Why I’m taking a shot at crime fiction

“Crime doesn’t pay” – isn’t that how the old phrase goes? This is probably true, if you’re an actual criminal (lengthy jail terms or early, violent death aren’t great wages, in fairness). But if you write crime novels, well – that, to use an apt term, is another story.

Because crime fiction is absolutely massive. In an industry seemingly dying on its feet, these tales of cops ‘n robbers, murder and mayhem, are bucking the trend.

Consider these few factoids: in 2010, mysteries and thrillers accounted for almost a third of all fiction sales worldwide, making it the biggest-selling genre. Libraries have recorded a spike in lending of crime novels, with one-man fiction factory James Patterson the most-borrowed author in the UK.

The likes of Patterson, John Grisham, Dan Brown and David Baldacci have sold literally hundreds of millions of copies. Dozens of other authors, hundreds, each sell millions or in some cases (Stieg Larsson, say) multiples of that.

And here’s one last stat to really make the mind boggle: Patterson (yes, him again) last year signed a deal with Hachette worth at least $150 million. That’s million, the one with six zeroes after it.

There’s money in them thar violent hills, for sure; Irish crime writer (and Herald contributor) Declan Burke even gave his blog the tongue-in-cheek title, “Crime Always Pays”.

So why do we, men and women (women reportedly buy the majority of crime novels), love these bloody books so bloody much? Especially because we recoil from crime in real life, instinctively, with a feeling of horror.

None of us commit it – unless you’re currently enjoying this article in the Mountjoy reading room, in which case apologies for the presumption – and most of us wouldn’t know what to do if it happened to us. I’d probably wet my pants, shriek like a baby or both if I stumbled across a burglar. I get queasy even watching news reports about murders or rapes, and wouldn’t pick up one of those awful “true crime” books if you paid me.

Yet I’ve written a crime novel (Even Flow, published September 28 – make a note in your diaries!), have another on the way in January (The Polka Dot Girl – make another note!) and would read a fair amount of it for pleasure. James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton and Chad Taylor, among others, have written some of my all-time favourite novels.

How, then, to explain this seeming contradiction? There are a number of reasons, I think, the first being the most simple but most important: crime fiction is very entertaining. They’re good stories that rattle along, with inventive plots, imaginative twists, tense action scenes, and especially, the keen edge of life and death. You can’t help investing in these characters: they’re often fighting for their very survival.

Crime novels are also short, sharply written and full of verve and vim. This is a welcome alternative to the overlong, seemingly unedited and impossibly dreary meanderings inherent in much modern literary fiction.

Even Flow, for instance, is less than 60,000 words: you could (probably) read it in one setting. That was a deliberate choice: I wanted to book to approximate the feeling of watching an exciting action movie, or even the intoxicating sugar-rush of listening to a great album. Something like Nirvana’s Nevermind: bang, bang, bang, one thrilling tune (or chapter) after another, the final crash of drums and guitar, and you’re done.

Whoo! That rocked.

Crime fiction is escapism too, but with just enough of a foothold in reality to make the story impact on you emotionally. My book is about a gang of vigilantes in New York, who dress in tuxedos and balaclavas, and selectively punish misogynists and homophobes: think Dirty Harry crossed with Germaine Greer. Obviously, this kind of story isn’t gritty realism, but it’s all quite possible – nobody flies through the air or stops a bullet here.

I guess you could say Even Flow, like many crime novels, is shifted 2% to the side of reality: plausible but requiring a teensy suspension of disbelief. So you get the magic of a fable with the punch of an authentic setting.

But the main reason we love crime fiction, I think, harks back to that earlier point (about burglars and babies and wetting myself): it’s precisely because we’re such wimps in real life that we enjoy, vicariously, these narratives of courage, daring, toughness and coolness.

Who wouldn’t want to be the sexy detective, bringing down the whole rotten system? Who wouldn’t want to kick ass and take names for the great cause of justice? Who wouldn’t want to wreak bloody revenge on human traffickers, rapists, child molesters (we may not admit it, but the desire is there)? Who hasn’t, at least once, sat at their desk and day-dreamed about being the hero, gun-toting, cigarette-devouring, death-defying?

Crime novels give us all this, and more, and we can’t get enough of them. “Behind every great fortune,” Balzac wrote, “is a great crime.” Or in this case, a fictional one at least.


First published in the Evening Herald, September 29, 2012


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