Look at any recent list of bestselling fiction titles and the chances are that crime, mystery and suspense titles dominate the list. Once upon a time, in a gentler age perhaps, romance novels were the most popular genre of fiction – primarily among women, of course. This is not hard to understand: reading about the excitement, attraction and obstacles two heroes experience satisfies a desire for romance vicariously. If you don’t have it in real life, the next best thing is to read about it.
But how can our apparently insatiable appetite for crime novels be explained? With so much violence in the world already, is it not disturbing that in order to switch off and relax, we reach for a book filled with murder, motive and revenge? Does this mean we have some kind of latent criminal desire that we satisfy by reading about crimes?
In her Mystery Writers’ Workshop, held at Books and Books on 17 March, mystery author Marilyn Jax emphasised that the plot of a good suspense novel has to start with a crime. And the crime, she said, should be a murder. A lesser crime will not generate the sense of urgency necessary to keep the reader turning the pages.
As crimes go, murder is, in a sense, the ultimate crime. It is a horrifying deed and one from which there is no going back. We consider those who have committed murder to have crossed an invisible line, one beyond which morality and sanity have no place. And yet we are fascinated by murders and the people who commit them. It is a kind of voyeurism, whereby we cannot help but want to glimpse inside the mind of a killer. We are compelled to examine the dark side of humanity, to understand what motivates these criminals. But our morbid curiosity has its limits, cautioned Jax. Crime novels can deal with murder, but there are some crimes that cannot be written about in fiction that simply will not wash with readers – animal abuse, child abuse and rape being the main ones.
Suspense is another vital ingredient in a good mystery, explained the author of The Find and Road to Omalos. It’s a race against time to find the villain and it is this sense of urgency that keeps us turning pages late into the night. But it is also an intellectual challenge; a puzzle to be solved. The hero must outwit the villain in order to catch him and the reader instinctively wants to outwit the hero and solve the mystery first.
Far from being a reflection of a sick society, Jax explains that in fact our fascination with crime novels originates from a rather wholesome place. People read crime mysteries, she says, because they are fiction, not reality. And in fiction there are neat, happy endings. The mystery will be solved, the villain caught and order will be re-established. In life, many mysteries remain unsolved, and satisfactory endings are rare. But in fiction, we are guaranteed not only a full explanation of the who and why, but we also know that we will see justice done and the bad guy will be caught. In short, good will triumph over evil.
Those of us who devour crime novels then are not craving violence – we are seeking to satisfy a desire for a fairer and more ordered world.