Why does crime fiction have such a hold on many of us? In the western world, crime fiction makes up somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of all fiction book sales. Crime is undoubtedly fascinating. It’s also highly addictive, which is why many authors have a great deal of success writing fictional accounts of it, particularly in a series that focuses on one investigator.
One reason has to be that the suspense in the crime genre draws on things that frighten us as a society, and as readers we can’t help but to feel for the characters when they are confronted with the shockingly stressful situations we fear. It evokes for many of us the physiological responses of increased heart rates and adrenaline production. But we feel this, in moderation, through the characters in the story knowing that we are reassuringly detached from the horrors on the pages.
“True crime stories allow us to explore the darker side of nature in a safe way”
Dr Meg Arroll, Psychologist
Our love of crime fiction must surely be rooted in our devotion as a species to storytelling. As soon as humans could speak to each other, they warned each other of danger. These messages probably slowly developed into camp fire stories which were embellished to excite and scare the listeners. And so, the first thrillers were born. Possibly the educational aspect of these stories––to avoid the listeners falling victim to the narrated dangers––has stayed with us in our subconscious and is true to a certain extent today. Who hasn’t among us examined the factors differentiating us from the victims, to reassure ourselves that what we have read couldn’t happen to us? But when these differences are few or a crime is random, fear often strikes deeply, if only for a moment.
Writing crime fiction, however, is no easy task. Unlike the real world, where a lot of crime is ill-conceived, crime fiction has to be meticulously plotted to appear believable and relies heavily on cause and effect. More than in any other genre, every scene must be justified–each plot event must have meaning within the story, because the reader or audience perceives every scene as the potential cause of an effect that comes later. Even if a plot event turns out to be a red herring, then that herring is placed there for a purpose–to mislead the reader in a clever way that hopefully he or she will appreciate and remember as one highlight of the story.
Another fascinating aspect of crime fiction is our quest to find meaning behind what the criminal perpetrators do. We can’t help it. We think that what others do is motivated, that there are reasons behind their evil actions and possibly aims, that might not be obvious. This is not just because we are attuned to living in social groups where acceptable behavior is clearly defined. It’s again our need to understand so that we may avoid the same danger. This need to have an explanation for what drives certain people to do unspeakable things was a major factor for me when I wrote Earthbound. We often think of such people as being possessed, or consumed with evil and Earthbound explores this with a surprising twist.
So, our love of crime fiction is not based solely on morbid fascination, it’s a darkness that is presented to us in a form that we can wrestle with and ultimately rationalize. It’s fiction that allows us to confront and conquer our worst fear. It’s an education in self-preservation, hitting the sweet spot between our logical brain and our primitive brain. Something I as writer strive to achieve every time I sit down to write at my computer.