Welcome to day 11 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Practically every fella that breaks the law has a danged good reason, to his own way of thinking, which makes every case exceptional, not just one or two. Take you, for example.” ― Jim Thompson, Pop. 1280, 1964
I love crime fiction. Lots of people do. As Dorothy Sayers (author of the Lord Peter series) said, in 1934, “Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent enjoyment than any other single subject.” (Edmund Wilson was apparently an exception; writing in 1944 in The New Yorker, he grouses, “What, then, is the spell of the detective story that has been felt by T. S. Eliot and Paul Elmer More but which I seem to be unable to feel? As a department of imaginative writing, it looks to me completely dead.”)
There have been dozens of theories as to why crime fiction is so enduringly popular, including (citations are to references below):
** Maybe the weirdest, it satisfies infant guilt (Freudian): Detective stories satisfy the curiosity of infancy, “the victim being the parent, and the criminal and the detective being the reader, thus ‘redressing the helpless inadequacy and anxious guilt unconsciously remembered from childhood‘” (Gavin Holman). I don’t even understand that.
** It satisfies and transfers personal guilt: “W.H. Auden proposed that the detective story has a magical function, mirroring the Arthurian Quest for the Holy Grail, where the ideal stories are set in idyllic surroundings and the crime brutally shatters the peace and calm [brings to mind Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, or the TV series Midsomer Murders, now in its 20th season, based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby series]. He believed that these stories ease our personal sense of guilt by transferring it to the characters in the story” (Gavin Holman).
It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in. — Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939
Edmund Wilson theorised in much the same way in that 1944 article I cited earlier, noting that [some] crime fiction relieves us not only of anxiety but also of responsibility (“The killer is nothing like me!”):
“Yet the detective story has kept its hold; had even, in the two decades between the great wars, become more popular than ever before; and there is, I believe, a deep reason for this. The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility. Who had committed the original crime and who was going to commit the next one? … Everybody is suspected in turn, and the streets are full of lurking agents whose allegiances we cannot know. Nobody seems guiltless, nobody seems safe; and then, suddenly, the murderer is spotted, and—relief!—he is not, after all, a person like you or me. He is a villain … and he has been caught by an infallible Power, the supercilious and omniscient detective, who knows exactly how to fix the guilt.”
** It satisfies collective guilt (Girardian): The murderer is a permanent scapegoat. “An evil deed has been done, someone has suffered, so a sacrifice is required. This sacrifice is seen as ridding the individual or group of its guilt through its ritualism and symbolism, and restoring the balance between good and evil in the world” (Gavin Holman). Additionally, crime fiction can “get to the truth about crime, about social dislocation, modernity and violence” in ways that non-fiction or journalism can’t, and “if done well, is a way of interpreting the society upon which it focuses its lens” (Margie Orford quoted in Fister’s essay)
** It allows us to rehearse threat and death: Crime fiction “offers us an opportunity to act out imaginary fears, in a perfectly safe environment. As we read, we are not really being pursued along a dark street by a stranger. Yet we might empathise with a character for long enough to feel as though we are being followed by a shadowy stalker” (Leigh Russell).
And “Remember the enormous crowds that used to gather at public executions. Death is something that will happen to us all. The murder mystery gives us a way of exploring a few of the implications — and of enjoying ourselves while we do it” (Andrew Taylor).
Barbara Fister says it neatly:
“It’s probably in part the same impulse that puts grotesque crimes on the front page of the newspaper: if it bleeds, it leads. Stories that are unsettling are also compelling so long as the threat itself is more imaginary than real, when we can identify with the victim, yet feel the violence they experience is an aberration that won’t likely happen to us. In narrative form, crime can be contained.”
** It allows us to explore our shadow side: Related to rehearsing death, but more psychological: “[W]hat makes crime fiction so compelling is that it shines a torch into the abyss of the human soul: ‘”What does crime do to people?” [Olaf Petersenn, ed. Kiepenheuer und Witsch publishing house, Cologne, Germany] wonders. ‘What drives people to cross certain thresholds? What happens when they do? What drives someone to devote their life to solving crimes? I think the appeal (of crime fiction) is that it explores the darker side of life, the side where evil lurks.”
Crime writer John Marr finds it more interesting to write about “dark and complex characters” and thinks readers find them more interesting to read about: Readers “are fascinated by what motivates people to do unspeakable things.”
** It explores the nature of power dynamics: Crime writer Rob Kitchin (View from the Blue House) offers another theory for the appeal of crime fiction, which I think relates to both shadow side exploration and expiation of societal guilt and complicity, but it’s worth illuminating separately: “[C]rime fiction also provides a mirror for readers to reflect on, think through and make sense of their own lives. … In particular it opens up vistas in which to critically reflect on the diverse, complex and contingent workings of power and its resistance, and our own experiences of them. In crime novels, a consistent feature is that the various manifestations of power (inducement, manipulation, coercion, seduction, exploitation, domination, intimidation, violence) and resistance (non-consent, non-cooperation, negotiation, disobedience, protest) are examined in a plethora of contexts.”
Raymond Chandler once wrote of crime fiction that the “mystery and the solution of the mystery are only what I call ‘the olive in the Martini’.” You don’t order a Martini just for the olive, he implied, and you don’t read a whodunit merely to find out who did it. — Tobias Jones, in the Guardian, March 2009
A frequently suggested theory for crime fiction’s widespread popularity is that crime fiction appeals to a human need for justice and fairness, and redemption, the restoration of moral order, as well as a preference for certainty and conclusion:
“Crime fiction offers us a clear moral code. At its heart, crime fiction is about the conflict between good and evil. It is redemptive to know that however dark the narrative, by the end of the novel some sort of moral order will be restored” (Leigh Russell).
Bengt Maardh’s face bore a troubled expression as he seated himself in the visitor’s chair. He folded his hands and rested his elbows on the armrests while his serious gaze focused on Irene. Again she felt that a priest was here to console her, as if she was the one who needed comforting. The feeling was absurd, yet it was there. Maybe it was evoked by his sympathetic brown eyes behind frameless glasses.
Then it struck her that she was simply being exposed to a basic tool of his profession. This was the way Bengt Maardh had learned to act in times of grief: He displayed compassion. It probably worked with a person who actually needed it, not least with women. And who doesn’t need compassion nowadays? Our need for comfort is immeasurable. — Helene Tursten, The Glass Devil, 2003
And: “crime fiction satisfies in us a secret yearning for justice, the unappeasable appetite for a fair world, which begins in childhood and never leaves us. It satisfies our need for conclusions, both moral and narrative” (Andrew Taylor)
Indeed, simply a firm conclusion, problem solved, may be a stronger allure for some than a restoration of moral order: “Does the satisfaction of a mystery solved really have anything to do with morality? Or is it more aesthetic: the pleasing sense of everything coming together in the end, unlike in real life?” (Dolan Cummings)
Desire for justice, a need for order, a compulsion for closure may be true for some books and some readers (maybe for most readers at some times), yet much of the best crime fiction is morally ambiguous: the detective or sleuth acts in criminal or unethical ways, the murderer acts in beneficial or self-sacrificial ways, the murderer is also the narrator or one of several narrators, the murderer is known but allowed to go free, the detective or sleuth is not certain that the suspect who’s been found guilty in court is actually the one who committed the crime, significant questions and loose ends remain at the end of the book, etc.
We are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey — Edward Abbey
Similar to reading crime fiction hoping for justice and moral order is reading it seeking the truth (small t or capital T) or moral certainty. Like science and religion, art in general (and literature in particular) is by its essence a “search for truth. Truth about the human condition, what it is like to be living as a person in this world. In no genre is a search for truth more explicitly the subject matter [than in crime fiction]” (Beemgee essay).
I concur with PD James — author of the popular series featuring Scotland Yard detective and poet Adam Dalgliesh — who said (in June 1981, Times Literary Supplement) that the genres of the novel and the detective story have for the most part merged: “The modern detective story has moved away from the earlier crudities and simplicities. Crime writers are as concerned as are other novelists with psychological truth and the moral ambiguities of human action” (despite the fact that she admitted, to Terry Gross of Fresh Air among others, that “I do love good order, good social order, good psychological order. I don’t like messy lives.”) While it’s true, as Andrew Taylor writes, that “much crime fiction functions as a literary comfort blanket,” the best crime novels “do not suggest a remedy for crime or reassure us that all in the end will be well; but they can help us to understand our violent society.”
Some crime fiction, to be sure, offers the reader a sense of security, stability, and certainty — and many are written with a tried-and-true conventional formula, particularly cozies, which feel cozy partly for that very reason — not only do we know it will end well but we can count on a familiar plot progression, even familiar character types (the vicar, the military man, the outsider) — and still I’d hazard that there are those of us who read them also for the uncertainty they offer. Yes, there is typically a quest to determine the truth behind the mystery, but as in life, there are many false leads, unintentional misdirections, red herrings, disarmingly charming characters, lies and obfuscations along the way, and the truth one may arrive at may not be all that savory or all that convincing. As Dolan Cummings writes in his essay Crime Fiction: A Moral Rebellion, “Perhaps [GK] Chesterton was right [in his 1901 essay A Defence of Detective Stories]. Detective stories do present us with a romantic rebellion against lawlessness. But that rebellion is more complicated than who killed the chauffeur. The rebel leaders are flawed, there are fifth columnists, and the rebellion never finally succeeds or fails. That’s why crime fiction continues to beguile, even when it loses the plot.”
He had made things happen, and the things he had made happen had made other things happen, so that in the end it wasn’t a simple trail that he had followed, but a track, many of whose twists and turns he had actually created. In trying to trace a line back from an effect to a cause he had himself become a cause and did not know if the place he was at now was a place that would have existed if he hadn’t started on his quest, whether he was the Red Cross Knight riding to the rescue or merely a bumbling Quixote, creating confusion rather than resolving it. — Reginald Hill, Death Comes for the Fat Man, 2007
Cummings further remarks that “much contemporary crime fiction is morally ambiguous. The modern detective’s appeal often has more to do with his or her flaws than any particular virtue or integrity. And to the extent that he or she does represent justice, the detective is often fighting a losing battle against corrupt politicians, businessmen and indeed other police officers.”
Which brings me to one of the main reasons we like crime fiction: for the apocalypse, the uncovering and revealing that occurs throughout the book, not just at the end: the uncovering of the clues and secrets (including the secret relationships and histories among the characters) and discerning which are significant and which aren’t; the uncovering of the motives, and determining which motives matter to the crime(s); the revealing of the lies and omissions, and there are almost always lies and omissions; the unmasking of the murderer (or thief, or poison pen writer; but usually it’s a killer), if s/he is revealed; and, for me the most interesting, the subtle disclosure of each character’s psyche and sense of ethics, including those of the detective or sleuth — particularly the contradictions, the multitudes (as Walt Whitman celebrated) within each character — and the reminder, the great uncovering, that humans — however helpful, loving, compassionate, creative, and peaceful we are — have a capacity for violence, even “good” people, and that even our best attempts to prevent and rein in our collective violence are ineffective.
Myrna laughed. ‘Sounds like being a therapist. People normally come into my office because something happened. Someone had died, or betrayed them. Their love wasn’t reciprocated. They’d lost a job. Gotten divorced. Something big. But the truth was, while that might’ve been the catalyst, the problem was almost always tiny and old and hidden.’
Gamache raised his brows in surprise. It did sound exactly like his job. The killing was the catalyst, but it almost always started as something small, invisible to the naked eye. It was often years, decades, old. A slight that rankled and grew and infected the host. Until what had been human became a walking resentment. Covered in skin. Passing as human. Passing as happy. — Louise Penny, How the Light Gets In, 2013
Thus, there are always more crime novels to read, so we have that going for us, which is nice.
In fact, an interest in the intricate workings of the human mind is why many read fiction, period. “All fiction is really crime fiction; a whodunit,” said Mary McCarthy to Colin Dexter (author of the Inspector Morse series), who continues, “You look for the motivation of people to uncover what originally went wrong, what caused them to fall from innocence or made them tick — or you uncover how they overcame it. That is the fascination of fiction. If, like so many in the West, you were brought up in a Judeo-Christian background, you know that it is based on a crime story: a crime and a murder and an execution.” (In which it’s not alone; there are founding murders and murders of kings/gods — crime scenes with not only blood spatter but acute symbolism — in the mythology/religion of Sumerians, Babylonian, Mayans, Aztecs, Celts, Indians, Egyptians, Chinese, et al. As PD James said, “The physical act of killing a human being has an awesome and horrible fascination. All that flesh to dispose of, all that blood to be washed away, so many lies to be told.”)
Criminal Conversations: Colin Dexter, interviewed by Grey Gowrie in The Paris Review, Issue 164, Winter 2002-2003
Crime Fiction: A Moral Rebellion, Dolan Cummings, Spiked Review, 26 May 2017.
the mystery of it all: why we enjoy crime fiction by Barbara Fister, 25 Oct. 2015
What Is The Appeal Of Detective Fiction? by Gavin Holman, April 1981
The Appeal of Crime Fiction by Leigh Russell, May 2014
The Strange Appeal of Crime Fiction by Andrew Taylor, Shots, no date.
Crime Pays: Six leading crime-fiction authors explain why theirs is the most popular genre by Dominic Utton, Express (UK), 12 April 2018. (Lynda La Plante, Michelle Davies, Matthew Blakstad, Sarah Vaughan, Caroline Mitchell, John Marrs).
German readers can’t get enough of noir fiction by Sophie Wenkel, Deutsche Welle, 31 Aug. 2009.
Why Do People Read Detective Stories? by Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, 14 Oct. 1944.
Why Is Crime Fiction So Popular?, Beemgee (no author, no date)