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

www.jordandane.com

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I hate those sorts of questions - as there's an obvious sub-text. Oh you read about people killing other people, how sick are you....

The crime fiction that appeals to me says something about the human condition or it entertains or it enlightens ......... sometimes it puts the worlds to right, but better still, it highlights something in the world that could stand a good long look.
In an author's world, everything is fascinating. No sub-text here. I've become more of an observer and listener. So in your comment, if I'm understanding correctly, you're suggesting the theme an author selects might appeal to you--ie. shedding light on the horror of human trafficking, for example. (And the author's worldview that comes across in his/her writing on the subject.)

If I was worried about what people might think of me because I READ about crimes and killing people, what do you think they'd imagine if I WROTE about it. :)

I'm sure I'm on some watch list for the FBI with all my emails on how to get away with murder, blood splatter analysis, weapons and how to make a pipe bomb. Yeah, I'm sure I've made the list.
Sorry - I meant that the subtext of the people asking the questions - frequently there is an implication from the questioner who wants to know why on earth you'd want to read "that" sort of book.

Authors are and should be free to write about whatever fascinates them - and that theme may affect a reader's decision to pick up the book. But better still - the theme, as distasteful as some of them can be, can shed that light that you mention - can incorporate their world view. And that's the part of reading crime fiction that appeals, it's more than just storytelling (although that's obviously a major element), there's conclusions, there's views, there's reactions within the story and there's something in the way that an author tells that story that can enlighten.

I personally love watching strangers browsing the bookshelves around here - their facial expressions when they realise the great bulk of the titles can be hysterical :)

But then I'm also inclined to answer the question "why do you read crime fiction" with "research" more often than not - particularly if I think the questioner's trying to get up my nose.
LOL---I actually did something like this to someone today. An old boss asked me if I used him in my murder plot (him thinking I might write him as a dashing hero). I jokingly told him he'd more than likely be the putrified corpse. Then I looked him straight in the eye and added, "And I know how to get rid of the body so no one would find you."

He walked away...quickly. (I love messing with people.)
I read crime fiction constantly, and I'm one of those poor unfortunates who is compelled to finish even a really bad book. But I can see what my reasons and my tastes are by looking at the books I keep, and those are titles with memorable characters (not necessarily the good guys), intriguing settings, good writing (and here I mean good use of the language as well as paragraph structure) and topics that interest me. I find many of those same qualities in other kinds of fiction, and I read that, too, but I enjoy the puzzles. And there is always the chance to live in the skin of someone who leads a more exciting life than a librarian.
But you're a librarian on constant vacation, by the looks of your pic. Nothing boring there. I've gotten a little mercenary about reading. If I don't like a book about half way thru, I don't finish it. I never used to be that way. There's was a pride thing with finishing it and keeping it on my shelves. But as an author, we get many many books to read from every conference. One of my biggest issues is research on the police procedural or forensics. I usually try to research all I can from several sources, including a real person in the field, with each book. It makes my life more interesting too. I've trained with my local cop shop and gone on ride-alongs and out to the firing range with them to blow up stuff with the bomb squad. So if I find I'm wasting time reading a book that wasn't researched well, then I put it down gently and with much respect, but it's not for me.
I read crime/mystery fiction because it is the content which intrigues me the most. It is hard to describe specific reasons--its just what I'm drawn to as a reader. I become very excited and even euphoric when I'm reading something to me that is both good crime writing, and just incredible writing in general Like David Crobetts The Devil's Redhead. Robert Crais, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly--just a few names of authors who have done it so well for so long and are still going strong, They have set the path for crime fiction today and it is their successful formula that keeps me coming back for more. The formula is easy: wonderful writing + good crime+ intriguing protagonist. Seems simple, but so often, many writers miss the mark in my opinion. Damn I love this stuff!!

Gumshoe Carl
I hear ya. Once I discovered Crais, I went back and read all his inventory. And as his Elvis Cole series progressed, you can see his growth as an author in the dept of his characterization. And his writing style with his narratives keep me reading too. I also had the pleasure this week to listen to Sue Grafton and it reinforces why I'm hooked on her too. And for me, reading Michael Connelly is like slipping into my most comfortable sweats. You sink into the luxury of a good crime novel and the world stops. Love it.
This was asked on DorothyL in 2005, and again recently. When it came up again I recalled the original discussion, and found I still had my original post. It still reflects much about my interest in crime fiction. I think it explains why I'm a procedural junkie and, although I do read from a wider pool than that alone, procedurals will always be my mainstay, I think.

**
For me, there are several reasons. I'm not just interested in the crime and the victim and the chase, but also the impact that crime has on society as a whole. I'm interested in how one act can be like dropping a rock in the water and cast a thousand ripples out to shatter the calm in all directions.

In a way, it goes to the heart of some of my issues with the education system and modern parenting. After working with children for years, both in homes, in schools and in private centers, the one consistent thing I see that's having a devastating impact on our society is the lack of personal responsibility. Nothing is anyone's fault anymore. I worked with a child in one center where the rule was that children couldn't be asked to apologize. Since we couldn't make them feel sorry, we weren't to ask them to apologize to anyone for anything they did. And so new generations are being conditioned to not only do whatever they want, but not concern themselves with the impact to others because there are no repercussions.

I guess after a few specific experiences of working with future psychos who've already been diagnosed with severe personality disorders I felt like reading about justice. Wandered over to the mystery section, pulled a book off the shelf, glanced at the back, bought the book and have been addicted to Ian Rankin ever since. It's all his fault.

I don't necessarily need a resolution, a captured killer in the end. I'm more interested in the posing of questions, in analyzing an issue and seeing the impact of the crime on the protagonist and people connected to the victim. Brilliant TV to me is The Wire. Absolutely loved Laura Lippman's To The Power of Three. Fundamentally, I like books that make me think about issues and crime fiction has relevance. Its sort of a window into the soul of society. Whether we like to think about it or not, we all pay higher insurance premiums because of theft or have to take certain security precautions because of fraud and we walk just a little bit quicker when we're alone on the street at night. Crime affects us all, even if we aren't the direct victim.

And I must say that the more crime books I read, the more I appreciate reading a great story. There are some great authors in the crime genre who consistently deliver gripping stories about characters I can connect with and they keep me coming back for more.
**

I lean more character-driven, issues-oriented.
Man, you are dead on with this post. I was talking about this with co-workers today, especially in light of the recent shootings at VA Tech. The ripple effect of taking those lives. The loss of that potential.

And that lack of personal responsibility is an issue I could talk about, but that's a whole 'nother post. Thanks for posting this.
Well I think you said it in your initial post, 2nd to last paragraph.

For me I find that crime/mystery fiction is the closest thing to the "real world" in fiction. It deals with things we all see everyday, more so than SciFi or Fantasy. With SciFi or Fantasy you can bring things back into the "real world" like heroism or whatever. With Crime/Mystery fiction it's already there. I'm still a fan of SciFi and Fantasy.

I like to get to know unique people (characters). I like to feel like I know their neighborhood like I've been there. I like to be able to go through the events and experiences of their lives and feel like I learned something from it. Good Crime fiction does that.

I once asked a mystery Author if she felt that every mystery novel *had* to have a murder in it in order to make it a mystery. Would another crime do?

I think righting wrongs is an important part of this as we like to feel that we, or more actually the characters, are gaining control over the world that may seem like it is spiraling out of control. Like 9/11 or Virgina Tech...
All fiction is something of an escape from reality. Because it appears so close to reality, it's easier for me to leap to crime fiction than to science fiction/fantasy. Once there I can, in Richard Slotkin's words, "play imaginatively at being both policeman and outlaw." For most people, imaginative play doesn't cross into reality; empathizing with a fictitious criminal doesn't drive them to commit crime.

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