Even when the headlines are not full of tragedy, it’s not always easy being a crime writer. I worry about the moral implications of contemplating violent death. I sat at my keyboard with tears running down my face while writing about the death of a favorite character in DEATH MAKES THE CUT. Worse than that, my coworkers laugh nervously when they see me carrying scissors, and waiters give me odd looks when they overhear my friends ask who I’m going to kill next. In real life, real crime makes me sick to my stomach. So why do we love our crime fiction and why is a mild-mannered, law-abiding writer like me fascinated with that most heinous of all crimes – murder?
1. Thinking the Unthinkable
Evil exists in the world. As readers and as writers, crime fiction lets us view and attempt to understand horrible deeds through the safety lenses of fiction. Some books show the crime through the eyes of the killer and reveal his motivation, however twisted. Some books show the impact of the murder on the lives of those left behind – but in a fictional and therefore bearable way. Murder mysteries provide a controlled peek into the uncontrolled vortex of human evil, without the uncertainty and terror that accompanies the real thing. Plus, let’s face it – murder makes for darn good reading.
2. Living Vicariously
Crime fiction shows us how good people cope with tragedy. After a murder, the protagonist somehow has to pick up the pieces and make sense of things. The professional sleuth (the police officer or detective) struggles to maintain her emotional distance from the case while putting herself in harm’s way. This lets us feel admiration. The amateur sleuth (the friend or relative or innocent bystander) copes with loss and terror while fighting to achieve some kind of justice or closure. This lets us feel empathy. Sometimes the protagonist isn’t perfect and makes mistakes or choose actions that aren’t completely legal or even smart. This lets us feel superior. Crime fiction gives us the chance to live and triumph over life-altering events without actually experiencing that nasty life-altering bit.
3. Finding Justice and Redemption
Finally, we read and write crime fiction because of the unspoken promise: at the end, a good mystery delivers both understanding and some type of justice (something not always found in the real world). At the most basic level, a murder mystery is crime…and punishment. I find crime fiction to be some of the most deeply moral literature being written today. In most mysteries, there is a true sense of right and wrong; murder can never be rectified, but it can be avenged and the murderer must not profit from his crime. Mysteries explore the human response to evil and provide a sense that there are still good people in the world – people who do the right thing, who fight against injustice, who leap over tall buildings…no wait, that’s a different type of fiction. Seriously though, I find the struggle to find and stop evil as portrayed in most mysteries to be inspirational. It gives me hope in the human condition. (As a side note, I’ve recently read a few mysteries which are morally gray at best, and I have not enjoyed those at all.)
These are the big underlying reasons we enjoy murder mysteries and why we should be proud to enjoy them. Of course, there’s also the suspense, the drama, the action, and the adventure, which are definitely not to be sneezed at. What about you – why do you enjoy curling up with a great mystery?