‘Who, why and where?’ These, along with ‘when and how?’ are the boxes the investigator, be they amateur or professional, contemporary or historic, has to tick as solved to be able to reach a successful outcome to a case. Yet the ‘who, why and where’ are also important answers to the question ‘Why are crime novels so popular?’ The crime writer generally creates a detective or detectives, though I use the term to mean ‘the person who detects’ and not necessarily a police officer. They give the clues for the reader to follow, and build the world in which both the former exist. When the reader picks up the book they are given access to characters with whom they can form a bond, a puzzle to solve, and a world that is recognisable. At the same time it is one step removed from the everyday, mundane reality of life. This transcends the compartmentalising of crime fiction into police procedural, historic, whodunnit/whydunnit, even the legal crime novel.
Those who are hooked on the ‘who’ benefit from the fact that as writers, those of us who write crime like to work with those we know. Having formed our detective, hopefully more sculpted like Canova’s Three Graces than cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster, we set them off on a first investigation and begin to discover more about them in the process. This is psychologically interesting, since they are technically the inventions of our own minds. Are we therefore subconsciously as well as consciously creating things to discover? The one dimensional detective would be as useless as the clichéd chalk outline of the corpse on the floor. Fortunately, the writer is even more involved in their characters than the reader, and strives to peel back the onion layers of their detective’s personality. The detective thus achieves a reality, even though they remain without physical substance, which has the drawback that it is exceptionally hard to wave them goodbye, or bury them. On the positive side, the incentive to write another tale with them is enormous. I certainly miss Bradecote and Catchpoll if I leave them for too many months, and after over a decade with them, I know how they will react and interact without conscious thought. Assuming the quality of the writing is sound, the reader meets the character, who becomes an acquaintance, and then a friend. How often have readers bought the next book to see how that friend is getting along in life? I think the answer is ‘frequently’.
Sayers was accused of being ‘in love’ with Lord Peter Wimsey. If she was, then so also have been very many of her readers. The writer/detective relationship is naturally close, and I doubt one could keep writing someone whom one disliked or despised, though the closeness can pall, especially when the creation is considered much more important and interesting than the originator! If we want the reader to empathise with the detective we have to like them, or the core of them at the very least, even if we have given them flaws and foibles along the way.
Of course there are the ‘crossword clue’ readers, whose aim is to solve the case before the detective. It is a cerebral exercise, given spice by having someone else upon the scent, and wishing to get there first. For them the ‘why’ is key, but how much more satisfying it is to beat a clever detective than to simply work out how fast one reached the right conclusions as an abstract exercise. The convolutions must not defy logic, and the ‘rules’ of classic crime fiction must not be breached.
Finally there are those who read for the ‘ubi’, the ‘where’. For them the crime novel is another world in space or time to which they can transported without an old police box and an odd chap with a sonic screwdriver. The world may be in part geographical, but is more about sinking into the little details to the point where they can hear Peter Wimsey playing Bach, smell Brother Cadfael’s preparation simmering over his hearth, feel they know the contents of Miss Marple’s handbag, run a finger along the tops of the LPs in Morse’s record collection. For these readers the unfamiliar becomes familiar, though the world outside their windows might be Durban, Delhi, Dundee or Denver. Immersion is the key here. The reader is more than an observer, advances with the detective rather than hoping to outrun them, and takes pleasure from the environment, be it Poirot’s art deco glamour, mediaeval shires, or claustrophobic interview rooms.
Thus the crime novel appeals to a range of readers with different needs and objectives, though of course the reader who sits in the overlap of all three subsets of this Venn diagram, who can empathise, analyse and visualise, is in the perfect position to gain most from what the crime novelist has to offer.
Sarah Hawkswood is a military historian turned crime writer. She is the author of the Bradecote and Catchpoll series of 12th century murder
investigations, of which the first, The Lord Bishop’s Clerk, was publishedby The Mystery Press in November 2014. She describes herself as a
wordsmith who is only really happy when she has a work in progress, and surprisingly squeamish in real life for one who has long dealt with war
and murder. She lives in Worcestershire, and is married with two grown up children.
Read more about Sarah on her CRA profile