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Why is Crime Fiction Popular?

By 19/05/2022May 20th, 2022atozchallenge, Featured
Do you read or write crime fiction? Why do you think crime fiction is so popular? What crime novels would you recommend? Have you read You Beneath Your Skin?

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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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • bikerchick57 says:

    Whether TV, movies or the pages of a book, crime fiction is one of my favorites, along with science fiction and historical fiction. I was hooked on crime fiction when starting on John Sanford’s series about state criminal investigators in Minnesota. He has always kept me on the edge of my seat and that’s what I look for in a good novel – much like your first, Damyanti. I’m not sure if this comes from having worked at the Dept. of Corrections for so many years or if it’s the excitement of guessing whodunit while on a wild ride. I like to be entertained and crime fiction does that for me.

    • DamyantiB says:

      Thank you so much πŸ™‚ Also, I do share your interest in the whole world of intrigue, so I understand what you are talking about.

  • Love mysteries and crime fiction. I do like it when the crime is solved and perpetrator is brought to justice. I like solving it with the detective as well.

  • Jemima Pett says:

    Food for thought there, all right! I think I read them for escape, and because there is a solution which matters, as you’ve indicated above. Good analysis, Damyanti!

  • DutchIl says:

    Thank you for sharing!!.. I don’t read crime novels that have a great deal of violence, mainly interested in the suspense.. I like a good mystery novel… πŸ™‚

    Until we meet again..
    May your day be touched
    by a bit of Irish luck,
    Brightened by a song
    in your heart,
    And warmed by the smiles
    of people you love.
    (Irish Saying)

  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti – I know I enjoy murder mysteries and crime fiction – there’s a story, which develops, characters can be admired or desired, the plot is resolved, justice in one way or another is done. I read You Beneath Your Skin – and admired you as an author bringing a difficult subject to our attention through your psychological thriller. I tend towards more informative books – but always come back to murder mysteries or crime at some stage. Cheers Hilary

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Thanks for reading and supporting You Beneath Your Skin, Hilary. I love your take on reading crime fiction.

  • cassmob says:

    I am a self-declared crime addict. For me the most important aspects are the characterisation plus the context, both social and geographic. I ant to see where the story line will take me, more than discovering β€œwho dunnit”. I suppose it’s the psychological aspects that are of interest and context can have a significant impact with that.

  • literarylad says:

    I think character (and motivation) of the criminal is very important. I don’t generally read crime fiction, but I do watch a lot of TV detective shows, which are often let down by being too frivolous with murder.- too many murders, with little explanation of the murderer’s motives. It helps me if I can have some kind of empathy with the criminal, rather than seeing them as pure evil.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Exactly. As a writer, I need to have empathy for all my characters. Even the villain.

  • I read fairly widely and I always enjoy a good crime story. I loved your discussion about this genre and why it appeals.

  • I do read crime fiction. I like the ‘tidiness’ which is so often absent from life. And the reminder that my life is better than I realise…

  • JT Twissel says:

    In real life, justice is rarely served adequately whereas, in most crime novels it is. People like to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      I know, and I agree. I experienced a lot of reader reaction first hand for You Beneath Your Skin.

  • I haven’t read any crime novels recently, but I have read quite a few. I go for the characterization.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      I’m so pleased to find someone else who thinks like me, Liz. Characterization draws me in, too.

  • setinthepast says:

    It’s not my thing, but it’s certainly very popular.

  • Great discussion of crime fiction, and unusual. Few of those are the common reasons that everyone discusses. I love that you dug deeper into the why of reading crime.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Thanks Jacqui. I think often about the appeal of this genre, seeing that I now write in it almost exclusively.

  • I read a lot of crime fiction for several (maybe all) of the reasons you have so eloquently stated.