The hype is real: True crime is more popular than ever, whether as a podcast, reportage, magazine, or docuseries. The desire for crime and entertainment through (fictitious) criminal cases has always been suitable for everyday use, especially in the form of crime novels. But where does the love of crime fiction come from and why do readers of crime novels feel so attracted and well entertained? This question can certainly be answered from several angles and with the help of different branches of science. In the following, I would like to approach the topic with a literary consideration and make a comparison to other genres.
Escape from reality as a reading intention – crime and fantasy
Why do we like to read crime novels? While fantasy literature is sooner or later (usually earlier and often pejoratively) assumed to have the function of escapism (which of course is not tenable, because how could a story, even if it is the best fantasy story in the world, cause the same reaction in every reader), the reasons for the preference for crime fiction are less often asked.
Escapism, i.e. escape from reality, is favored by the often dazzlingly colorful fantasy worlds equipped with supernatural elements. In addition, the escapist moment of fantasy can also be based on an archaic setting. Here the desire for a simpler life is conveyed or the possibility of a different kind of reality.
The question of “What if …”
The question of “What if …”, which increasingly appears in another genre of fantastic literature, namely science fiction, is what many fantasy authors ask (and answer) in their novels. What if people lived on a planet other than Earth? Would the living conditions be different, and would society, life, and people be changed? Maybe even better?
“It doesn’t have to be the way it is.” Ursula K. Le Guin named this in her essay of the same name the most important statement of fantasy. And yet a world design (e.B. a secondary world) has a different effect on each receiving individual and could never cause an escape from the reality of the entire readership. All too real, on the other hand, is depicted in crime novels and yet this genre enjoys great popularity. Tolkien names escape as one of the four functions of fantasy, but by this, he means less the escape from reality than the resistance to the everyday. The escape is to be understood in the fulfillment of longings through the worlds depicted in fantasy.
Crime novels exert a special fascination with Enlightenment: Another function of fantasy, according to Tolkien, is comfort, and that is through a happy outcome. For the rescue from seemingly hopeless situations, he coined the term ‘EU catastrophe’. Applied to the crime novel, this could be interpreted as the investigation of a crime or even the rescue of a victim. The investigating characters take on the role of heroes and rescuers. Their struggle against injustice and their revenge for inflicted suffering, partly culminate in the abandonment of their own private lives (Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck, Stephen King’s Bill Hodges and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar are only the ones that come to mind spontaneously), are their Herculean task. Do Krimilesers find peace of mind knowing that there are heroines and heroes who fight tirelessly for good? Because even if they do not always act in accordance with applicable law, they always strive to stand up for the good and of course act with the very best intentions and above all in the sense of (subjective) justice.
The main thing is exciting – crime novels and detective stories
Other arguments that the readership often uses to explain the crime novel preferences are the sympathetic and entertaining investigator character and the suspense. Here, in my opinion, it becomes necessary to look at the crime novel in its differences from the detective story, because exactly this genre serves the two aspects mentioned like no other.
The difference between crime stories and detective stories
The differences between a crime novel and a detective story are theoretically as clearly named as they blur in the application. The classic narrative structure of a crime novel consists of the chronological consideration of a crime (in the vast majority of cases, a murder or other serious crimes). The plot begins before the crime. So it becomes clear that in crime novels (and so it is with almost all true-crime formats) not only the crime but also the criminals are the focus of attention. Victim perspectives and also the investigator figure are touched upon but are always considered in connection with the perpetrators. The detective story, on the other hand, comes up with an aspect that can be described as a regular cast. This consists of an investigator or detective and an accompanying character. Furthermore, representatives of the police, victims, and perpetrators are used.
Detective novel the course of events: The detective novel also focuses on a crime (here either a murder or even minor crimes such as the theft of a most valuable or important object is addressed). Nevertheless, it is not the crime that is the focus of the detective story, but its clarification, i.e. the solution to the riddle. In order to give up this mystery to the recipient, the plot of the detective story only begins after the fact. The plot consists largely of conversations (or interrogations or interrogations) and clues that encourage “puzzles” but do not allow them since false tracks are also laid and encrypted clues are given, which only become understandable after the investigation of the crime. A main component of the crime novel is insights into the course of events (partly into the planning), motives for the crime, and the inner processes of the perpetrator or perpetrators. The situation is different from the detective story, which reconstructs the course of events and the motifs only afterward and thus breaks up the chronology.
So why do some people prefer (or even exclusively) to read crime novels?
Is it the pleasure of the fact that it “happens to the others”? To make this judgment on the assembled Krimileser*innenschaft, to want to empty it like a bucket of morbidity over it, can probably rightly be rejected as baseless and unjustified. But maybe it’s curiosity? Curiosity about things that never happen to most of us. Or can a form of catharsis be assumed? Reading crime fiction could thus be interpreted as a substitute for feeling fear in everyday life.
Stories to fear – crime and horror
Why do people like to read Stephen King? Stephen King addresses the topic of fear in the introduction to “Nachtschicht”, one of his short story collections. He reports that he often encounters the question of why he writes horror stories and why people like to read them so much. King’s novels and short stories mainly tell of monsters, demons, and supernatural scenarios. One of the few exceptions is the Bill Hodges series. Above all, the opening of the series, “Mr. Mercedes”, is a crime novel that, in addition to the perpetrator, also illuminates the topic of guilt in a very differentiated and extensive way. And that’s exactly why he’s known for his horror stories. Because it is not vampires and werewolves who roam around at night in search of their next unsuspecting victim who instill the greatest fear in us. The human abysses, the most monstrous monster we are able to imagine, are viewed here in the relentlessness of daylight.
So it turns out that the preference for crime novels can be justified by various aspects. However, it also becomes clear that these requirements are also fulfilled by other genres, but the crime novel seems to unite them in itself.