Crime Fiction comes in many forms – international thrillers, historical mysteries, psychological dramas, police procedurals, court dramas, cosy crime… the sub-genres are endless, but they all dwell on crime. What is the appeal?
Real life crime comes in many sub-divisions too, but crime fiction ignores most of them. You don’t get thrillers centring on crimes like parking on a double yellow line or shop lifting or tax evasion. It isn’t just because such crimes lack dramatic appeal. It is because they are merely defined as crimes by a legal system that is quite impersonal. Many people (more than would probably admit it) would contemplate breaking them without too many twinges of conscience. Yes, they are theoretically against the law but, well, you know, if there were an absolute guarantee of getting away it, maybe they might, just might, park on that line, pay by cash to avoid something going through the books, or even walk off without paying for something that slipped through at the till.
The crimes that feature in crime fiction are totally different. Murder. Rape. Abduction. Child Abuse. They are more than crimes. They are taboos. Even if the Law had no opinion on them, most of us would shrink from committing them because we understand at the deepest level that they are wrong. How the taboo develops is open to debate. Some people might say they are forbidden by God and that is written in our DNA. We apply words like Sin and Evil. Others might say that they are instincts essential to our survival in a civilised world and drilled into us so deeply from birth, by parents, schools, church and society in general, that we don’t question them. Whatever the source of the taboos, we know that to overturn them is to overthrow all security. If you knew, with absolute certainty, that you could commit a murder and not be punished, would you do it? I suspect that 99% would say NO!
And yet murders happen. For some – a very few – the taboo means nothing to them. Sociopaths, psychopaths and the mentally disturbed may lack that instinct in their make-up and have no guilty conscience prodding them. They make predictable serial killers, the masked monsters lurking in dark alleys that we all fear.
But the majority of murders are committed by ordinary people who probably never dreamed they’d ever do such a thing. Murders for the most part are not carefully planned but are a desperate result of a string of wrong decisions. Perhaps, if you found yourself pushed over the edge, you too could lose control and make that fatal mistake that will stain you forever. So could everyone around you. The potential is there in all of us. It’s a scary thought.
That scariness must be part of the appeal of crime fiction. Deep down under our civilised veneers is a pressure cooker of savage untamed instincts. Maybe our fascination with crime in fiction is something to do with releasing the pressure value just enough to prevent an explosion. We want to live secure and safe and happy, without worrying about what might lie around the corner, but we need to treat ourselves to a dose of scariness that won’t really put us at risk. We were once primitive people whose survival programming needed to keep adrenalin on tap, ready to run like hell when something growled in the undergrowth. Crime fiction is an adrenalin switch, that gives us a nice healthy jolt occasionally, without seriously disturbing our slumbers. Because, best of all, it is fiction. It may be, should be, True in a literary sense, but it’s not actually real. We can shut the book and go to sleep in peace.
Check out Welsh crime writers in all genres at Crime Cymru