Crime and Cooking – The Most Borrowed Books of the Year

el jamesIs EL James the new Catherine Cookson? And what happened to Gone Girl? John Dugdale analyses the library charts
There’s something to please almost everyone in Public Lending Right’s latest rankings of library borrowings, covering July 2012 to June 2013. Patriots can rejoice in the top three places being unusually captured by British writers, with a double for Lee Child and EL James picking up a much-needed PLR cheque too (6.20p per book borrowed, but capped at £6,600 per author).Lovers of tradition and continuity will like the fact that James Patterson is the UK’s most borrowed author for the seventh year running, scoring 15 entries in the top 100. Champions of children’s writing can also point to the “most-borrowed authors” chart, in which six of the top 10 places are taken by children’s authors, led by Daisy Meadows, the collective pseudonym of the Rainbow Magic writers.There’s even, for once, good news for devotees of literary fiction, as Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies – which was published a month after James’s Fifty Shades of Grey in spring 2012, and collected award after award that year while James was breaking sales records – comes a creditable eighth. It is joined in the top 10 by JK Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy.

Not for the first time, however, the table may make potentially disconcerting reading for campaigners for Britain’s beleaguered libraries. For it suggests that, like George Orwell’s typical Englishman after Sunday lunch (in “Decline of the English Murder”), their members are predominantly looking for tales of unnatural death. The crime novels in which they find it tend to be American, urban, hectic, contemporary and page-turning, as epitomised by Child, David Baldacci, Karin Slaughter, and Patterson’s various series centred on cops and attorneys – so if this is escapism, it’s a very peculiar and psychologically interesting form of it, craving the antithesis of the less complicated, less violent English-provincial past that library members evidently longed for when Catherine Cookson ruled the PLR rankings in the late 80s and 90s.

Wordier US crime writers noticeably do less well, while non-American practitioners of the genre are entitled to feel aggrieved: only one foreign-language title (by Jo Nesbø, at 53) makes the top 100, and although UK authors besides the US-based Child are represented – Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Peter Robinson and Martina Cole among them – they’re not challenging for the top places. Fans will be struck by the scarcity in the chart of British women crime writers, but more surprising is the absence of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, recently revealed by the Bookseller to have been the UK’s No 1 in 2013 across formats (Alex Ferguson sold more printed books, but Flynn’s ebook sales made it the overall winner).

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