Friday, August 26, 2011

Why I Read and Write Crime Fiction

Posted by L.J. Sellers, author of the Detective Jackson mysteries and thrillers
After spending months writing about a bleak future, I found myself feeling depressed and negative. I even considered giving up writing gritty crime novels—if that’s what it took to stay positive. Then while working on a nonfiction book, I came across my notes for a talk I gave at the library called Why I Read and Write Crime Fiction. It reminded me of the genre’s value and why I should continue to write it and why it’s good for readers too, including the president. Here’s a shortened version of my talk.

Crime fiction confronts the realities of life across various cultures more often and more honestly than mainstream/literary fiction does. Crime novels are suited to exploring provocative social issues and showing how those hot-button subjects affect various people’s lives, often from diverse perspectives.

Crime fiction can be surprisingly poignant and analytical about problems such as illegal immigration, human trafficking, and drug use. These novels highlight deep-rooted cultural ills such as racism, sexism, bigotry, and the dangers of stereotypes. Sometimes a mystery will show a stereotype in all its glory, reminding us of why stereotypes exist and how we all fit into one … at least a little bit. The crime genre often forces us to see the world from perspectives that make us think outside our comfort zone.

As crime writers and readers, we get to make sense of things that would otherwise haunt us. We learn why the family next door disappeared one day or what’s really going on in the creepy warehouse across the street. Sometimes that knowledge helps us sleep better and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least we learn one version of the truth.

Police procedurals and thrillers give us a medium through which we can experience the triumph of good over evil. For short while with each story, we get to be the good guy, the hero who rescues the kidnapped child or saves the president’s life. We get to drag the bad guys off to jail or shoot them dead if “they need killing”— fantasies we can’t act out in our everyday lives. The real-world events around us can be unjust and inexplicable. It’s important to our collective mental health to experience justice, order, and revelation through fiction.

Novels with well-written protagonists and antagonists bring us to terms with the duality within ourselves. Humans are all deeply flawed, with the capacity for great goodness as well as for deceit, jealousy, schadenfreude, addiction, selfishness, and often worse. When crime fiction heroes—detectives, FBI agents, and prosecutors—possess such flaws, we not only relate to those characters, we forgive ourselves for the same shortcomings. When a killer calls his mother or pets a stray dog, we hate him a little less and remember to look for good qualities in everyone.

Crime novels explore relationships in a way that few other genres can. What better mechanism to test a bond between husband and wife, parent and child, or lifelong friends than to embroil the relationship in a crime, either as victims, suspects, or perpetrators. Similar to natural disasters, the aftermath of a crime can bring out the best—or worst—in humans.

The genre is also rich with possibilities for exploring the complexity of the human condition. Victims become predators; predators become victims. A person is guilty, but not in the way we’ve been led to believe. Most of all, crime fiction is full of surprises, and we readers love the unexpected. When was the last time a reviewer used the word twist when discussing a literary novel?

Why do you read and/or write crime fiction? Does it ever get you down?


  1. Why I read crime fiction is a tough question to answer. Sheer entertainment? The puzzle aspect ofmthe mystery? The fact that it's just some of the most well-written stuff out there? The triumph of good over evil?
    I tend not to read a lot of bleak, dark stuff simply because it does depress me.

  2. All the reasons you listed are good ones; the ones why I like and read crime fiction. Real stuff (dealing w/) in a real world. Thanks

  3. I have to agree with Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos that the social novel has been relegated to crime fiction. I am not a fan of genre labels, I think it's a marketing ploy that hurts writers in the long run (is MacBeth in the mystery/crime section? Is Othello in noir?) but it is where societal problems are tackled in fiction these days. Stuff that matters, human emotion, not how empty it is to be well-off and white in the suburbs, wishing you'd joined the Peace Corps. Yates did that 50 years ago and there's very little new to say, but people keep trying.

  4. Excellent post, LJ! You make so many great points for reading crime fiction. I especially relate to the idea of vicariously defeating the bad guy, and "helping" take a dent out of some of the evil in the world. It's much more uplifting to read about a cop, P.I. or even an ordinary person going after the bad guys and putting them out of circulation, than to helplessly read the daily news or watch depressing current events on TV.

  5. I'm glad that Thomas pointed out the problem with pushing a social novel into a narrow category. I know marketing departments like to have categories in which to slot a book, but that does limit the appeal of some books. I'm not a huge fan of romance novels, but there sometimes is a little gem tucked over in that department that has more story substance than what is going on between the characters. Same is true for mystery and crime fiction. There is plot, and then there is sub-plot and more real-world context. That's what I like to read.

  6. Crime fiction stretches through almost every genre (yes, even romance), so there must be something about it that's redeeming or it wouldn't be so popular. Why is it? For a myriad of reasons, some of which L.J. mentioned, but I'm sure there are as many opinions as there are authors and readers. For me, I read and write it because I love puzzles, and really, isn't that what crime solving is? I enjoy unraveling the clues, watching the protagonist sort through and figure them out. And of course, the biggest payoff--the "aha" moment.

  7. L.J., this is an excellent post! I love the idea of shining a tiny spotlight on social issues that are important to me. Puzzles and characters are fun and a huge part of the attraction, but I like to drill a little deeper.

    About a week ago, I had to research something that put me off my stride for a bit. Finding information about the occult on my own, not in novels or on a movie screen, almost buried me. I realized that there are elements in this world that I prefer to keep outside my personal bubble, but that doesn't mean they aren't real.

    Heading back to my bubble now . . .

  8. I think my interest in mystery/crime novels comes from, as someone once said, wanting to see justice done as it too often isn't in real life. This has led over time to reading fewer of the dark and heavy thrillers and mysteries but I still do read those too.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing it!


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