Both Ian Rankin and Stephen King have made the point (‘though in different ways) that, among other things, writing helps to exorcise those fears and personal demons that plague just about all of us. And certainly writing can be very cathartic. That’s part of why so many people keep journals.
It’s possible that reading crime fiction can be cathartic, too. There are, of course, many reasons people read crime fiction. One of them might be that it lets us face some of our fears and darker thoughts in a very safe way. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if you look at some of the topics and themes in the genre, you certainly see that it addresses some of our deepest fears.
For example, people are social creatures. We need to depend on each other. That’s especially true for people in our ‘inner circles.’ And that’s why we’re perhaps most vulnerable to family members, partners and close friends. Stories that address that fear quite possibly give us a safe outlet for thinking about it. And there are plenty of them.
Novels such as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and even Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives explore this sort of fear. In all of them (and many others, too, that I haven’t mentioned), the plot raises the question of how well we really know even those closest to us. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one example of a film that does the same thing. Such stories touch a raw nerve for a lot of people, and bring that fear out into the open.
Along with that is the fear many people have of being outcasts. Most of us don’t mind having our own little quirks and eccentricities, but we still want to be accepted and included. Plenty of crime fiction novels address that deep-seated need we have to belong.
We see this sort of fear in novels such as Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Wendy James’ The Mistake. In all of these stories (and plenty of others), part of the plot involves a character who is made a social pariah. That experience adds tension to the stories. But it also speaks to a deeply human fear of being all alone in the world, and the target of others’ contempt (or worse).
One of the biggest fears people have is the fear that they might be mentally ill – that their sanity is slipping away. When some people say, ‘Am I crazy?’ it’s because they want reassurance that others feel the same way, or saw/heard the same thing, or have the same perception. The alternative – questionable sanity – is so deeply frightening that it’s difficult to really comprehend.
Several crime novels address this fear, too. One of the main characters in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, for instance, starts to doubt her sanity when she begins to have a sense of déjà vu – about a house she doesn’t ever remember visiting before. And the protagonist in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is slowly losing a battle with dementia. Since that story is told in first person, readers get a strong sense of what it’s like to feel that one’s losing touch with reality. We also see this sort of fear addressed and explored in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson is in his eighties, and has developed short-term memory problems. So he keeps a notebook in which he records everything that happens, so that he’ll be able to recall it later.
It’s hard to imagine a worse nightmare for a caring parent than the loss of a child. That may be particularly true in cases of abduction, where parents don’t know what happened to their child. That makes it even harder to come to terms with the loss.
I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, in the last few decades, there’ve been several books in which authors address that awful possibility. Just a few examples are William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, and Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. There are others, too, of course, many more than I have space for in this one post. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has been explored quite a lot in recent years. And, like our other deep, dark fears, it’s in part a way to explore that darkness in a safe way – a way that allows us to keep our distance, as it were.
These certainly aren’t the only truly dark fears that people have. And it might be the case that crime fiction allows those demons to be called out and sent off in a way that doesn’t do damage. It certainly lets authors flush them out.
What do you think? Do you find it cathartic to read crime fiction? If you’re a writer, do you think people write to let out the demons? I’d be really interested in your opinions.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Spy.