I’ve loved reading psychological thrillers and crime fiction (and crime non-fiction, but that’s a post for another day) for as long as I can remember.
I’m pretty sure it started with Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs – specifically the character of Hannibal Lecter and his almost supernatural ability to read other people (and expertly use that information against them). There’s a reason the film did so well, and it’s not just because of that weird noise Anthony Hopkins made.
And I’m definitely not alone in this. That perfect combination of murder, mystery and suspense are gifts for crime fiction lovers all over the world.
But, why? How come so many ‘nice’ people love reading about human depravity and breaking the law?
I think there are five broad reasons for this.
1. Crime fiction lovers can vicariously experience extreme situations
You know that whole cliché about people slowing down on the road to stare at an accident? The mangled cars, the ambulance, the poor souls who may or may not be injured? Well, people absolutely do this, and I think crime fiction taps into a similar instinct.
Take the central relationship between the main characters in Gone Girl (an almost literal car crash relationship), or the horrific crimes committed by Jeffrey Deaver’s Bone Collector. Through reading, we get to simultaneously witness and experience these extreme relationships and events, and allow ourselves to think about how we could avoid them in real life.
There may even be an element of trying to work out what we would do if we ever found ourselves in those situations. How would we escape? Would we get untied in time?
Would we – could we – kill to get free?
Crime fiction – especially when written in the first person – allows us to experience these horrors as if they were our own lives.
And speaking of horror…
2. Psychological thrillers: Exciting, terrifying, and… um… safe
There’s a reason that people (other people, definitely not me) spend so much money on roller-coaster rides and extreme sports. It’s a way to allow fear to grab us by the adrenal glands and squeeze them until our bodies are flooded with fight-or-flight juice. But, and this a very important but (stop laughing, I didn’t say ‘butt’), it’s perfectly safe.
And, more importantly, we know that it’s perfectly safe.
In the same way, we can read about the mind of a serial killer, or the machinations of some psychopathic villain, or the wanton violence of a cornered criminal, and we can allow ourselves to feel fear knowing that, ultimately, we’re completely safe.
For some weird reason, as human beings we want to experience fear – albeit only if we know there’s no actual threat. It’s the difference between watching a documentary about shark attacks, and jumping into a pool with one.
3. Thrillers are neater than reality
I completely agree with those who say that life is stranger than fiction.
(Judging by recent world events, this is a very difficult proposition to argue against.)
Fictional stories generally have a defined beginning, middle and end. On the other hand, real life isn’t constrained by anything. There are plenty of true stories that, if they were featured in a work of fiction, would be considered too unbelievable to be plausible.
There’s a criminal case – Dudley v Stephens – which I studied during my law degree. Dudley and Stephens were shipwrecked with a man named Richard Parker, who quickly fell into a coma. Dudley and Stephens decided to eat Richard to stay alive. Long-story-short, they survived, got back to land and were subsequently tried for (and convicted of) murder.
The unbelievable part of all this is that Edgar Allen Poe had written this very same incident into a novel fifty years earlier. Even the name of the unfortunate victim was the same – Richard Parker.
Can you imagine reading a book where a very specific set of events occur, and then later in the book a character discovers that someone wrote the exact same scenario half a century earlier, and that the victim had the same name? You’d think it was stretching credulity just a bit too far.
And as well as being neater than reality, crime fiction also seems more ‘just’. The end of most thrillers is that the ‘goodies’ win and the ‘baddies’ lose, which is more satisfying than what we often see in reality.
Again, if you want to proof of this just take a look at world events. No wonder we want to read stories where the bad people get their comeuppance, and the good people ride off into the sunset.
4. Crime fiction is interesting and, yes, educational
Police procedurals and detective stories are huge, with millions of readers buying them each year. We love reading about the inner workings of law enforcement departments and peeking behind the curtain of criminal investigations. I do anyway, which is why I love the books of Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly – both experts in this genre.
Similarly, psychological thrillers show us the psyche of seemingly unfathomable killers, or help us to understand the circumstances which might result in a ‘normal’ individual being pushed too far and committing murder.
Yes, it’s fictional, but isn’t the most effective crime fiction grounded in reality? My crime novel The Artist may be a work of fiction, but it’s based on my own experiences as an actor combined with my study of forensic psychology. There’s nothing in the book that couldn’t happen, even though – as far as I know (and hope) – it hasn’t occurred in reality.
Also, what better way to understand another’s point of view in the real world than stepping into their shoes through fiction?
Which leads us nicely to the last point…
5. Prison break!
Crime fiction and psychological thrillers allow us to escape our reality for a little while.
Arguably, this is why any art form exists – for both the creator and the audience.
After a long day at work, or during a seemingly endless commute, or in the twenty minutes that you know – hope! – the baby will actually stay asleep, you get to escape into another world. Admittedly the world in which you escape with crime fiction isn’t always the most pleasant, but as we said above, you know it’s perfectly safe.
So you can experience the dark side of a city you’ve never visited, learn about the intricacies of crime investigation, spend time with the most depraved killers, and have a million other experiences you would never otherwise be exposed to.
And you get to do it all without leaving your chair or, y’know, having to actually investigate – or commit – a crime. Not bad for the price of a coffee, is it?