Blame it on Stieg Larsson, the Wall Street Journal says.
Although the author of the well-researched WSJ article identifies several good and likely reasons for the rise in interest in crime novels from overseas, she overlooks one important possibility, which I believe to be the overriding factor behind the trend: that U.S. crime writers have moved too far away from what readers like most in mysteries.
These too-often missing elements are strong, well-motivated plot lines, plausible and well-paced stories, interesting central characters without too much psychological baggage (as the latter tends to bog down the story), a belief in the rightness of individuals paying for their crimes (without which the detection lacks importance), an intense interest in real-life problems and normal human motives (as opposed to the obsession with pathological weirdness in contemporary mysteries), imagination and a sense of joy in life (which is necessary in order for the crime to be an important disturbance), and other such characteristics of Golden Age detection fiction.
Indeed, the WSJ writer’s praise for the premise that “much of the crime fiction being imported blurs the line between genre and literary fiction” is precisely the worst possible advice for U.S. authors. As the success of crime fiction on television in recent years indicates, an appreciation for what the genre is really all about is the key to audience appeal—and makes for far superior literary results, in my view.
U.S. writers would do well to answer this new competition by concentrating their efforts on doing what crime novels do best. That is the one thing that could create a renaissance here and enable our crime fiction to regain its appeal overseas.
A recommendation: read Andrew Klavan’s brilliant mystery-suspense books for a superb example of a classic sensibility turned loose on contemporary issues.