Republished from www.promotingcrime.blogspot.co.uk. Thanks to Lizzie Sirett of Mystery People – www.mysterypeople.co.uk – for permission.
Crime Fiction is, apparently, the most popular genre out there. And you have to ask why? It’s not as if all crime readers/writers are secretly would-be gangsters, longing to be set loose on the world, to murder, plunder and rape. Far from it. In real life, crime is at best an irritation and affront, at worst a matter of horror. So, what makes it soattractive to us in fiction?
Perhaps it’s because it speaks to some fundamental aspects of human nature. There is the puzzle for a start, most obvious in the Agatha Christie-style detective novel. We like playing with puzzles, whether they are jigsaws, crosswords or trails of cunning clues leading to a blood-stained murderer. We like to reason, and rationality is something that makes us human (although you might suspect otherwise with some people). We observe, we deduct, we figure it out, we conclude. It’s how crimes are solves and it’s how we’ve got to where we are. If we do a bit more figuring out, we might even survive.
We don’t just possess reason. We possess instincts too. Instincts inherited from a time when instinctive reactions were what kept us alive. Once upon a time, when we walked naked on the plains with rocks in our fists, living in a constant state of fear, the fear was what kept us alert and alive. Those without a capacity to fear would soon be a lion’s lunch.
We no longer live in that state… Correction: amongst civilised people, in times of peace, we no longer live in that state. If you are crouching in a cellar, waiting for shells to drop, or surrounded by knife-wielding gangs, or at the mercy of war lords or slave traders, then you know all about real sphincter-loosening terror. In our nice little cocoons of civilisation, rapped around by law and propriety, that sort of fear has been muzzled. But we need to keep it oiled and ready, just in case the barriers give way, so we feed it with fictional fear, in crime thrillers that make us jump and squeal in a comfortable sort of way. Because, who knows, one day we may need to jump in earnest. Maybe it’s a sort of offering to the gods: we invite in the cold fingers stroke our necks and give us a little shiver, in order to ward off any real cold fingers that might close around our necks.
You really do need some sort of civilisation for crime fiction to have appeal. It wouldn’t work at all in a state of anarchy. Well, of course not, because in a state of anarchy there is no law, and therefore no crime. A crime is an act that breaks the law. In a civilised country there are a lot of laws, and so there are a lot of crimes. Plenty of scope for crime fiction. Except that crime fiction isn’t really about crime at all. Not many crime novels deal with parking on a double yellow line, or tax dodging, or infringement of trading regulations – unless they lead to murder. Crime fiction focuses on the big ones, rape, abduction, terrorism, and most of all, murder. It concentrates on those because they aren’t just crimes. They are taboos, drummed into us from birth by family, school, society, religion.
The law forbids murder, with stern penalties dished out by the courts, in part to deter us all from committing murder. But in reality, the majority of us would not commit murder anyway, regardless of the penalties awaiting us. We don’t because we know, consciously or subconsciously, that murder is WRONG. We may know it because we’ve been brought up to believe in a God who has decreed it a sin, or we may know it because we understand instinctively that our own security depends on it. If we were free to kill others, others would be free to kill us. Not a nice thought, so we don’t.
But our anarchic capacity to kill is still there in us, locked up in the deepest dungeon of our nature. Unless we are psychopaths who can’t see the need, we want to keep it there. But we also want to be reminded of its existence and of the consequences that would ensue if we let it escape. Reminded in a way that doesn’t cause us actual distress, the way a real murder would – nothing that would genuinely turn our lives upside down, but enough to remind us that taboos are not to be broken. Once they are, they can’t be mended. The beast is on the loose and wanting blood, until society, in the form of law officers, catches it and cages it up so everyone can breathe easily again.
That is what happens in crime fiction, another reason why we like it. It offers us the conclusions that we want. Law and order inevitably prevails. Justice (at least justice in the form of retribution) is done. We could deliver it ourselves, an eye for an eye, but that would lead to a never-ending cycle of revenge, so better to let the law do it. As Sir Francis Bacon put it, “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.” In fiction, the law delivers justice on our behalf, and we all move on. In real life, on the real streets, in the real police stations and courts, it’s all a lot less certain. Crime goes unpunished. Criminals get away with it, even murder. But in crime fiction, we can pretend and be happy.