Why Do We Read Violent Crime?

A number of authors have become as much renowned for the bloodiness of their stories as for the twists in their plots. But just what attracts us to these grisly novels and why do people choose to read violent crime?

Violent crime and horror books have a lot in common. Both can be challenging reads, testing the reader’s boundaries as much as their stomach. In addition, crime novels are also heavily focused on plot: who did it and why? Often with violent crime, we are asking how they did it and with how much blood… Unlike horror films, books are in one sense distancing us from gruesome events, as you are reading words and not seeing the images, but in another sense they become that bit more personal as you are complicit in creating the horrific experience. It is the thrill of being shocked that attracts many readers to the genre and it is one that is rooted in our own society.

Many crime novels are using violence as a way of analysing current issues or concerns in society around us. A number of the Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels use violence as a metaphor for the deterioration of society as a whole. Sidetracked deals with the seedier side of Swedish society, with human trafficking, self-immolation and victims who are scalped by a young boy with a psychosis.  The Fifth Woman investigates what might happen if a female killer took the law into her own hands, murdering to punish male abusers. In an interview with The Telegraph, Mankell describes how he wanted to use his detective for good: “Wallender was born in May 1989 out of a need to talk about xenophobia. So the story came first, then him,” he says. “I was writing the first novel out of anger at what was happening in Sweden at the time – the rise of xenophobia. That was my ambition. And, since acts of xenophobia are a crime, I needed a police officer. Even after the second and third books, I really wasn’t thinking of a series. Then I realised I was creating a tool that could be used to tell stories about the situation in Sweden in the Nineties.”

Ian Rankin suggests that what draws people to crime fiction is its capacity to explore and to allow the reader to conduct their own investigations into themselves. In the Edinburgh Review he wrote that “what interests me is the soul of the crime novel – what it tells us about humanity, what it is capable of discussing. […] We are all inquisitive and curious animals – crime fiction touches this deep need to both ask questions to get answers”.

In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo this concept is taken much further; it starts as a slow-moving detective story but ends with scenes of graphic violence. Larsson laces the fiction with genuine figures relating to violent crimes against women in Sweden, explaining how the fictional Salander, whose own civil rights are taken away, is based on real events. Larsson deliberately destroys the image that the rest of the world may have about Sweden, of Ikea and Abba, and presents a much darker version, a movement begun in 1968 by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo with the Martin Beck series.  In these dark worlds, by solving the crime the detective is in effect saving society and can be read as the triumph of intellect over primitive instinct. It is satisfying to read about the police, a private eye or your average person on a mission getting the bad guy in the end. In real life, we often hear about endless amounts of crime, but very little sense of resolution. At least in fiction we get an ending in which the villain gets what he deserves. 

Some novels complicate matters further with multiple perspectives of the characters making it hard to judge who is ‘guilty’. Of course, in the end, it often becomes clear, but there can be complicated questions about the ‘guiltiness’ of criminals.  In Out by Natsuo Kirino, the reader automatically roots for the women covering up the murder of a gambling philandering husband, even as they dismember his body in a bathtub. Even the police sometimes stray over the line into the dark – Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole has addictions to drugs, cigarettes, violence, women and alcohol which can leave him battling to stay on the side of the good. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter takes this further with mind games between predator and prey, except with ambiguity about which person is which. We are left rooting for Dexter as he does the dirty work of those that have evaded society’s form of justice and adopts his own.

So it seems that violent crime novels can offer us the thrill of the chase as society’s issues are assessed, all with a promise of a potentially satisfying resolution. For once, those grisly murders might not seem so dark after all…

This article originally appeared on Waterstones.

Robert Chilver – @robchilver