Why do people who hate crime love reading crime fiction?

July 31st, 2011 § 1 comment

I don’t like crime. I’m not even keen on reading about real crime in the newspapers. Why then, do I like crime fiction so much?

I’m not alone in this situation… I hope! It would be terrible if there were more criminals in the world than readers of crime fiction.

I don’t think many people are pro-crime and I’m more anti-crime than most. Crime has had a profound effect on my own life. Fortunately I’ve not been a victim of a specific criminal act beyond the odd burglary, but I have suffered because of criminality itself.

Crime was the major reason why I emigrated from my native South Africa, with the multitude of sacrifices this entails. As the father of two toddlers in the 1990s, I found it unacceptable that there was gunfire in my suburban street about once a month. Those bullets had to stop somewhere, and I didn’t want it to be in the bodies of my children. So I packed up my family and, effectively, the life I’ve had up to then and moved halfway around the world.

Maybe because of this background, I find it hard to tolerate even mildly antisocial behaviour. I’m also strongly opposed to private gun ownership. If the Norwegian madman whose name I’m trying to forget didn’t have access to guns, how many kids would he have been able to kill? Much fewer than he did, that’s for sure.

So why would someone who is so opposed to real crime read crime fiction?

Many crime readers may be attracted by the element of thrills and blood spills. And, I guess, a morbid fascination with the darker human impulses.

Honestly, I don’t think these things play a big role in my love of crime fiction. The somewhat more literary crime books I love most tend to have less of these elements in them than average.

For me the main attraction of crime fiction is that it offers an amplified view of common human traits and challenges. The ordinary person has to choose between right and wrong, but for the character in a crime story this choice leads to life or death. The author of Nobody Dies has to adapt to a new identity in another country, while the main character in the book goes into the witness protection programme to get a brand new identity. There’s a difference of degree that heightens the entertainment value.

Just as Philip K. Dick used the conventions of science fiction to write about moral and philosophical issues, it is possible for the author of crime fiction to use the conventions of the genre to write about serious issues, and to do so in an entertaining way.

It doesn’t have to be at the level of Dostoevsky or Dürrenmatt. Writers like Per Sjöwall and Maj Wahlöö used the police procedural genre for social commentary. Many other crime writers scratch around in the personal problems of their protagonists with great insight, sometimes elucidating an issue in passing that lesser “literary” writers may spend chapters analysing less incisively.

That is what excites me most in crime fiction, when the experience you share with the character involves not just physical danger, but some sort of enlightenment, especially when it’s presented with humour and humanity.


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