Crime Writing

In Crime Fiction, Be Not Afraid

I just wrote an article for The Jerusalem Report about “What Israelis Fear Most.” Surprisingly, I found that Israelis didn’t fear being murdered by a psychopath or caught up in a case of mistaken identity which leads to them getting into car chases with the FBI on their tails.

Surprisingly, that is, if you read thrillers or crime fiction.

What DO people fear? Israelis fear internal divisions within their society. They fear the nuclear threat of Iran. They fear Palestinian terrorism. They fear war. Americans fear public speaking and clowns. (Check out the polls. It’s true.) Yet 8 of the current top 10 New York Times bestsellers are crime novels or thrillers.

Crime novels don’t hinge on the same fears as people confront in everyday life. Why do all these people read so many crime novels, then?

This question gives the lie to the typical argument about crime fiction: that our innate conservatism enjoys seeing order disturbed (by murder) and then restored (by fingering the bad guy.) If it were so simple, wouldn’t Israelis be reading novels in which Iran launches a nuke only for Tehran to get obliterated? Or surely Americans would be reading novels in which a guy is forced to address a conference of clowns, only to come through with a great rhetorical swell?

We need to reconsider what it is that makes people read crime fiction.Clearly it’s not fear. After all, how many crime novels end with the bad guy doing his worst and prospering? That happens in some post-modern books, sure. But for the most part there’s nothing to fear in crime fiction. Everything’s just fine.

(I plead an exemption for my Palestinian crime novels, in which almost everyone ends up guilty and the society is definitely headed for the rapids in a barrel. They’re certainly not Jo Nesbo, where everything ends up dourly dusted in true Scandinavian fashion.)

Maybe that’s the appeal of crime fiction. Not for a moment would a crime writer have you believe that murderers get away with it and go on to become Secretary of State (see Vince Foster/Whitewater internet conspiracy stuff – though just because I write “conspiracy” doesn’t mean I don’t believe Hillary had him whacked…). Or that the world’s most evil businessman ever can become vice president, survive a couple of heart attacks, shoot a business associate, and nothing bad happens to him – in fact, he even loses a lot of weight. (Which is pretty un-American really, losing weight. Why haven’t Democrats picked up on that?) Of course if it were fiction, no writer would call the bad guy “Dick.” It’s too obvious.

I have a theory. I should add that it’s statistically untested – when I was in grad school I had to study how to figure out statistically meaningful correlations, but it’s a long time since I even knew what Chi-squared looked like. I prefer, as Spalding Gray said, musing and speculating, rather than real research.

So here’s the theory: People know the difference between fiction and reality, and so they recognize the difference between fictional fear and real fear. Romance readers don’t want to be raped in chapter one and marry their rapist in the final chapter. “Literary fiction” readers aren’t all magazine editors who’re worried their wife will find out they’re boning a literary agent — and some of them aren’t even Jewish. Neither are crime fiction readers “fearful” of the events that take place in the books they read. They’re readers, not method actors. They know it’s a story, and that’s that.

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