Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Crime Appeal

Or: Why Murder Mysteries Are So Frightfully Popular 

Those who already had a look at my review list or follow my blog regularly will have noticed that I hardly ever discuss any kind of thriller. It’s true that there was a time in my life when I too enjoyed reading murder mysteries, especially the classic ones by Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon. I was a teenager then and had not yet been compelled to study textbooks of criminal law which later made my taste for thrillers fade completely. However, the older I grow the more I get the impression that I must be a big exception there. Bestselling lists are full of crime and whoever I talk to is or has just been reading a detective story, but why is this?

My theory is that in a way crime fiction is the adult version of fairy tales. It doesn’t need a genius to see that thrillers and fairy tales have at least one important ingredient in common: the fight of Good (the investigator) against Evil (the perpetrator)… and without exception Good gains the victory over Evil in the end. In a complex and confusing world that proves us every day that in real life justice often isn’t achieved with such infallibility, it’s consoling to see that the simple rules engraved in our souls during childhood still apply and that the distinction between right and wrong remains an important guideline of society although daily experience can make us doubt it very much. 

Another reason why crime stories attract so many readers may be that most of us feel that we are having rather petty lives in which we are constantly pushed about. Reading a book (or watching a film) allows us to step out of the daily routine and to slip into the imaginary world of our heroes instead. We get a chance to live out tensions, aggressions and desires which seethe under the surface of our bruised souls. We can be the smart and fearless fighter for justice who always does the right thing, but we can just as well be the sympathetic and desperate killer who made a bad choice to right some terrible wrong. And the impersonation can be done without running a real risk. 

Besides we enjoy the thrill that detective stories skilfully build up until the case is finally closed and justice takes its course. We like it when our hearts miss a beat and the flesh begins to creep because the plot has reached a crucial, often scary point. Such emotional heights make us feel fully alive until the author plunges us back into the routine of investigating where we get a break to relax and analyse the different clues. They lead us up and down like on the roller-coaster, but that’s how we want it. It’s exciting and entertaining. We’re in the middle of a great adventure and yet in safety with our noses stuck into the printed pages of a book. 

 A really good novel will also surprise with plausible turns to spur the reader’s curiosity and desire to solve the case before the fictitious detective. After all we love clearing up mysteries, don’t we? Lamentably, many crime writers have adopted the habit of using formula plots which is something that I don’t appreciate because it rather too often makes the stories predictable and therefore boring. Some seem to think that the vertiginous succession of blood-dripping and disgusting details of a crime (or several crimes) can make up for the lack of an imaginative and intriguing plot, but I feel that it only satisfies a rather morbid, not to say pathological voyeurism. 

And there it is, the reason why I don’t like reading crime stories any more. As a matter of fact, we are living in a sensationalist world where media (no matter which) have adopted a strangely distorted idea of their mission to inform. Often it seems to me that in the eyes of journalists only bad news are worthwhile news. Every day they cover crimes abundantly in words and pictures, the more cruel the better for their sales. There’s no way for anyone of us who leads a fairly “normal” life to escape the reports. I’m convinced that giving crime so much attention does something to our minds. In fact, fear and the call for protection are spreading worldwide although things aren’t as bad as all that after all.

In a nutshell: we’re swamped with crime stories … and I don’t want to litter my mind with fictitious in addition to the real ones!

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