Why we read crime fiction
I was very pleased to receive an invitation from BBC 3 Counties Radio this week to discuss the popularity of crime fiction live on air. This was in response to a recent report from the library service that crime novels have overtaken romance as the most borrowed genre in 2011.
The 10 most popular authors on the list were crime writers, with James Patterson at number 1 and two of Lee Child’s titles in the top 10. Most of the authors live in the US, Ian Rankin being the only UK resident author in the top 10.
I had an earlier inkling of this when a Hertfordshire librarian kindly emailed me to let me know that I was the second most borrowed author at that library for 2011, second only to James Patterson.
The question the BBC presenter posed was why has crime fiction increased in popularity in recent times?
In Victorian times people were uneasily aware of high profile killers like Jack the Ripper. Equipped with little more than bicycles, whistles and good intentions, the police in those days were ineffective. Sherlock Holmes captured the public imagination as a precursor of superman as much as of Poirot and Rebus, because it was immensely reassuring to read about a detective guaranteed to outwit the evil villain. It still seems incredible that many people thought he really existed, but we believe what we want to believe.
In the wake of 9/11 and with growing problems of recession, we are increasingly conscious of the battle for survival, on a global and an individual level. Add to this the decline in religious belief, and it is hardly surprising that so many people are turning to crime fiction as an escape from an unjust world where very little seems to make any sense.
However disturbing crime novels are, we know some sort of moral order will be restored in the end. That is the reason for their appeal. The less the world around us makes sense, the more popular the genre is likely to become, as library borrowings demonstrate.