I've just read an interesting article in The University Daily Kansan, the student voice of the University of Kansas, which was brought to me in the UK courtesy of the Book2Book web site. It asked the question why are so many people fascinated with the crime/mystery genre?

In the “Library Journal” Random House declared mysteries their most popular audio books. And, claims the article, the ever-steady demand for the genre seems odd, given that most mystery novels concern what few people want to think about - death.

So why do so many people enjoy reading crime novels? I know from my own reading experience and my reader feedback that what people like is a puzzle to solve, a mystery to pit their wits against, a thrill, lots of action and the psychology of characters. In fiction justice is served and the results neatly tied up, not like in real-life and perhaps that's why people like reading crime novels. It's certainly one of the reasons I like writing them, but by far not the only one.

What do you think?

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Another reason that murder mysteries are so popular is the "happy" ending. Justice is always served, in that the killer is found out and caught, unlike real life so many times. The same is true of romance novels, in which the happy ending is that the hero and heroine always get together by the end. In a screwy, mixed-up world, happy endings can be very comforting.
I do think that part of the reason is that life doesn't have neatly tied up endings, but in fiction one can have the bad guy pay for his crimes. And one of the reasons I enjoy reading them is the puzzle, trying to figure out whodunit before the sleuth does.
I think both of those reasons are what have produced so much formula. The new mystery tends more toward realism and character. Justice is still served, but not always with a happy end.
I think sometimes crime fiction can offer the "story behind the story," that the news can't and tries to make sense of things by looking deeper into the situations that led up to the events.

We see the fall-out of crime in the news everyday, and we're usually offered the most basic, superficial explanations but a really good crime novel tries to get to the heart of the matter.
As a reader, I like things to be wrapped up and order more or less restored by the end. I'm being increasingly frustrated by mystery novels that ramble around in the characters' lives and leave a messy pile of trailing threads at The End. I understand that some threads must be left untied in series books, but the rambling so often looks like careless plotting, which is surely one of the deadly sins of mystery writing.

As a writer, I'm often motivated to seek an explication of some real-life situation, not likely a correct one given that it's fiction, but one that assuages my need to understand how a given situation might have gotten so far out of control without anyone noticing or effectively intervening.

My Great Canadian Story finalist from 2006 (Tommy Palmer's Ghost, in that fall's edition of Storyteller Magazine) was an attempt to make sense of one such situation: why my husband's great-grandfather, a long-time deputy police chief in Victoria, BC dropped dead on a sidewalk one afternoon and was quickly whisked away by his fellow officers not for autopsy or even to a hospital/doctor, but to the police garage from whence he was removed in a coffin for a large official funeral complete with dignitaries and a procession through packed streets.

A bit of poking through the Times-Colonist archives uncovered a year's worth of political backstabbing at City Hall that had spilled over onto the upper echelons of the police service. Although he was not murdered in consequence, he was almost certainly hounded into a fatal heart attack, and the repercussions on his wife and dependent children were immense and ongoing. The lavish funeral was most likely a bit of guilt-assuaging on the part of the same city officials who had been figuratively knifing their enemies all year.

I could not fit all that background into 7,000 words - the tale had to considerably simplified - so I might revisit that era in a novel, and flip a few of the many political stones I had to leave unturned in the short story. I still have questions in my mind about the knock-on effects of having a family member hounded to death for somebody's political benefit, and writing about the situation is how I will focus my mind to understand those effects in Tommy Palmer's descendents.
Some interesting and valid comments here. I agree about the story behind the story factor, and that's one of the things that fascinates me about writing crime novels - getting behind the people and the reasons why they/we do the things we do. And, as Jayne mentions, I like to take real life situations or social or political matters and use these in my books to highlight certain issues in society, or to make people think - could this really be happening? As a reader and writer, I like the ends tied up, otherwise it wouldn't be fiction, would it?
Well, you know, some people might say that everything tied up in the end and justice being served is what makes it "genre." ;)
I agree with Beth G., justice is one of the main reasons why I enjoy mysteries. Seeing how it is brought forth and why it was needed in the first place. Whether the case is solved by traditional methods or in some vigilante fashion, the bottom line is that we love to see justice prevail. ;)

Rebecca Benston
One of the draws of a mystery series is following the growth of the main characters as they get in and out of trouble. I also like a setting strong enough for me to feel like I'm there. Margaret Maron's books put me in eastern North Carolina. M. C. Beaton takes me to Scotland.
Well, this is what made me write a series. Mine is in Japan, though. And historical.
Thank you for the tips on other series where setting plays a strong role. I'll add them to my "to read" list.
What made you write about ancient Japan? My dad was Air Force and I lived there during my junior high years.


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