The other day, us ATWOP gals were discussing the reactions we get when people ask us, “So, what’s your book about?”
Sometimes those reactions are wonderfully encouraging. Other times – not so much. The stifled yawn, the surreptitious glance at the clock as you wax poetic about your manuscript. Or the not so subtle moue of distaste that says, “well, that doesn’t sound like MY cup of tea.” And in my case, when I explain that my book is about murder – and a serial killer – I often encounter the shocked “YOU write THAT?! Why on earth WOULD you?”
It’s made me wonder … why write about crime and death? Why not sci-fi? YA? Romance? Poetry?
Inextricably linked to this question are two more. Why is there an indisputably huge audience for books that deal with the violent deaths of others, an audience in which crime writers themselves sit front and centre? And why are people fascinated by death in all its myriad forms?
Some may say writing and reading about violent crime gives the satisfaction of seeing a bad guy caught, the comfort of seeing the scales of justice restored to balance after being knocked askew. This is how we’d like our world to operate, and it can be so, for a little while at least, in a story, where we create a world – and as a reader, become absorbed in that world - where bad guys don’t get away with their bad deeds, where good vanquishes evil, where you know that when the books ends, crime will (probably) not triumph.
But that is only part of the answer.
Humans are one of the few species on the planet that are aware of their own mortality. So we try to understand death, the ultimate unknown, in all it's shapes and forms. Which is partly why I write about it. Murder and violence have not touched my life. I sincerely hope they never do, and am mighty glad that I have been shielded from them. But the uncomfortable reality is that people – people just like you and me – DO encounter death and violence, every day. That protective shield we hide behind is actually very thin, riddled with cracks through which evil might just seep. So a force behind the drive to write and read of these dark things is, I think, the attempt to understand the lurking foe, to try to understand what it is that cuts certain people loose from morality, enabling them to kill without a twitch of a conscience. So we can know them for what they are when we see them. Or so we hope.
Writing and reading about murder and crime also allows us to explore humanity at large, not just the minds and worlds of the evildoers. Why is it that when faced with death and danger, some people run, while others act with heroism and honour to the very end? The doors to murky, secretive places are thrown wide open.
And this leads to another reason for the popularity of the genre. People are fascinated by murder on the page because they can experience it without getting hurt themselves. They can live through death and come out of the other side. It’s like riding a roller coaster – you’re safe, but you still get to experience the gut-dropping terror of the ride.
And there's no denying the guilty thrill of venturing where we're not supposed to go. Murder and death are largely taboo topics (much like sex and religion!) but writing and reading about them allows us a that voyeuristic peek we'd otherwise be denied.
Finally, I think writers and readers are drawn to crime fiction because of the challenge. Can I write a book that gives the reader a cracking good puzzle to solve? Can I, as a reader, work out “who dunnit” – or “why dunnit” or “how dunnit” - before the end of the book?
But really, writers of murder and mayhem are no different to those who write in many other genres. Don’t we all write in an attempt to understand some aspect of life? Don’t we all write for the thrill and the mystery of delving into things outside our own experience? Don’t we all strive to evoke strong emotional responses in our readers? Don’t we all want to create believable and authentic worlds and characters and situations, to give our readers experiences they’d never otherwise have?
So when I tell you I write about blood and knives and murder most foul, please don’t back away, all sweaty-palmed and searching for the nearest exit. I swear, apart from a Google search history that would raise the collective eyebrows of the FBI, I’m exactly like you. ;-)