What's so great about Crime Fiction?
500,000; the approximate number of crime, thriller and mystery related books for sale on Amazon US. Almost 70,000; the number of related authors on the same site. 17; the number of crime shows, either fact or fiction on just 5 TV channels in one week. From home-grown dramas like Quirke, Lewis and Midsomer Murders to imports from Scandinavia, Italy and the United States; they range from cosy crime to the horror of the warped psyches in ‘Criminal Minds’.
The earliest known crime story dates from the seventh century; “The Three Apples”, one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. China’s Ming Dynasty (14th-17th Centuries) had Gong’an fiction, known for its plot twists and crime-busting hero (a judge). Fast forward to the 19th Century for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”. Poe is credited with creating the first fictional detective (a word unknown at the time) in C. Auguste Dupin, the central character in what he called his ‘tales of ratiocination’. In Victorian times we had Conan Doyle’s tortured genius Sherlock Holmes, and in the 1920s Agatha Christie’s iconic detectives; Inspector Poirot and Miss Marple. Their modern counterparts are too numerous to name.
Our fascination with crime is obvious, but why are we fascinated?
There’s no doubt that many people like to experience extreme emotions; the popularity of roller coasters and fast driving attest to that. There’s even evidence that a couple who experience fear or excitement on their first date are more likely to bond. Psychologists have postulated that crime fiction (factual crime can often be too near the mark) causes the release of the same chemicals, allowing us to feel emotions such as fear and dread without the risks attached in real life. We can be the hero, victim or murderer in a crime adventure in the safety of our own living rooms. Truly awful crime touches few people’s lives (the homicide rate in the western world has been declining for more than 700 years) and in the real world, the more serious a crime is the less frequently it happens. But in the world of crime fiction there’s no such decrease, allowing us ample opportunity to experience excitement and fear.
Society’s fascination with evil may be another reason crime fiction is so popular; what depths can humanity sink to and what makes some individuals behave in that way? Readers can enter the mind of a villain and imagine how committing such crimes might feel, without the accompanying guilt or the fear of being locked away. Is our fascination with crime voyeuristic or simply our way of making sense of the world, and in any case is voyeurism always a dirty word? Crime and punishment; without seeing the first how do we learn that the consequence is the second? How many of us learned our morality as much from watching ‘Heartbeat’ as from our parents, school or church? Each episode ended with a wrong righted and the villain locked safely away. The ending of some modern crime stories may have more ambiguity but the themes of right and wrong usually prevail. Do modern crime stories serve the same purpose as some parables?
What of the hapless victims in crime fiction? How many of us read novels ‘acting out’ in our chairs, urging our victim to ‘get out’ or ‘run’ and rooting for them all the way? Do their miraculous escapes in some novels stretch credulity, or give people hope that in a similar position they could do the same?
The weapons and methods used to dispatch victims have also changed, from the cyanide and pistol shots of Sherlock Holmes to some of the less gentlemanly methods described today; does that reflect and inform us how society has changed and not always for the better?
Then we have our heroes; old and young, male and female, police-officer, forensic scientist, psychologist or amateur sleuth. Lonely and troubled, or happily married and beset with the bill-paying, school run that affects us all. Do they stumble blindly through the first few chapters or episodes or are they blessed with lightning fast insight, seeing the clues that others miss? By putting ourselves in their place don’t many of us imagine how good that must feel; their flaws and quirks letting us believe that they’re just like us and we could solve crimes just as well as them?
Good crime fiction is a mixture of all of these things. Think of your top five crime novels or shows and my guess is that the hero or heroine will be different in each one. Perhaps the eras will differ, from 1920s,’40s,’50s to the present day; even, in the case of ‘Minority Report’, reaching into the future for crimes that have yet to occur. Television commissioning editors search furiously for the next hook to reel viewers in; period settings, vampire detectives, child detectives, what next? But perhaps some hooks are unnecessary gimmicks and they are over complicating matters.
Crimes with clever twists, being solved by interesting lead characters and their teams have caught readers and viewers attention for decades. The era may change as might the weapons, cities and lead protagonist’s name, job, age and sex, but surely all good crime stories have at their heart the same things. Baddies we can boo, heroes we can root for and a story that intrigues us but in the end largely reinforces right and wrong and allows us to sleep peacefully in our beds at night.
Perhaps that’s what’s really great about crime fiction?
THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED ON WWW.WRITING.IE IN AUGUST 2014 ( CRIME SCENE, HOST LOUISE PHILLIPS).