Out September 18th 2024

Why it’s Good to Read Crime Novels!

Have you ever feel guilty about taking time out to read a book? Forget it! Ignore your DIY, housework or gardening. Research show books lower BP and heart rates and reduce stress. There’s plenty of that about currently:  personal, political and planet-wise. But if  you escape into your book and read for t least two and a half hours a week, you can lengthen your life by two years. Scientists reckon reading is mental keep fit, exercising large areas of your brain while enabling you to ‘live’ in a written story, unlike TV Netflix binges or films which  are passive experiences using fewer brain segments. And they’ve also proved that reading actual physical books is better than electronic devices. They do help you sleep and retain what you’ve read. As we all suspected.

Furthermore, academics suggest they fulfil a psychological need. They’ve existed for a long time. Elders round campfires gave way to clay tablets, papyri and printed books. Hearing a parable or story was an efficient way to learn advantageous behaviours benefitting yourself or your community, proven more effective and less threatening than lectures. Besides, who doesn’t like being entertained, amused and thrilled by a story?

What books do we like best? Since Edgar Allan Poe’s iconic Murder in the Rue Morgue in 1840, we’ve increasingly turned to crime. Neilson Book Data reports that from 2013 -2022, crime & thriller formed 12% of print book purchases, a fifth of audiobooks and more than a third of e-books. In the UK, 40% of book buyers read crime & thriller books, 10% more than any other genre in the list. Women buy it most, especially true crime. Even non-fiction books by pathologists and forensic scientists like When the Dogs Don’t Bark by Prof Angela Gallop have been best sellers.

Why do we read crime?

Academics list several factors.

Puzzles. We like a puzzle, love guessing especially if proved right!

Good Overcomes Evil. We relish a villain’s comeuppance and justice being done.

Series. Though oft denigrated by critics, formulaic series are popular. In a bewildering world with thousands of titles, readers like the guarantee of familiar characters in familiar places solving crimes. Atmospheric settings appeal, like Italy (Michael Dibden) Northumberland (LJ Ross) and France (Martin Walker).

Death. Anthropologists believe humans are drawn to stories of blood, injury and death likely in order to understand what happened and how to avoid it. And remember, public executions once drew crowds!

Writers suggest other reasons. P.D. James? We like analysing psychological subtleties and ambiguous morals. HRF Keating? Crime books win by putting readers first: they entertain and are accessible. I agree with both, for though literary books are important,  sometimes what you want is not a gourmet meal but a box of chocs.

Though I’ve heard Iain Rankin say he hates his ‘crime writer’ label, others think the critical denigration that crime as a genre receives is akin to literary snobbery. Big prize shortlists rarely feature crime but to be honest, I’ve found many prize-winning novels way-out, weird, difficult to read or full of over analysis. Doubtless clever, but I need to be in the mood for endless philosophising on thoughts and emotions. I don’t find a six page analysis of one conversation without action diverting or relaxing. Sorry, Anne Tyler.

There are sub-genres in crime. Straight Detective novels have diverse protagonists like drunken sots, priests or nosy old ladies. Police Procedurals star professional detectives, though Line of Duty’s Jed Mercurio says most portray a false picture of police organisation and methods. It’s taken legs and become a trope of its own well beyond dramatic licence. Cosy Crime (Simon Brett, MC Beaton) is for the squeamish; the bloody murder has happened ‘off stage.’ Serial Killer novels have villains often categorised by their motives: thrill, power, elimination or delusion (that evangelical  psychotic visionary imagining he’s doing humanity a good turn). Not knowing this when I wrote my SK novel, Not The Deaths Imagined, my villain is a mish mash of all four! Then there’s Thriller/Mystery. I puzzle: how much danger and jeopardy do you need before a mystery becomes a thriller? But Tartan and Scandi Noir sub-genres are easier to accept and remind us setting can be a character in itself.

Crime writing has evolved since the Victorian Dostoevsky. The early twentieth century brought the hard-boiled macho tales of Dashiel Hammet, the thoughtful fiction of Raymond Chandler and the scientific Conan Doyle. By mid-century, international elements crept in with John Buchan and Alistair McLean. Scottish crime writers have been particularly prolific from William McElvaney onwards. Len Wanner’s book Tartan Noir is a masterly treatise on its development. Many books have ended up as films, but remember, best buy a book: watching doesn’t lengthen your life or make you recall the ending later (or is that just me?)

So, what makes a good crime novel? suggestions are legion. An empathic hero. Nowadays,  a strong female is good. Some romance, possibly? Lots of puzzles/red herrings, definitely. A notable detective back story,  sans cliched ‘troubled home life’. A satisfying end, despite creative writing classes favouring ambiguity. Good triumphing over Evil? Absolutely for me. And dare I mention, my latest seventies =medical crime mystery is available for pre-order now…

Yet, one man’s meat is another’s poison. Or dagger. Or gun. Or cliff to be pushed off…

Medicine, Money and Murder“, published by Sparsile Books, out Sept 18 2024,  ISBN  9781914399572.


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