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What is behind our love affair with crime fiction?

Australians are in the midst of a love affair with crime fiction. Last week, four crime titles were among Australia’s top ten bestselling books, while crime and thrillers represented three quarters of the most borrowed books from Australian libraries in 2016/17. Local crime fiction has scooped awards ranging from the Victorian Premier’s award for an unpublished manuscript and the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year (The Dry), and the Indie Book Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year (Wimmera).

The popularity of crime fiction is by no means just a local phenomenon. Nielsen Bookscan figures revealed that 18.7 million crime books were sold in Britain last year – 19% more than in 2015. In the same period, general and literary fiction sales fell by 16%.

So, what is behind our fascination with crime fiction?

A curiosity about evil

Bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin put forward one explanation of why books about crime, including fiction and non-fiction, when he said:

“Humans are fascinated by evil,” he said. “We wonder where it comes from and whether we ourselves could ever carry out such an act. Some readers turn to crime fiction for answers, while others prefer true crime. Of course, there is a vicarious frisson for the fan of either – the reader stands at the shoulder of monsters without being endangered.”

Earlier in the year, Mark Brandi spoke about his own interest in stories of crime, admitting that he had always been drawn to court reports in the local newspaper. This fascination was behind Brandi’s decision to write Wimmera, a chilling story of small-town crime.

Crime writer Tara Moss said that her interest in the genre might have been a result of the very safety  and security that she enjoyed as a child that first led her to explore risk through crime fiction.

“Why do I write this stuff? Where does it come from? [As a kid] I wanted to be Stephen King while the other girls wanted to be ballerinas and princesses. I was very dark comparatively and I’ve often wondered why that was. I’ve recently concluded that my childhood was very safe and idyllic and it gave me the opportunity to explore things that scared me because I felt safe to do so.”

A satisfying resolution

However, it is not just curiosity and a fascination with evil that drives us to read crime fiction. There is also an element of satisfaction that can be derived from the sense of justice that is often delivered by the end of the book. As Hillary Clinton joked in a recent talk in Melbourne after her ill-fated election campaign, “I read novels, especially mystery, because the bad guy usually gets it.” It stands to reason that no one would desire a clear sense of fairness to prevail than that particular reader.

Just as Clinton felt comforted by the sense of justice in mystery, crime offers a resolution that might not always be happy, but is more often than not, fair. Questions are answered, and the guilty are brought before their accusers and punished.

The literary appeal of crime fiction

But, this does not mean that crime fiction is simple or one-dimensional. In fact, it might be crime fiction’s ability to break down barriers between literary and genre fiction that is behind some of its recent popularity. As the success of crime fiction in Australian book prizes suggests, crime fiction is a genre that offers complex characters, intricate plotlines and exploration of social issues, from the effects of drought on a community to the impact of domestic violence on a family. In 2015, crime fiction scaled the literary heights when A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker Prize, sparking commentary that suggested the genre was finally receiving the attention it deserved.

Locally, the literary nature of the late Peter Temple’s crime fiction books helped introduce crime fiction to new audiences. In his books, including the Miles Franklin award-winning Truth, Temple redefined the boundaries of literary writing, while The Broken Shore was a forerunner to some of today’s most successful crime novels, in which people and place play as prominent a role as the crime itself.

Familiar people and places in unfamiliar circumstances

The Dry, Wimmera and SJ Finn’s Down to the River are more recent examples of crime fiction set in landscapes and communities that are unmistakably and irresistibly Australian. These books explore the sinister underbelly of small, often remote, communities. In these books, we recognise the people and the places, and are captivated by stories that are far from familiar.

The physical landscape that Australian readers know so well, is an evocative backdrop before which the drama and mystery plays out. In the case of The Dry, the heat and the remoteness of the farming land is essential to the story, imbuing it with a sense of restlessness and volatility, where any member of the community might be the perpetrator of the central crime. The landscape intensifies the mystery, while also a revealing glimpse at what could lie beneath the realities in which we live.

And finally … it’s fun to read

Beyond all of these reasons to love crime fiction, there is one that stands above them all. Crime fiction is fun. Through these books, the reader can try to solve a mystery, while exploring the personalities, and often foibles, of those surrounding the crime in order to determine whether they should be suspects. After following some false leads, we are almost certain of finding out the identity of the character responsible. It is an arc that is timeless, and irresistible.

Given all of the reasons to love crime fiction – from its ability to satisfy curiosity, offer a sense of justice and evoke darker realities in familiar settings, and the element of fun it offers – its popularity among Australian and international readers should come as far less of a surprise than whether it was the teacher, the farmer or the father who was holding the gun.

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