People who love to read have dozens of reasons for enjoying getting lost in a book. Sometimes it’s because the plot intrigues them. Sometimes it’s because they enjoy a particular topic like cooking, sports, birds or something else, and want to read about that topic. Or it could be because of that power books can have to teach us, take us on virtual trips all over the world, and introduce us to all sorts of memorable characters. What’s so interesting about crime fiction (after all, this is a blog about crime fiction…) is that it’s woven all through literature. You don’t have to have read a lot of Agatha Christie’s books to have read fiction that has to do with crime. No matter what your taste in books is, you’ll find at least hints of the mystery and suspense (and of course, the criminal activity) that make for quality crime fiction.
For example, one very popular genre of fiction is science fiction. Science fiction lovers may not think they’d like crime fiction, but there are some fine crime fiction novels that are also science fiction stories. For example, Isaac Asimov’s Elijah “Lije” Baley/R. Daneel Olivaw series takes place on a futuristic Earth (mostly in what we know now as New York City). Many of the fascinating questions that science fiction readers like to ponder are addressed in this series (e.g. What will the future be like? What would it be like if positronic robots were integrated into society? What kinds of scientific and technological developments could there be?) And yet, this series is a crime fiction series. It features a human police detective (Baley) and his positronic sleuthing partner (Olivaw) who investigate murders. They follow leads, collect evidence, make sense of clues, and search for motives, just like many other sets of fictional detectives.
People who enjoy reading about sport and athletes might say they don’t enjoy mysteries and crime fiction. But crime fiction is woven into that genre, too. For instance, many of Harlan Coben’s novels feature Myron Bolitar, a former basketball star who’s been sidelined because of an injury. He becomes an agent, and later an investigator. In the earlier Bolitar novels in particular, we see the same themes that make other sports novels appealing to their fans. There are larger topics such as the nature of competition, the roles of men and women in sports, greed, the passion and tenacity that it takes to be great, and more. There’s also interesting information about sport itself. The same is true of Dick Francis’ horse racing-themed novels. And yet, these novels are crime fiction novels. They focus on crimes (mostly murder) and their detection, and feature a lot of the elements in other crime fiction novels.
Many people enjoy reading about history. And there are some highly talented authors of historical fiction. For instance, there’s James Michener, whose historical novels have taken readers from Hawai’i to the Middle East to Poland (and many other places, too). For history buffs, authors such as Michener and Edward Rutherfurd provide delightful journeys into the past. And yet, there are plenty of elements of crime fiction in those novels as well. There are several sections in Michener’s and Rutherfurd’s work (to take just those two examples) in which someone is killed or other crimes are committed. And a good part of what keeps readers turning pages during those sections is finding out whodunit and whydunit.
There are also those who like to read romance novels. For romance fans, there’s nothing like getting caught up in the drama of falling in love, working through misunderstandings, learning to know each other, and the suspense of “will-they-or-won’t-they.” And of course, the attraction at the heart of these novels also draws readers in. Romance lovers may not think of themselves as crime fiction readers, but at times, they are. For instance, Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor and LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory both involve crimes. In the former, Nicholas Stafford has been unjustly convicted of treason and needs the help of Douglass Stafford to clear his name. In the latter, Will Parker, who has a criminal past, falls in love with Eleanor “Ellie” Dinsmore. Their plans are complicated not only by Parker’s criminal reputation, but also by a blackmailer. There are a lot of other examples, too. These are romance novels, so the focus of the stories is the developing relationship between two people. But they also have plenty of crime fiction elements. And I’m sure you could name far more novels than I could in which a developing romance plays a role in a novel that’s mostly about a crime and its investigation.
Many, many readers are drawn to what’s often called “great literature.” They enjoy the work of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, James Joyce and other writers who are known for their literary greatness. If you ask those readers whether they like crime fiction, you’d probably get plenty who’d tell you, “no.” But the fact is, there’s plenty of murder, mayhem and other crime in literary novels. For instance, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is considered one of the truly excellent examples of English-language literature. Gabriel García Márquez’ Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) is regarded as a fine example of Latin American Spanish-language literature. Both authors use very highly-regarded literary styles (although those styles are quite different), and both are often named among the top writers in their languages. And yet, those novels focus on crime and mystery. Rebecca is, among many other things, the unfolding story of the death of Rebecca de Winter, who died under mysterious circumstances. Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada tells of the murder of Santiago Nasar. There are plenty of other examples, too, from other truly great writers (“The Scottish Play,” anyone?). And of course, there are many crime fiction writers whose work is also highly regarded as literary fiction (Peter Temple, anyone? P.D. James?). It really doesn’t take much looking to see that crime fiction and “great literature” have affected each other.
I could mention lots of other kinds of fiction that integrates crime, mystery and suspense. The fact is that many of the elements that make up a good crime story aren’t that different from the elements that make up any other excellent story. There’s an engaging and absorbing plot, appealing characters (or at least interesting and intriguing ones), solid writing style and a setting and context that adds to the story. Crime fiction, like other fine fiction, is about believable people facing challenges (in crime fiction’s case, crime). Like other fiction, it’s about how those conflicts are resolved. No wonder crime fiction is so appealing, even to those who don’t think they like it.
What about you? Which novels and authors do you recommend when friends and relations tell you they don’t like crime fiction? If you’re a writer, how do you make your work appealing to those who may not have tried crime fiction, or who may think they don’t like it?
On a Related Note….
It’s National Book Week, and today is National Book Lovers Day. What better way to celebrate than to try a new book or author…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Gumboots.