Saturday, October 04, 2008

Why do we love crime fiction?

Next week I’ll be in the midst of Bouchercon. Aside from the panel I’ll be on Thursday morning, I’ve been asked to give a presentation on Saturday, October 11 at the Canton Library in Baltimore. Being as much as fan as an author, I decided to talk about why we love crime fiction so much, which gave me an opportunity to do some interesting research.

Did you know that crime novels account for somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the fiction sold around the world? At least what’s published in English. It makes you wonder why books about murder and other evils that men do are so popular.

There’s no denying that this is the kind of book that people really read. I mean, Independent bookstores have almost disappeared, but shops that specialize in mysteries are booming. I’ve done signings at Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore, but I’ve probably bought more books there over the years than I’ve sold. There are three shops in New York City alone: Black Orchid, Partners and Crime and the Mysterious Bookshop. If you visit Mystery you will find a list of mystery bookstores across the country and the world.*

The popularity of crime fiction is a fairly recent phenomenon. 20 or 30 years ago, you didn’t see crime novels on the bestseller list. Today they regularly account for half of it. But what accounts for this love of mystery fiction?

At my book signings people tell me they love mystery novels because they tell real stories. Mainstream fiction, if there is such a thing, often has no real conflict and no resolution. More and more self indulgence, with less and less plot - that’s literary fiction. But mysteries always give you a story, and the satisfying conclusion we don’t often get in real life. You can’t do this if you haven’t mastered the basic mechanics of storytelling – a beginning, middle and end, heroes and villains. There’s a definite form. Harlan Coben who writes the Myron Bolitar series says it’s like writing a sonata or haiku. But within that form you can do almost anything. Pick up anything by Baltimore detective writer Laura Lippman. She says that the best books are at war with themselves. The reader is dying to get to the end of the story, but she’s also dying to make the book last forever. People read mysteries to find out what happens.

Mysteries also take us where we want to go, or sometimes they just show us the places we already know. My detective, Hannibal Jones , lives and works in Washington. He shares the city with James Patterson’s Alex Cross and George Pelecanos’ marvelously hard-boiled Derek Strange. Of course Laura Lippman’s Tess Monahan rules Baltimore, Robert B. Parker's Spencer owns Boston, and Paula Woods redefines L.A. urban noir with Charlotte Justice. Elmore Leonard, one of my favorites, shows you a gritty side of Detroit. Janet Evanovich takes a rather satirical look at New Jersey. Want to get a bit farther away? Read Alexander McCall Smith’s books about the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana.

You can also travel through time in mysteries. I’ve read them set in Ancient Egypt, China and Japan, Victorian England, WWI and the roaring 20’s. In the Middle Ages, nuns and monks solved a lot of crimes. And I read in Pages magazine that the best selling post-Communist Russian author is Alexandra Marinina – a mystery novelist.

You can hear more of my reasons why people love crime fiction on Saturday, October 11 at 2:00 p.m. at the Canton Library, 1030 S. Ellwood Avenue and O'Donnell Street in Baltimore. Meanwhile, tell me why YOU think people love mysteries so much. In a couple of weeks I’ll gather your comments and post an update on the topic.

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