What is it about the Crime/Mystery Genre?

Why do so many people read crime/mystery fiction? Why do so many watch crime/mystery creations? Think contemporary cozies, historical ones, true crime, CSI spinoffs, law and order procedurals, etc. I’m not complaining. I love it, but one side of me is mystified. Why the interest?

I’d say the number of crime/mystery novels published annually is second only to that of romance novels. Why are crime/mystery stories such a big part of our current cultural milieu? People must get something out of the genre. Of course, there’s the voyeur element. “Look, he’s bloodier than buffalo guts.” “Hey, her head’s half there. That incision looks like shark teeth.” 

I know why I like writing crime fiction. I enjoy the push to tell a tale, to put plot first and prose style second. Currently, I don’t enjoy writing magical realism or literary fiction. See my blog on deserting James Joyce and going to the dark side.

I’m not a psychologist or mind reader. However, I’m going to take a stab at answering why people find murder mysteries so fascinating. Violent unexpected death is horrendous. People cannot or do not want to face it directly. One way of handling murder, one way of coming to terms with the worst of all human crimes, is to watch someone solve it. “Look, they caught the bastard.”

Perhaps crime fiction is soothing. It conquers evil, and somehow puts the world in a positive light. Good guys win, bad guys go to jail. On the flip side, I could be barking up the wrong tree. Maybe people just want blood and guts.

I went to the Dark Side. I’m glad I did.

I once wanted to write literary fiction. I loved reading literary fiction, so why not? The more obscure the prose and plotline (read: lack thereof), the more I loved it: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon.

I wanted to write a Finnegans Wake redux. I even read Finnegans Wake. It took me a whole summer. I was an undergraduate with a night job so I had the time. I read all the books you needed to approach Finnegans Wake: the skeleton key, the concordances, the academic treatises. And then I read the opus itself. To the last page: 656. Approximately 200,000 words.

People were impressed; well, some people. Had they read it? No. In fact, no one I knew had read Finnegans Wake. Anyway, I tried to write like Joyce. Bad idea. I eventually realized writing FW-like fiction was a lost cause. Who’s read all of FW (apart from academics)? I deserted literary fiction. You could say I became a traitor. I went to the dark side – the Noir side. Hallelujah!

I started reading genre fiction, specifically crime fiction. Why? I wanted to read a damn good story, not damn good (supposedly) prose. I wanted storylines and whodunnit puzzles, not prose pyrotechnics. Then I started writing genre fiction.

I’m very happy to be in genre land. Does that mean I don’t read literary fiction? No. Does that mean I’ll never write literary fiction again? No. I might go there. Never say never. If I’d remained blinkered by literary prose, I wouldn’t have found genre fiction. Change prose styles when you want to, and change back again. Don’t let anyone tell you not to. Write whatever the hell you want – in any style you want.