Unraveling the Mystery of Crime Readers
Crime readers don’t like crime at all. What they like is justice…
Item: A well-dressed woman sips tea—one fashionable leg crossed over the other, a heeled shoe bouncing on her toe—as she casually reads about the coroner extracting seaweed from the rotting flesh of a bloated corpse too long submerged beneath the icy waters of the North Sea. Strange, the woman thinks, that only his index fingers are missing.
Item: On a train in New York, a fashionable Brooklynite picks at his oatmeal muffin as he reads about folding the remains of a real estate agent into a giant mint-green beer cooler so she won’t decompose on the murderer’s ride across the desert. Why, thinks the introverted hipster, did he opt for one big cooler rather than cut her in half and use two smaller ones? Easier to fit in the car, cheaper to buy, lighter to carry. “That’s what I would have done,” he thinks.
Crime readers are everywhere, in every country, finding calm sanctuary in the blood, guts, mayhem, chaos, cruelty, sadism, and general nastiness of modern crime fiction.
It’s not unreasonable to pause and wonder about you.
Scary, sure. But not unreasonable.
I have decided that I can and will do this, right here, right now. I have the chops because I am an intrepid crime writer. It’s true that I am not exclusively a crime writer—my novels and genres shift around—but you’re not exclusively crime readers either so I think it’s fair game.
Being a bona fide crime writer (with novels and awards and such) means I have met other crime writers and crime readers and, having been in the game for a while, I think I now have enough miles under my belt to step back and reflect on the greatest mystery of crime writing: a mystery right in front of our noses whenever we look in the mirror. Yes, dear readers, I mean you. Because there is something off about you people.
This is easy to deduce because it has the same characteristics as any other mystery: the facts don’t line up, and yet the conclusion is inviolate.
Here are some of the facts that don’t seem to align that make you all curious to me.
- You don’t simply like crime novels; you love them. I said before that you probably read other things too, but the numbers say that those of you who read crime novels read a lot of them. Crime, thriller, and mystery books are the top-selling or most loved genre, depending on how you count things. Readers don’t simply pick them up from time to time; they gobble them up and then, with the tree pulp still frothing in their mouths, they dive in for more. It’s borderline obsessive with some of you and it’s a little creepy.
- Crime writers, whom I’ve met at festivals and publisher events, are some of the nicest people in the world. They really are; I’m not being sarcastic. They’re laid back, unpretentious, easy to talk to, welcoming of new people, happy to buy a round and forget about it, and they like to ask questions and talk about things rather than hold court and talk about themselves. Aside from the fear of the axes and knives, these are people you’d want to go camping with.
- Crime readers aren’t so bad either, frothing mouths notwithstanding. Sure, there are always some deep-down-whacko fans out there with that wide-eyed gleam in their too-close-together eyes who stalk writers on social media (“Could you sign this piece of paper five times, please?”). But they don’t coagulate around crime fiction per se. Most often, I’ve met very down-to-earth, educated, relaxed, often charming people who—for some reason, and now we’re getting to it—just feel better after reading about the solution of a grisly murder.
So … really … what’s going on here?
Here’s my working hypothesis (the Miller Hypothesis, if you like). It isn’t really a conclusion or a law because I’m still kicking the tires on this one. I warn you it’s a bit radical and it goes like this: crime readers don’t like crime at all. What they like is justice.
Some of us, I believe, feel the power of justice and the iniquity of injustice more than other people do. No, I’m not a psychologist but I think we can probably get behind that assertion because, as Bob Dylan said, “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”
When I say feel it, I mean it quite literally. I think the achievement of justice in the face of injustice actually goes directly to our limbic systems and gives us a feeling of contentment that borders on spiritual ease. If that resolution is good enough, we can experience a moment of grace—the same one we feel when returning to the tonic in music, the stillness when the guns fall silent, the calm after the storm.
If I’m right, it accounts for why nice people read horrible stories. It’s not for the stories. It’s for what the stories produce.
This hypothesis—as are all good hypotheses—is falsifiable. If you want to test it, here are some questions to pursue (I’m busy writing novels):
- It stands to reason that stories where justice is delivered will be better loved (e.g., popular, purchased, positively reviewed) than justice denied. Is this true? If so, it strengthens the argument and if not, it weakens it.
- Crime readers should be expected to like other crime readers because they’re all turned on by the same stuff. Given time and circumstances, they’ll produce new crime readers, which is fine with me because I produce their drug of choice.
- The passion for justice found in crime readers should be observable and measurable in other aspects of their lives because that feeling can be found elsewhere too.
What’s off about us, in this final analysis, is the intensity of pleasure we have as a community in seeing the world made whole again. The solution to the mystery is found— not in more facts—but in a new appreciation of the phenomenon itself: namely, to feel the achievement of the resolution, you first need the disruption. We as readers and people who feel this have no choice but to face the chaos and horror so that, ultimately, we can be rewarded by a world restored, if only for a moment and if only in our dreams.