I’ve just finished a book about terrorism. Earlier in the week I read one with living with a brain-injured child as one of its main themes. I’m about to start one about assisted suicide.
Just a moment, I hear you say; aren’t you supposed to be a big crime fiction fan? Why have you shifted allegiance to books about Big Issues? Have you suddenly become a litfic fan?
Yes, I am. And no, I haven’t. And the odd foray into litfic is no bad thing as long as the author doesn’t put style sacrifice ahead of story, but crime fiction still takes up ninety percent of my reading time.
Each of those three books, and a whole lot more of my recent reading matter, has fallen firmly into the crime fiction category, to the extent that that’s where you’ll find them in bookshops and libraries which dedicate certain shelves to certain types of book. Which is to say, in my experience at least, most of them. Also, I review for an e-zine which specializes in crime fiction, and they send me several books a month.
But that’s the joy of crime fiction, isn’t it? There are always good guys and bad guys; there’s always a crime, and more often than not it’s murder; but there’s also the potential for so very much more.
I once heard a brilliant definition of fiction in general: a slice of life, with the heat turned up, the man said. I’d go further. How about a life crisis, still with the heat turned up? And crime fiction turns the heat up further than most other kinds, creating a glow that can light up just about any issue you like and make it blaze so bright that the reader has no choice but to look at it.
Decades ago, in the era of crime fiction still lauded as the Golden Age, things were much simpler than nowadays. Someone (or several someones) was (were) murdered. How, why, by whom or any combination of the three was a puzzle, which a detective or an amateur sleuth spent a couple of hundred pages working through and eventually solving. OK, that’s an over-simplification, but Golden Age authors didn’t spend much time delving into major real-life issues of the day; that wasn’t what they were about. They were writing escapist fiction, to entertain their readers and allow them to exercise their puzzle-solving abilities and get to the answer before the hero.
And then crime fiction grew up. Yes, there are still murders; yes, there’s still a puzzle. But now there’s more. So very much more.
The book about terrorism was also – no, let’s say mainly – a race-for-the line, save-the-world thriller, and almost to the final page we weren’t quite sure who the bad guys really were. But until I read it, it had never occurred to me to look at terrorism from the other side, and wonder what went on in a terrorist’s mind when he (or she) was planning an atrocity.
The one with the brain-injured child had two particularly gory murders among its climactic moments, and the killers’ guilt or innocence hung in the balance. But now I hope I shall look differently at the twelve-year-old who throws a toddler tantrum in the supermarket queue. The assisted suicide could be murder for gain; ask me in a few days how that one pans out. But the very fact of a novel which addresses the issue will make me think about it.
And that’s just three books. I’ve read hundreds, maybe thousands of crime novels. Sure, some of them are about murders, and solving the puzzle, and very little else, and that’s fine; the TV news bombards us with issues to consider, and sometimes we need a rest from reality. But the best crime novels do more. As well as exercising minds, they open them. They make us think; they throw light on issues we might not otherwise consider – and sometimes that light illuminates a different point of view, which might even make us look at another side of the issue.
And that, my friends, is why I read crime fiction. It’s always about crime – but it’s also about so much more.