourage them to step away from publishers' current offerings, because, at the present time, the genre has backed itself into a dead end.
Let me explain. Some years ago, I was in a Soho taxi late at night when its driver was attacked by two businessmen. I agreed to act as his witness, but outside the courtroom the police persuaded the plaintiff to drop his case in exchange for cash.
The driver had shouted at the men, who were drunk, and court proceedings would only cause everyone more trouble. It was a reasonable solution, if an unexciting one. If you've ever been the victim of a crime, you'll know that it's a very different experience from its fictional equivalent.
Police stations are like hospitals; most of what goes on is behind the scenes. The rest is just waiting around and trying to reconcile your anger and frustration with the orderly procedures you have to face. If crime fiction accurately reflected this, it would be moribund.
Yet publishers are keen to convince us that their latest murder mysteries are grittily realistic. They are not, but, more to the point, they never were and never will be. How many killers are captured while they're still in the middle of their slaughter sprees? How many have ever planned a series of murders according to biblical arcana? How many leave abstract clues for detectives and get caught just as they're about to strike again? Crime fiction is a construct, a device for torquing tension, withholding information and springing surprises.
Yet every month dozens of crime novels appear that promise us new levels of realism, when they patently supply the reverse. We'll happily believe that the murder rate in Morse's Oxford equals that of Mexico City if the story is told with conviction.
The latest census data about Britain is revealing. The number of people with no religion has risen to 25 per cent, the white population is down to 86 per cent, one in every three Londoners is born abroad, the Muslim population is nearly five per cent, gay marriage has Tory approval and one very proud Sikh guardsman just wore his turban instead of a bearskin for the first time.
It's clear the country is changing fast, and economic mobility is a major catalyst. However, there is a part of England that forever has an alcoholic middle-aged copper with a dead wife, investigating a murdered girl who turns out to be an Eastern European sex worker. This idea might have surprised a decade ago, but it's sold to us with monotonous regularity. It's not gritty, it's a cliché.
Lately, there have been some terrific thrillers from Irish and Scottish authors that genuinely reflect the changing nation, but very few are set in the supposed nexus of all this transformation – London. Crime fiction accounts for more than a third of all fiction published in English, but in my review pile for the spring there are hardly any contemporary London stories.
The most audacious new crime novel I've read lately is Gun Machine by Warren Ellis, who lives in Southend, but his book is set in Manhattan. More novels in translation are being published, plus a hefty stack from America, but many of their British equivalents are set in the past and nearly all are devoid of humour.
To be concluded ...