Why do we read crime?

Zoë Sharp

It might seem an odd question either for a crime writer to ask, but why do we read crime? Of course, people have always enjoyed a good story, with a premise that grabs or intrigues us from the outset and characters that keep us along for the duration of the ride. Storytelling goes back to the cave and the campfire.

But why is the crime story in particular so popular?

Maybe it’s because of some human desire for vicarious thrills. We want to be drawn to the edge of our seats by the suspense, then given a satisfying resolution.

That’s not to say crime novels necessarily finish with a neat bow and a happy ever after. If you read a series you know that unless things are going to cross over from crime into a paranormal ghost story, the chances are that your main protagonist will survive at least to the next book. That doesn’t mean to say they won’t be changed or damaged by events – perhaps irrevocably. Ken Bruen is a master of this with his Jack Taylor series. Just when you think Taylor has reached rock bottom and can’t possibly go any lower, Ken takes it to another heartbreaking downward level.

But if you read a standalone, you know that all bets are off. Nobody has to survive past the final page. The good guys do not necessarily have to triumph. Anybody who’s read Duane Swierczynski’s THE WHEELMAN will know that the ending can be as shocking as the author cares to make it.

Do you read crime to be shocked?

Certainly in recent years there has been a rise of crime novels that are more violent – and which show a more twisted inventiveness to that violence – than previously. One publishing editor told me last year that they were only being allowed to buy ‘slasher-gore’ books of the type which the marketing people reckoned would sell well in supermarkets. It’s popular, but why? Perhaps there is something titillating in reading this from behind the safety glass of fictional perspective, of knowing that while someone can imagine such a thing, it hasn’t actually happened.

Do you read crime for the twisted violence?

Crime fiction also provides a sometimes painfully perceptive insight into social situations. The most uncomfortable subjects can be touched on within the confines of a novel, without resorting to outright violence on the page. Sometimes hinted-at nastiness lurking in the shadows is infinitely worse than anything we are forced to confront head on. It slips past our guard and makes us think.

Do you read crime to be painlessly informed?

Or is entertainment our primary goal, and anything else that slips along for the ride to be treated as a bonus? Perhaps life is painful enough without needing to absorb a worthy message from our leisure pursuits, other than some snippets of inside information that makes us feel as if we are getting a behind-the-scenes look. The late Arthur Hailey specialised in this with his series of thrillers published in the sixties and seventies, when he meticulously researched his subject – the hotel industry, airports, banks, or pharmaceuticals – before setting a novel in that world.

Do you read crime purely to be briefly diverted and entertained?

Some people, I know, read crime purely for the brain-teasing element of the plot. I’m not one of them, which is why the convoluted whodunits of Agatha Christie never really appealed to me as a reader, although for some reason I was fascinated by the character of Sherlock Holmes. I do not try to guess the outcome of a novel unless it is obvious from the beginning, and then I tend to hope that I’m being misled. Possibly this is why I can quite happily read books more than once – maybe I just have a very short memory.

Do you read crime for the puzzle?

Or do you want to feel satisfied by the experience in another way? There is a fine tradition of crime-fighter whose identity is either unknown, or whose position in society is more nebulous than official. At one end of the scale are the police, with the private detectives as the next stage removed from officialdom. And then there are the lone wolves, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Reacher follows the classic archetype of the mysterious stranger who rides into town to right wrongs before disappearing into the sunset. And that is part of his appeal. A Reacher who lived in a nice little house in the suburbs with a wife, two-point-five children and a dog would not be the same character.

Do you read crime for the satisfaction of right winning out over wrong?

This could be said to be at the heart of things for many people. They read about dreadful things being done by horrible people in the hopes of some return to normality, to balance, at the end. However gruesome the story, there is still some comfort to be taken from it. The feeling that there is a chance for justice – at least in a fictional world – when there is so little justice to be found in the real one.

So, fellow ‘Rati, why do YOU read crime?

This week’s Word of the Week is meretricious, meaning of the nature of or relating to prostitution; flashy or gaudy. Its root is from the Latin merere to earn, from which we also get the word meritorious, but this means possessing merit; deserving of reward, honour or praise. Why the difference? Sadly, the answer is purely down to gender. The Romans indicated somebody was feminine by adding trix onto the end of the word, from which we get aviatrix or even dominatrix. Sadly, there weren’t many opportunities for women to enter professions in ancient Rome apart from the oldest profession, that is. So, when a woman earned a living she was a meretrix and the dubious associations still linger.

And finally, just to let you know that the latest Charlie Fox book – FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine – is out today in the States in hardcover from Pegasus, along with the trade paperback edition of FOURTH DAY: Charlie Fox book eight.

 Plus, of course, available from A&B in the UK, and as an e-book, in large print, and unabridged audio.

44 thoughts on “Why do we read crime?

  1. Gerald So

    Great post, Zoe. All the reasons you mention are true for me to some degree. At the moment, I find I'm reading crime to make some sense of the seemingly senseless.I don't mean for stories of good conquering evil or chaos being restored to order, but for a more muted, personal coming-to-grips. I think writing, and reading in turn, allows us to see events and experiences in a different light, to get perspective.

  2. Sarah W

    At this point, I read crime for the whodunits and the howdunits and especially the *whydunits.*

    When I was about ten years old, I was Encyclopedia Brown's biggest fan. I plowed through all his mini-mysteries in one glorious run . . . and then complained to my Dad that there weren't any more and I didn't want to re-read the because I already knew the answers and I'd be bored forEVER.

    After dinner, Dad asked me if I wanted to try a grown-up version of Encyclopedia Brown. i did, so he read the first section of *A Study in Scarlet*aloud to me, telling me he would stop if I got scared or upset. I wasn't — I was *fascinated*. We took turns reading the whole thing.

    So originally, it was probably the puzzles and the characters—and opportunity, since it turned out Mom had all the Agathas and Dorothy Sayers right next to her vast collection of Star Trek novels. Dad had a stash of Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald next to the Doyle. My grandmother introduced me to Damon Runyan through her favorite movie musical.

    Maybe there's a genetic factor in there somewhere?

  3. Dana King

    I read crime in part because I like the tone of much of the writing, and I enjoy seeing what the characters do in extreme circumstances.

    The prime element for me is that crime writers feel some obligation to tell a story that makes sense and can be followed. Too many "literary" writers spend too much time navel gazing and crafting the sentence beautiful. I've found that few writers can write a more beautiful sentence than James Lee Burke or Declan Hughes without becoming self-indulgent.

    Gruesome and misogynistic crime do not appeal to me. I'll bail at any point if I pick up the scent of torture porn.

  4. Richard Maguire

    Zoe, for me it's the desert island test. Marooned for a week, in whose company would I rather be: James Ellroy or John Updike? Ellroy, every time.

    I read so-called literary novels. Some are wonderful, but I find a lot of them are too precious. "This is good for your soul. Make the effort." No thanks. I'd rather be entertained by great genre writing.

    Was it Dorothy Parker who said something like, "This is not a book to be put down lightly. Rather, it should be thrown across the room"? I've given up on more literary novels from sheer boredom than I have crime novels. A good crime writer can deal with any subject while spinning an exciting tale.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    What Gerald said. Really. Exactly my sentiments.
    And, Richard, I've been in the company of Ellroy, and it was a blast, but how I would love to have spent time with Updike. I need all the good writing I can get.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gerald
    I think you are not alone in reading to make sense not of the world as a whole, but simply the world around you. I know people who’ve been through terrible personal tragedies who still return to crime fiction for that personal coming-to-grips you mention.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Harvee
    I would hope that we wouldn’t want to read anything that *didn’t* have great characters, distinctive voice, and good writing, story and setting, but the puzzle aspect is one of the unique features of crime fiction.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Terrible confession time – I’d never heard of Encyclopedia Brown and had to go off and look him up! It looks like it was possibly an American-only thing, but I could be wrong … But from the description of the style of the stories I can see why Sherlock Holmes was a logical progression.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana
    Putting characters into conflicting situations is a major aspect of the writing of a crime novel for me – as is telling a good story. Although I would have said that was a main reason for wanting to do it, rather than being an obligation.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Richard
    I dislike books which seem to look on having a story arc as somehow rather vulgar. But as for whose company I’d rather be in on my desert island, that depends. I know some wonderful writers whose company I enjoy but cannot read their books.

    (I love the Dorothy Parker quote – definitely one of hers.)

  11. Tammy Cravit

    Great post, Zoë! I read (and write) crime for all of the reasons you mentioned above, but principally, I read and write crime because I'm intensely interested in what motivates people to cross that line into criminal behavior. I read once that, no matter how maladaptive a person's behavior may be, it is always a strategy to meet some need they have. It may be an externally illogical strategy, or an ineffective one, or a non-optimal one, but people don't as a rule act in ways which run counter to their needs. (Even those with mental illness are trying to meet their needs — "shut up the voices in my head" is as legitimate a need as anything else, I suppose.) So, I feel an intense curiosity about how that translates into criminal behavior — what need was the criminal trying to meet? Why did they feel committing their crime was the most effective strategy they could employ to meet that need?

    That's what interests me about human behavior and that's what I like to read about in fiction generally. I like crime fiction in particular because it tends to cast that struggle into the sharpest relief for me – why did the criminal pick an unlawful strategy? What was it about his need that was so strong it made him willing to break the law? Fascinating stuff, methinks.

  12. David Corbett

    I wish I could improve on Tammy's response, but can't. Those are my reasons exactly. Crime fiction crystallizes the tension between individual want and social order. Both sides of that conflict are valid.

    In JIm Frey's HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD MYSTERY, he tackles this question at some length, quoting Ed McBain's belief that mysteries "reconfirm our faith that a society of laws can work," and Robert B. Parker's description of crime fiction as "the last refuge of the hero." Frey believes the underlying premise of almost all mysteries is "reason conquers evil." I'm not so sure of that. I'd say more generally that it's courage, not reason, that prevails, but it's true that the detective uses his mind as much as his heart (or weaponry) to get the job done.

    But Frey makes another interesting point that I think bears some mention, and it goes to why the crime at the heart of a crime story is almost always murder — or if a robbery, bank job or other crime takes center stage, the threat of murder is always palpable and present the true threat to the hero. And he believes that the crime story, by showing how reason can overcome evil, also shows us how reason can help us confront or even overcome the irrationality of death.

    Food for thought. Or naught.

    Congratulations on the publication of FIFTH VICTIM!

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy
    The motivations of the characters are always fascinating for me. And one of the questions we ask ourselves constantly is “What does that character want/need?” and “What is stopping them from getting/achieving it?”

    I like the grey area in characters, too – that bad guys are rarely outright manifestations of evil, and good guys have their dark side.

    Coincidence you mention shutting up the voices in my head, though – I write to do just that … 🙂

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, David
    Yeah, Tammy has hit the nail pretty much smack on, hasn’t she? Mind you, I like your definition, too.

    I think reconfirming our faith that a society of laws can work is not always the case in crime fiction. Sometimes it is precisely because the laws do not work, and have failed, that the hero(ine) is forced to begin their journey.

    Murder has long been considered at the heart of a crime novel possibly because the theft of life has to be the ultimate crime, doesn’t it? Although I think it’s probably more about accepting than overcoming death. It is irrational, but we can’t escape it.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Oh, and thank you for the link to the Dorothy Parker quotes. I think possibly my favourite is:

    “A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika.”

  16. Jenni L.

    Hi Zoe,

    I read for all the reasons you and others have listed, but I especially love puzzlers. I like trying to match wits with the protagonist and figure out which clues are valid and which are red herrings. But I also love suspense and thrillers. Love a book that keeps me up late at night and makes me think and re-think and even over-think. I love your novels because you make us feel empathy for Charlie, yet there's also the intrigue and thrill – basically, you tend to drop her in deep trouble from the start and then relentlessly build on it. I can't put your books down once I start reading them!

    Speaking of which, I had pre-ordered both Fourth Day and Fifth Victim for my Kindle, and both were delivered Monday, so these are now available electronically in the US now.

  17. Tammy Cravit

    David, I like what you said about the tension between individual want and societal order. But sometimes, I think, crime arises from the context of a tension between individual wants that are intrinsically irreconcilable. I have a personal, if somewhat removed, experience with murder and its antecedents and aftermath (about which I am necessarily vague in public, to protect those who are still living), and on its surface, it would make a great "traditional" crime story — sympathetic victim killed by an unfaithful husband to cover up an affair, more or less.

    But for me, the other side of the story is even more psychologically interesting — the perpetrator, trapped by circumstances between two needs that were mutually exclusive, chose a solution to his problem that meant turning his back on the principles to which he'd dedicated his personal and professional lives. It fascinates me to imagine what must have been going on in his head that he felt murder was the best solution to his problem. If I ever can write that story without harming the living, I think I'll have to write it from his viewpoint.

    And, yes, Zoë, congratulations on the publication of Fifth Victim! I just noticed that Fourth Day and Fifth Victim both magically had appeared on my iPad, so I'm looking forward to another Charlie Fox fix!

  18. David Corbett

    Tammy: I think we're agreeing, with just a slightly different perspective. The husband is torn between pursuing his individual want with what is expected of him as a member of society — abide by law, honor his marriage. And you're right, unearthing what it was that made him think murder was his best or only solution when there were clearly other lawful ways out is the interesting moral and psychological drama here. But when you write this story — and I insist you do, Ms. TC — don't neglect the girlfriend. She could even be your narrator, dealing with her own sense of guilt over what happened.

  19. Lisa Alber

    Hi Zoe,

    Congratulations on the new editions about there in the world! Great covers!

    Tammy's answer resonated with me also. I wasn't sure how to answer your question until I read her answer. Human behavior. More specifically, abnormal pyschology. I almost studied psychology in college–I've just always been fascinated by it. For me, writing crime fiction is a way for me to study psychology, to understand what can tick beneath the surface of people. I used to be into the more overt stuff–like serial killers–but now it's the subtle sociopath that intrigues me. Those people who get along well enough in life, but…the big "but"!

    Or, it's the everyday person that finds herself in an untenable situation. Have you ever asked yourself whether you could kill another human being? I have, and I could. Given the right circumstances. So, in a way, writing fiction is an exploration of myself. The word "catharsis" might apply — but that's rather exalted. The truth is that I'm just as screwed up as the next person, and I need to explore screwed-up-ed-ness in general.

    Before the writing came the reading, of course. And the same answers apply. Also, maybe the puzzle aspect, which engages the kid that still resides within me.

  20. Allison Davis

    Zoe, it's also that we crave (I crave) action versus what John Shannon called "inert naval gazing" — and I like to see what happens to characters who are on the "edge" — heroes or otherwise.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Jenni
    One of the trickiest parts for any writer in this genre, I think, is trying to work out what realistic but false conclusions the protagonist *might* have reached at any point in the story, given the information they’ve received up to that point. And then not having them make a total leap when the right piece of information does finally fall into their hands. A difficult balancing act.

    Thank you for the kind words about Charlie. I’ve always tried to keep her vulnerable despite her talents. I hope you enjoy the latest books!

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Tammy
    I think David had said everything about your idea that I could – certainly exploring what has brought the husband to his decision is more interesting, in a lot of ways, than the act itself. The aftermath and its effect on everyone involved – the girlfriend included – could make this a fascinating tale. When do you start?

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Lisa
    Pegasus have done a very nice job with the covers. I particularly like the moody blue feel to FIFTH VICTIM. Very apt.

    Crime fiction is all about putting characters under pressure, under conflict, and seeing how they react. A kind of quantum sociology.

    But ‘screwed-up-ness in general’ is a far better way of expressing it 🙂

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison
    I’m not a fan of navel gazing, either. (Although I love the idea of looking at stationary warships …) I just like to keep pushing my protag that little bit further each time.

  25. KDJames

    Zoë, those covers are gorgeous! Congrats on the US releases.

    I'm tempted to be glib and say I read crime to find out what happens. And that's partly true (and is why I simply can NOT re-read, ever). But I don't read crime exclusively. I read so many different genres that Amazon has given up trying to be specific with their advertising and now just send me emails that say, "We noticed you read ALL THE BOOKS. Here are some MORE you might like." It works.

    I guess I read in order to discover and decipher the psychology between characters. I have always been a student of psychology, formally and informally. It fascinates me. Nothing throws me out of a book faster than characters who make decisions or take actions that don't make sense in the context of that particular character's mind-set.

    And I always know what's going to happen. I don't keep track, but I bet there haven't been more than a handful of stories (books/movies/TV shows) that surprised me. You do not want to watch movies with me. My kids will only let me watch something with them if I promise not to talk. At all. 🙂

  26. Robin McCormack

    For all those reasons you mentioned but primarily for entertaining, for escapism. I love those books that take me out of my own life and pull me in. Good writing – good stories make your heart race, give you shivers up your spine, make you keep reading to find out what is going to happen next. Love the cover of the new book. 🙂

  27. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    I like a mystery, but I like the author to reveal whatever is hiding in the characters. While I wonder how things will go, I never try to figure it out. I don't like figuring out puzzles and would have made a terrible scientist, I am sure. I love a a good story that moves forward in relationships and community of any type. I think what I like most is how the characters live their experiences. I am not so much interested in the deed but in who does it, who deals with it . . . all those kinds of things. Kind of peopley, I guess. I also like the way setting serves the story. That bridge of yours . . . a great character, itself, in community with the jumpers and other elements.

  28. Laura

    I'd never actually considered why I read crime. I agree with Dana, in that I will not read anything that seems lke torture porn and I don't like gratutious violence. However I think I read it because I like having someone to cheer for. I like a hero/heroine. I have to genuinely care for the protaganist. I also like to learn things – but I won't read true crime – it scares me. it's the thrill of the chase – I never try to guess endings – I'm always wrong anyway.
    Great post – a real thinker. (it's actually because of your posts that I picked up a copy of Killer Instinct this week… Can't wait to start it!)

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, KD
    LOL on tricking out Amazon. It’s been one of the challenges of the latest WIP in that one of the major characters is behaving in a way he wouldn’t necessarily have done previously, and although there can be some inconsistency in his thought patterns, there still needs to be logic of a sort.

    Strange, I don’t try to guess in books, but I can usually work it out in TV shows …

  30. Zoë Sharp

    Hi James
    I think you have a point, but also when crime does touch on real life, we so rarely get the full story. It’s nice, as KD mentioned, to find out what happens!

  31. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    I think your point brings us back to the fact that there are only so many plots, but it’s the characters – and the way those characters react to the situations in which we place them – that makes each book different.

    The bridge-swinging railway viaduct was a fun place to set a story, wasn’t it?

  32. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Laura
    There’s a huge difference between gratuitous and graphic, depending on what serves the story. Sometimes quite graphic violence fits and seems natural within the nature of the unfolding drama, but at other times really quite minor acts of violence in a book apparently serve no real purpose. You just get the feeling the author decided it was about time for some gore.

    I like my hero(ine)s to be heroic, too, rather than stumbling to the conclusion by dumb luck alone.

    Hope you enjoy KILLER INSTINCT!

  33. Le French Book

    Thanks for this post Zoe. After reading it, I asked myself how people might respond to the question in France, a country where one in four or five books (depending on your source) bought is crime fiction, and where an official government study states that crime fiction "has become the most read genre." The French do read a lot of crime fiction and write a lot of it too–there are over 50 crime fiction book fairs and festivals in the country every year.

    I did a little research and found a very serious looking (and fairly incomprehensible) study by two French sociologists who say that stories about crime are identity-management tools (hum, I wonder what that means?), they give meaning and "harmony" to a real world that is constantly changing.

    An interesting article on the topic in a popular weekly mentions the statistic that 70% of crime fiction readers are women. In that article an editor from a major French publisher says people read them because these novels are "a way to understand the world we live in." Another says "They correspond to life, our times, to its violence." As kids we read fairy tales with witches, wolves and child-eating giants, as adults we look for transgression and fear while sitting comfortably in an armchair.

    Other reasons mentioned in the article and in various forums that discuss the topic include a desire to understand other cultures and societies with stories that are anchored in everyday life, which would explain the fascination for crime fiction by foreign authors.

    I personally agree with another editor quoted in this same article, who says that novels in the genre "are good, credible, well-paced and well-written stories." Give me a good story any day.

  34. Zoë Sharp

    Hi LFB
    What an interesting study – thank you for repeating it here so succinctly. I suppose that when we read crime stories set more than a hundred years ago, they are still as meaningful and as easy to understand as something set in present day – the fears and motives of crime have changed little, where the society in which crime is committed has changed beyond all recognition. It is certainly a constant theme, as you suggest.

    And I’m definitely with you in desiring a good story!

  35. Sarah Ward

    I started to read crime fiction in my early teens for the build up and then resolution of the mystery. Even now (considerably older) I still like plot driven books even when not reading crime fiction. Interestingly, I find Scandinavian crime fiction less plot driven and I think I read these books much more for the wonderful atmosphere that is created. The beauty of crime fiction is for me that there is a book for every mood. I read the classics when I want short and perfectly rounded and comtemporary crime when I want soemhting more challenging.

  36. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    There is a huge variety of mood and feel contained within the genre. I read authors like Martin Cruz Smith for the very atmospheric Russian setting, almost more than the plot itself. Different nationalities do seem to give a very different style of book, but all with the satisfaction and well-rounded focus that comes with a crime story.

  37. Zoë Sharp

    Hi CFR
    It is an interesting question, isn’t it? Although, ‘supermarket slash and grab’ sounds like some kind of bizarre new reality show …

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