Alec Marsh

Why we read crime fiction

There’s something deep in our psychology

  • From Spectator Life
David Suchet as Poirot (Acorn Media)

An exhibition dedicated to 20th century British crime fiction has opened at Cambridge University Library. The artefacts on show range widely through the history of the genre, from items associated Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle right up to modern exponents of the form, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. 

Lurking somewhere in many of us is the awful capacity to commit the worst of crimes

What’s surprising about the exhibition in a way is that it’s so relatively unusual – when, after all, was the last time you heard of a show dedicated to crime fiction? It remains the biggest seller by genre and continues to inspire some of the most popular television and film.

As I write, Ripley, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley starring Andrew Scott, is riding high on Netflix while over on Disney+ you can find Kenneth Branagh sporting the world’s most implausible moustache – more Forth Bridge than facial hair – in at least three big screen adaptions of Christie’s tales involving her Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. There’s confirmation that a new series of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels are to return to our screens, following previous serials starring John Hannah and Ken Scott.

Everywhere you turn, in fact, there’s crime fiction. If you were to consult a visiting anthropologist they might observe that crime is a national, perhaps international, obsession.

It’s not new – far from it. In his essay of 1946, The Decline of English Murder, George Orwell explored ‘the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public, the murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels and re-hashed over and over again by the Sunday papers’, and alighted on half a dozen or so cases which would still have resonance today. Motivated usually by sex or the desire to maintain social position – against impending penury or disgrace – and ‘in more than half the cases’ by the desire to secure a small sum of money, the murders usually involved poisoning and resulted in a crime that ‘can have dramatic and even tragic qualities which make it memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer’. 

Undoubtedly, we are drawn to the human complexity involved on both sides the grim bargain. Against this backdrop, then, one aspect of crime fiction that we clearly find appealing is the fact that it invariably concludes with a neat solution – unlike real life. That this solution is followed by a speedy resolution also adds enormously to the appeal, so rather than having to wait years for an inconclusive trial, we are rewarded with a timely a sense of justice done, perhaps even by the venal killer deliciously taking their own life before the state can take it from them. Or perhaps they simply live happily ever after… at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Speak to crime author Ian Rankin – recently knighted for services to literature and charity don’t forget – and he’ll tell you that he’s motivated to write about crime because he’s fascinating by trying to understand how evil operates and why people do bad things. I think it’s hard to argue with that when appreciating its appeal to readers, but it’s not quite the whole story. Because as well as seeking to explain evil acts by others, I believe crime fiction also speaks to the darkness in our own souls. Let’s face it, who among us hasn’t wanted to kill someone at some point – not seriously, of course, and only in passing, because we’re not psychopaths, but sure as eggs is eggs the base thought, the awful imperative has probably coursed through the cerebral cortex of most of our minds at least once or twice. 

Even to suggest it, I suspect, has brought the faces of those very people from your past – and I hope not your present – who might have inspired this dread impulse in you. Was it a school bully – leering as his elbow followed his unannounced right hook – a school master, perhaps, or an old boss, back from the days when they had free rein to be as psychologically abusive as they could possibly wish? Or was it the man in the Audi who almost ran you over on your bike this morning? Perhaps he’s the one who’d get your Strychchine.

Except it’s not allowed is it? Which is a good thing, of course, but that’s not to deny that the ghastly impulse is a fact of life, a genuine part of the human condition. Somewhere along our genetic line, we’ll all have killers and maybe those that have been killed too. Crime fiction offers a balm to our intrinsic animal selves; it might even allow us a certain vicarious schadenfreude. Instead of doing it, or even countenancing it, we can experience the ultimate illicit thrill of it and disapprove of it all at the same time.

If the dreadful idea has ever come to our own minds, then it’ll have come to the minds of others, perhaps even about us. In this way crime fiction speaks to our own vulnerability, too. No wonder people can’t get enough of it. What’s certain is that lurking somewhere in many of us is the awful capacity to commit the worst of crimes should the need – however ill-defined – arise. As Hercule Poirot muses in The Mysterious Affair Styes from 1920: ‘Instinct is a marvellous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.’ Quite right.