I've Got a Question for You—

Today, several of my co-workers tried to engage me in a conversation about the sick screenplays of the VA Tech killer posted on aol.com, hoping I might shed some light (from an author's perspective) on what would make this person tick. (Yeah, right. Like I've got some special 3-D glasses to interpret the ranting of a mad man.)

It's true, when I write fictional characters, I delve into the deviant mind and try to adapt a specific villain as a foil to my hero/heroine. But for me, the wounds of VA Tech are too fresh. I write murder & mayhem for a living now. I think I'll sit this one out, thank you very much.

I've tried to distance myself from this latest mass murderer—not wanting to give his life a higher and undeserved priority than the poor victims in this case. So to distract myself from these horrific and sad events—and yet work along the fringes of it—I wanted to ask you a question. Many of you are readers of crime fiction. I certainly am. For the purposes of this discussion, I'd like to define crime fiction as mysteries, suspense thrillers, true crime books, etc.

Why do we read crime fiction?

Personally, I'm a voracious reader and although my shelves are crammed with an assortment of many types of books, I still gravitate to the suspense thrillers and crime fiction. So to answer the question for me, I think I read them for the suspense factor, certainly. There's an undeniable rush of adrenaline when I read these types of books. And I've lost hours of sleep too.

But I also read them to see the world righted again. And I like the mental stimulation of crime solving, especially when forensics are part of the investigation. Although I don't need a tidy ending to the stories I read, the good guy generally prevails and the world is restored after the villain is caught and punished. Real life isn't always wrapped up so neatly and well ordered.

But what do you think? Why do you read crime fiction? Do you think books allow us to feel more in control because in a fictional world, wrongs can be righted with more certainty than real life?

Jordan Dane


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I recall that, at first, I, and perhaps many other lovers of crime fiction, was interested in finding out "whodunit," that is, who committed the crime, the murder, how the clues were followed and the prepetrator revealed. In other words, to follow the puzzle as the pieces fell into place. But later, and to this day, the things that keep me reading crime fiction are similar to any kind of quality fiction: an imaginative plot idea, strong, memorable characters, effective pacing, evocative dialogue and settings, and finally an author's distinctive voice and style. The desire to see the wrongs of the world put aright might be a deep-seated attraction for some readers, but I can't say it is among my criteria in deciding what to read.
As I read your response, I wondered how my own reading interest has been affected by my knowledge of the craft of writing. The best stories are the ones that I'm drawn into so strongly that I forget about craft. As an author, I certainly see behind the curtain of Oz now, but when I find that author who makes me forget I'm not in Kansas anymore, I've usually found a real gem.
What Alan said.

I don't read for the puzzle element but I find that crime fiction DOES have a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than endless angst and navel gazing. There's usually some sort of resolution - I don't mean a happy ending, but usually something. Plus it usually shows characters at an extraordinary point in their lives, how their lives are affected, and how they cope with the situation.
I LOVE that you brought up that the characters are put into such extraordinary circumstances that they are stripped bare of all pretense and they're true nature comes through. I believe I'm not as brave as the characters I write (although I'd like to think so), but by writing about these extraordinary events, I can explore the highs and the lows of the human condition from a safe perspective.
Like Donna, I enjoy the clarity of crime fiction. I may not be able to predict the outcome--in fact it's best when I can't--but I can follow the clues well enough that the ending satisfies--whether it's happy, sad, or neutral. I like the fact that every sentence of a crime novel serves a purpose: to establish a tone, reveal character, build suspense, etc.

I also like the series familiarity that develops in genre series but seldom in literary fiction.
One of my favorite authors is Robert Crais. I think when he first wrote The Monkey's Raincoat, he probably had in mind a smart mouthed, wise-cracking PI and a colorful story. But Crais nurtured his lead character Elvis Cole (in time over the series) into a much deeper characterization with a backstory to justify his endearing nature. I don't know if an author can see that far down the road to know this was his plan from the start of that series, but I like to think Crais is brilliant. Therefore, it must be true.
Cole certainly seems more grown-up since L.A. REQUIEM, but I don't know that Crais's characterization of him has improved. With the multiple-viewpoint storytelling in Crais's books since REQUIEM, some of the fun of being in Elvis's head is lost. Seen from multiple angles, there's less opportunity to empathize with Elvis and he becomes a bit larger than life. There's a tonal difference, for example, between Elvis calling himself a stud and Carol Starkey fantasizing about him.

I think it would be neat if Crais returned to the traditional first-person P.I. perspective now and then, as Lee Child has done with Jack Reacher.
I read it for the confirmation of how I view the world. Pretty sad, but there it is. I read maybe 60% crime, 40% literary and the crime half rings a lot truer to me that the lit half.
If you and I were sitting discussing this over coffee (or stronger), I'd want to know more. How do you select a book off the shelf? Do you filter the bookjacket content by your worldview to make that selection? I think this is an interesting perspective and I'd love to hear more.
All crime fiction confirms my world view, I guess. That life is sordid, people are selfish and narcissistic, crime is rampant, politicians and the police are corrupt, happiness is fleeting and arbitrary, Almost all crime fiction speaks to this view. It's the redemption that sometimes occurs in life and art that makes it bearable.
I don't know if I agree with you. I read crime fiction for the opposite reason, I guess. Crime fiction tells me, for the most part, that no matter how down and dirty the world gets, for the most part, people still have to answer for their actions. Justice may be blind and not terribly swift, but she gets there eventually and on time (if you know that meaning of the phrase).
LOVED your comment. It makes me think about the balancing game you play when you write--does character become the most important factor or does plot? I've had people tell me that because I love a fast pace and intricate plot that I must be a plot driven writer. But compelling characters can really drive a good plot too and I think of each component as invaluable. Thanks so much for stirring up my juices, my friend.


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