Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why do I write crime fiction?

During a recent panel on crime fiction a member of the audience asked why we wrote crime fiction. She pointed out that all three of us on the panel disliked violence and yet we chose to write about it. Why were we writing crime fiction if we disliked violence so much? I’ve been asked this question a number of times, but never quite in this manner.

I sometimes think the answer it that crime fiction addresses the central concern of our times, but
this can't be accurate. Life in the current time is far less violent than during other periods in our history. Children can't be spanked, wives can't be beaten, animals can't be beaten, and entire minority communities can't be burned to the ground with impunity. In many cities and towns I can walk home from work on safe streets late at night. But yes, many of us still face violence in our working and private lives. But it's nothing like in previous decades and centuries. Perhaps, then, we write about crime because in fact we experience little of it and we want to explore the issues surrounding violence. I don't have the answer, but I do have a number of reasons for choosing to write in this genre, and here are some of them. I’m sure there are more.

First, crime fiction, either the traditional mystery or noir or thriller or spy story, has a steady, ever growing audience, and new books are sure to find at least some audience. There’s nothing wrong with writing to be read, and crime fiction is sure to be read. The audience is a community of readers who share interests, and their enthusiasms for their favorite authors can be an added bonus for the writer.

Second, anyone who wants to write fiction can explore several different genres or make up one. The traditional mystery can bring together Jane Austen and zombies, and Sherlock Holmes can retire and marry and carry on as he will. Anything is possible. If nothing else, crime fiction has enormous flexibility and an open-endedness that other genres can only envy.

Third, crime fiction offers a format, or formula if you prefer, that guides the writer from beginning to end, ensuring if nothing else that digressions are limited and the end will bear some relationship with the beginning. Not always true in non-genre fiction.

Fourth—and this is one reason that really matters to me—crime fiction challenges the writer to confront larger issues and grapple with them. In this genre, however broadly defined, characters must reveal themselves, and the writer’s views on crime and responsibility must make sense or the novel fails. Here is where we examine and explore issues that matter in the larger scheme of our lives. Do we really believe in justifiable homicide, or is every unnatural death a crime? Do we admit that sometimes our efforts at justice fall short, or do we admit that a system of justice created by flawed human beings will in turn be flawed? How do we feel about our current justice system? Where do we see weak spots? What is our responsibility as members of a civil society?

Each writer will begin a novel with a separate question in mind, and sometimes I won’t even recognize what the question is until I am well into the story. I discover that part of the novel just as I discover the story and the world of the characters. But I follow along to explore and learn. And then I put the characters into a position in which they must confront their own values and beliefs.

Fifth, and last, is one reason that cannot be ignored. Writing crime fiction is fun. This is the only time when the voice of reason will prevail. No writer will deny the pleasure to be derived from shaping the world according to her own values and then explaining it in a rational way.

The Anita Ray series takes me to India, where Anita confronts the ever-threatening conflict between tradition and modernity. She gets to go places and do things that I can only experience on the periphery. Her Auntie Meena is always fun. But in the next mystery, WhenKrishna Calls, Auntie Meena is almost done in.

Writing about sailing in the seventh Joe Silva/Mellingham mystery was almost (almost) as good as being out on the water. In Come About for Murder, Joe teaches his stepson to sail, and Philip loves it.

Those are my reasons for writing (and reading) crime fiction. What are yours?


  1. Great post Susan!
    I could not do what you're doing.
    Good luck and God's blessings.

  2. Thanks, Pam. I can't do what you're doing either. Thanks for posting.

  3. A thoughtful, reflective article, Susan. There is much variety in style, theme and character in crime fiction. Much of the best fiction is written in this genre. I think this is why it tops the bestseller list a good part of the time. I write in many different styles and genres, but I enjoy reading and writing crime fiction as well.

  4. I agree that some of the best fiction being written today is crime fiction. I especially like the variety to be found in this genre. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Despite our repugnance for the reality, crime, and especially murder, have fascinated mankind since the beginning of recorded time. In writing about it, we can explore all kinds of psychological and practical motivations. And, as you point out, writing crime fiction is fun.

  6. Well put, John. Thanks for broadening my perspective.