Thursday, 7 July 2011

Why Crime Fiction?

Geraldine Steel - Number 1 female detective on amazon kindle

Most of us would be hard pressed to say anything in defence of real life crime, so how can we account for the popularity of crime fiction? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. As the author of a crime fiction series, I’m more than happy to see my books selling so well. But the contrast in attitudes to crime in reality and in fiction is interesting.
In real life I’m pretty squeamish when it comes to blood and guts, don’t eat meat and would quite possibly have been the world’s worst nurse had my life taken a turn along that career path. But let me loose on a fictitious murder scene and I’ll do my best to describe it, blood and all, with perhaps the odd spot of mutilation to heighten the tension by establishing just how evil my killer is. I daresay readers familiar with my books will nod and smile at that, but if I’d said I intended to embark on the odd spot of mutilation in real life, I hope their reaction would be rather different!
In his review of my 2011 novel Dead End in Crime Time, Barry Forshaw wrote that my books “take the reader into the darkest recesses of the human psyche.” Yet introduce me to anyone vaguely violent in real life and I’ll walk away, quaking, and not look back - correction, I’ll run. By contrast, my fictional killers might unnerve the boldest of readers.
Why are so many peaceful readers avid fans of murder stories like mine? To what can we attribute the powerful appeal of crime fiction?
At the most basic level, crime fiction explores the clash between good and evil. Often characterised as emerging as a genre in the nineteenth century with Wilkie Collins, solving crime has its roots in fiction long before that, as far back as Beowulf and the myths of ancient civilisations, and throughout the centuries crime has played a key role in establishing conflict and tension in literature.
Centuries before Wilkie Collins, Shakespeare’s plays were packed with crimes: fourteen killings, nine of them on stage, severed limbs, rapes, live burial, insanity and cannibalism – at least one atrocity for every 100 lines in the rarely staged Titus Andronicus. It all makes those “darkest recesses of the human psyche” in my books seem quite tame.
The conflict between good and evil is something that touches all of us at some point in our lives. In hopefully insignificant ways we engage with it on a daily basis dealing with injustices and inequities that plague our lives. Children frequently protest: ‘It’s not fair!’ Experience teaches us that life is indeed not fair, yet the notion of a just world is an attractive one, a world where we know where we stand and life makes sense. If only!
It seems to me that the appeal of crime fiction is attributable to a combination of suspense arising from the conflict between good and evil, and the reassurance of knowing that in the end some sort of moral order will be restored. With our modern obsession with originality of plot (Shakespeare never had that problem!) we’ve moved away from the Conan Doyle model of the infallible hero detective with Sherlock Holmes the precursor of Superman as well as Poirot and Rebus. Current fiction is peppered with flawed detectives. They may not be the superheroes of the past, but reflect our relatively sophisticated understanding of human nature.
The same is true of the bad guys. Where Conan Doyle introduces a snarling villain whose face was “marked with every evil passion” so there can be no doubt about who is the villain of the story, some contemporary authors present killers not as stereotypes of evil, but as damaged people. The killers in my own novels are an example, as much victims as the people they kill.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I present my killers in a sympathetic light. There can be little sympathy for someone who takes another person’s life, but I try to see the world as my killers do, and understand behaviour which I can’t condone. Unless I see the world through my killers’ eyes, I can’t create them as plausible characters.
But we can’t blur the distinction between good and evil. As detectives become less than perfect, and villains become increasingly three dimensional characters, there is still a clear line between pursuit of justice and morally unacceptable conduct. With moral guidelines prevailing less in society, perhaps the popularity of crime fiction is not only more understandable, but more important than ever in helping provide us with a moral compass for real life.
This article was first published in Crimespree Magazine 21st June 2011
http://crimespree.blogspot.com/2011/06/good-and-evil-in-crime-fiction.html

Other recent articles and interviews:

E-BOOKS: JUST A FAD OR THE FUTURE OF FICTION?
"We asked bestselling crime writer Leigh Russell for her insight into the eBook phenomenon"
Read the interview in InTouch Magazine (Cyprus) (July 2011)
http://www.freeintouchmagazine.com/in-this-months-issue.html
 
21st CENTURY FAHRENHEIT 451
Leigh Russell writes in Crime Time (July 2011)
http://www.crimetime.co.uk/mag/index.php/showarticle/1937

12 comments:

Anne said...

Please feel free to read the interview in InTouch magazine Cyprus online here at Cyprus Local http://www.cypruslocal.co.uk/SelectBusinessAdvertisers/LarnacaSelect/InTouchMagazine/tabid/3883/Default.aspx

Leigh Russell said...

Thank you very much, Anne. I'm thrilled to know that the interview is available to view on your site. InTouch magazine did a great job and I'm looking forward to our face to face interview at Harrogate Festival!

Charles Gramlich said...

I like crime fiction but I can't read true crime stuff for that very reason. It's just too upsetting for me.

Leigh Russell said...

Same here, Charles!

Jen Brubacher said...

Great article, Leigh. And good points. One thing I love about crime fiction is that the bad guys usually get theirs.

Leigh Russell said...

Yes, Jen. It's reassuring, isn't it? Unlike life, which rarely works out as we would wish. Not that I'm complaining right now!

Guillaume said...

Interesting post, which I will comment on more fully tomorrow I hope (it is getting late now, but I thought I'd drop in to put my two cents). I think one of the appeal of crime fiction is its cathartic nature: we take pleasure in display of emotions, actions and events that in real life we would find distressful. I hate mobsters with all my heart, yet I love watching the Godfather or The Wire and find them fascinating. Another aspect of crime fiction which makes it very appealing and relevant as a genre is its realism: it shows human nature, however mean, mediocre, unpleasant, as it is, not as we want it to be.

I will write more about it tomorrow.

Leigh Russell said...

Thanks, Guillaume. I agree, there is a strong element of catharsis in reading crime fiction, very similar to watching tragedy on stage or film. Look forward to reading further comments from you.

Leigh Russell said...

Thanks, Guillaume. I agree, there is a strong element of catharsis in reading crime fiction, very similar to watching tragedy on stage or film. Look forward to reading further comments from you.

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Guillaume said...

More on why crime fiction on my own blog:

http://vraiefiction.blogspot.com/2011/07/why-i-read-crime-fiction.html