I took part in an interesting crime-writers panel at the Llandeilo LitFest last Saturday, which inspired me to ponder on the strange appeal of crime in fiction. Why do people, who have no intention to commit crime and no desire to fall victim to it, choose to read about it in fictional settings?
Of course there’s crime and there’s crime. Fiction tends not to dwell on crimes like parking on a double yellow line or shop lifting or tax evasion, and the reason is not just that such crimes are boring. Many people would feel that the law might make such action criminal but, well, you know, if there were an absolute guarantee of getting away it, maybe they might, just might, park on that line, Pay by cash to avoid something going through the books, or even walk off without paying for something that slipped through at the till.
The crimes that feature in fiction are different. Murder. Rape. Abduction. Child Abuse. They are more than crimes. They are taboos. Even if the Law had no opinion on them, most of us would shrink from committing them because we understand at the deepest level that they are wrong. How the taboo develops is open to debate. Some people might say they are forbidden by God and that is written in our DNA. We apply words like Sin and Evil. Others might say that they are instincts drilled into us so deeply from birth by parents, schools, church and society in general, that we don’t question them. Whatever the source of the taboos, we know that to overturn them is to overthrow all security. If you knew, with absolute certainty, that you could commit a murder and not be punished, would you do it? I suspect that 99% would say NO!
And yet murders happen. People do break that taboo. Perhaps, if you found yourself pushed over the edge, you too could break it. Maybe our fascination in fiction is something to do releasing the dark waters that swirl in us, deep down below that taboo. It’s there in all of us. Murders are committed by sociopaths and psychopaths and the mentally disturbed – people who simply fail to share in that taboo – but the majority of murders are committed by very ordinary people who probably never dreamed they’d ever do such a thing. The majority of murders are not carefully planned but are a desperate result of a string of wrong decisions. Any of us could find ourselves in that position. So could everyone around us. It’s a scary thought.
That scariness is the appeal of crime fiction. We want to live secure and safe and happy, without worrying about what might lie around the corner, but we need to treat ourselves to a dose of scariness that won’t really put us at risk. Somewhere under our civilised veneers are primitive people whose survival programming needs to keep adrenalin on tap, ready to run like Hell when something growls in the undergrowth. Crime fiction is an adrenalin switch, that gives us a nice healthy jolt occasionally, without seriously disturbing our sleep. Because, best of all, it is fiction. It may be, should be, True in a literary sense, but it’s not actually real.