When reviewers come across a particularly good crime novel, they like to say it “rises above the genre.” They mean to be complimentary of the author, but it’s really an insult to crime fiction, as though the genre was subpar and the writer was able to drag the story to a higher level.
What nonense. For me, crime novels offer some of the best reading on the market. I believe, as many crime writers and readers do, that our fiction confronts the realities of life, across various cultures, in both sensitive and thought-provoking ways.
Crime novels are particularly suited to exploring provocative social issues and showing those issues and attitudes from various perspectives. Some crime novels are often quite analytical about segments of our society such as illegal immigration, human trafficking, and drug use. Other stories highlight cultural and social ills, such as racism, sexism, bigotry, and the dangers of stereotypes. Crime novels let us see the world from perspectives that surprise us and make us think outside our comfort zones.
Crime fiction also offers a way to vicariously win the struggles between good and evil. We get to see the good guys win and the bad guys get what is coming to them. It doesn’t always work out that way in real life, so it’s important to our collective mental health to experience this triumph and justice in fiction and movies.
As crime writers and readers, we get to make sense of things that would otherwise haunt us. We learn why the family next door disappeared one day or what’s really going on in the creepy warehouse across the street. Sometimes that knowledge helps us sleep better and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least we learn one version of the truth.
Novels with well-written protagonists and antagonists bring us to terms with the duality within ourselves. Humans are all deeply flawed, with the capacity for great goodness as well as for deceit, jealousy, schadenfreude, addiction, selfishness, and often worse. When crime fiction heroes—detectives, FBI agents, and prosecutors—possess such flaws, we not only relate to those characters, we forgive ourselves for the same shortcomings. When a killer calls his mother or pets a stray dog, we hate him a little less and remember to look for good qualities in everyone.
Crime novels explore relationships in a way that few other genres can. What better mechanism to test a bond between husband and wife, parent and child, or lifelong friends than to embroil the relationship in a crime, either as victims, suspects, or perpetrators. Similar to natural disasters, the aftermath of a crime can bring out the best—or worst—in humans.
The genre is rich with possibilities for exploring the complexity of the human condition. Victims become predators; predators become victims. A person is guilty, but not in the way we’ve been led to believe. Most of all, crime fiction is full of surprises, and we readers love the unexpected.
Writing complex crime stories that live up to my own expectations—while entertaining readers— is the most challenging and satisfying work I’ve done.