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.