The Crime Readers' Association

Leigh RussellThe Appeal of Crime Fiction by Leigh Russell

18th May 2014

On the face of it, the appeal of crime fiction is a strange phenomenon. Readers who appear to be perfectly ordinary, if not downright pleasant, often tell me they ‘love a good murder’. Bookshops display signs saying ‘We love crime’. An alien with a grasp of our language but no concept of fiction, might be seriously disturbed. (Perhaps that’s why ET has never visited us?) But we don’t have to scratch far below the surface to uncover several reasons for the huge appeal of crime fiction.


In an age when traditional gods are being deposed by Mammon, 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. Add to that the elements of suspense and mystery, and the appeal of crime fiction becomes easy to understand.


Whatever you look for in a book is likely to be present in any good crime novel. Whether it be engaging characters or clever plot, baffling puzzles or page-turning suspense, they all combine in a crime novel.


Books raise questions. We read on to find the answers to those questions. Whether we are reading to find out how the romantic couple finally resolve their differences and fall into each other’s arms, or to discover the identity of a killer, or to see if the protagonist will eventually find contentment, there is an overarching question in any work of fiction that drives the narrative forward, and keeps the reader turning the pages.


In a crime novel the structure is perhaps neater than in any other genre, and the questions are probably more urgent, genuinely a matter of life and death. Writer of other genres may disagree. But what are the elements of good structure in a novel? Dead End was described as ‘a textbook in how to write a crime novel’ in the Miami Examiner. I believe that was a compliment, as Dead End was selected as a Fiction Book of the Year by the same reviewer. Like so many other crime novels, Dead End begins with a murder. The reader is immediately drawn in, hooked by the overarching question: who killed the victim in the opening pages? Pursuing that question is what takes the reader right to the end of so many crime novels. And there are other questions along the way – perhaps another murder, or a personal crisis for the detective which has to be resolved.


Crime fiction not only asks questions, it also 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. However scared we feel, we are playing at the feeling. We know we can close the book. But we don’t, do we? No, we read on to find out whether a vulnerable character survives, or how the killer is finally tracked down, or whether the detective will be happy as we reach the end of the book.

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