Crime fiction has been my writing mainstay for the past few years, though I freely admit I’m not a true crime fiction junkie in my reading. During the book promo tour for You Beneath Your Skin, I was often asked why I wrote crime fiction and my answer was always that I wanted to use it as an instrument to study society.
At the moment a crime is committed, we see the worst of humanity. If someone tries to stop it, we see humanity at its best. During the investigation of a crime, the detective trawls through the seamier side of life. Emotions run high, and no one is quite at their best behavior, including the detective. This allows a crime fiction author to peel back the layers of a character, society, and the setting–be it urban or rural.
My reasons for writing crime fiction might not drive a reader, however.
For many, reading crime fiction is like solving a puzzle. You put two and two together, and try to solve the crime before the detective does. It is hard to get anything past the astute crime fiction reader, because they have seen all the twists, the killing methods, the dubious actions from relatives and villains. They keep reading crime fiction because it scratches the very human itch to solve a problem. Our basic curiosity has fueled our evolution, and it finds a great playground in crime fiction, where a reader can be a sleuth, right alongside the detective. A lot of of Lisa Gardner’s work falls into this category. The biggest satisfaction, and a common reason for recommendation is, “I didn’t see it coming!”
For others, like my friend who never misses crime fiction series set in various countries, it is a way to armchair-travel. Crime is universal, but it is also local. Some of the reasons for committing a crime vary from country to country. As do the methods of investigation, and the obstacles faced by the detectives. Many of the advance readers of The Blue Bar have commented on how it transported them to Mumbai, made them familiar with the city and some of its denizens. Evocative settings is also why historical crime fiction proves popular.
Yet others consume crime fiction because it is one place where you find a definite conclusion, and often a satisfactory one. The killer or kidnapper or thief is found, and more often than not, punished. Justice is not often served in real life, but on the pages of crime fiction, at least in the very last scenes, the reader can go away satisfied that the crime was solved, and the perpetrator brought to book. Lee Child’s Reacher novels allow the reader that sort of assurance. This aspect is why the ending of You Beneath Your Skin was so controversial. Some readers loved it for its realism, others were furious with some of the aspects of the investigation.
Some readers I’ve spoken to are obsessed with crime fiction because it depicts a reality so divorced from their own. They can observe violence and ugliness from a safe distance, marvel at human nature, and feel good about their safe, staid lives. It brings them a measure of excitement, especially crime thrillers, where the twists prove more unrealistic and dramatic by the minute, but readers do not see the stretched credibility as a problem. In psychological thrillers, like in the work of Hank Philippi Ryan, for instance, readers enjoy the tension of ‘what happens next’ that keeps them turning the pages.
There’s a certain economy and symmetry to crime fiction. A reader once told me, well, crime novels don’t waste time on irrelevant things. If there’s a scene, there’s a reason for it. And in the end, it will make sense. In a world where nothing really makes sense, when chance plays a big role, not merit or effort or reason, it is comforting to read about a universe where one thing leads to another. Even a red herring has a purpose, to distract the reader. I like some of Karin Slaughter’s work for this reason.
Other than the examination of a society, another aspect that intrigues readers like me is the character. Tana French writes fiction where the character is as important, if not more, than the plot. The whydunit aspect is a huge part of her novels, where we study the protagonist and antagonist in impressive, lyrical detail. My kind of crime novel–I loved her latest, The Searcher, for similar reasons. Going by her popularity, I’m not alone.
Not all crime fiction is made equal, and for every sub-genre of crime fiction, there’s a certain kind of reader.
Do you read or write crime fiction? Why do you think crime fiction is so popular? What crime novels would you recommend? Did you read my month of crime novel recommendations in April? Have you read You Beneath Your Skin?
My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out this October with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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