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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Raison D'Etre 

The New Straits Times, a Malaysia-based newspaper, has an interesting article that asks a seemingly simple but really very complex question: what attracts people, both readers and writers, to crime fiction? Not surprisingly, there are a myriad of reasons:
"Crime is a great way to talk about society," said novelist Ian Rankin in an interview with the New Straits Times last year. Rankin currently has two books in bookshop Kinokuniya's list of top 10 crime bestsellers.

"Where are the books that talk about the here and now - the problems we have: unemployment, drugs, prostitution, the fact that people live in fear of criminal activity? Where are the books that address these issues? Crime fiction."

Crime fiction, he added, has "very serious" antecedents: "People like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, for example, used detectives, crime and murder as a way of exploring the human condition."

While the crime fiction social novel has certainly grown in leaps and bounds thanks to some of Rankin's peers like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, and many others, there are more basic reasons for the attraction to the genre:
Roy Chan, 67, has been a voracious reader since retiring from teaching over a decade ago. His tastes vary from popular fiction and thrillers (such as the novels of Jeffrey Archer) to "true crime" accounts and biographies.

"I also read a lot of crime fiction. There's something in it that appeals to the curious in me, just like we're always curious about murders and scandals in the newspapers.

"I suppose it's just a part of human nature to be fascinated by events that could conceivably happen to us too, but what I enjoy most about crime fiction observing the range of human actions that can be criminal."

Modern life can't be divided neatly into little parcels distinct from each other, Chan said. "Many issues we must deal with today are related, for example: crime and poverty links the law to economics."

I'd say I've been a serious crime fiction reader for about five years now, although in my formative years I read my fair share of Agatha Christie, some Nero Wolfe, Walter Mosley's early Easy Rawlins books, Edna Buchanan's Britt Montero books, and both of the Kellermans. But it was around the summer of '99 that I discovered Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, and Dennis Lehane, and they still embody my "idee fixe" of what I like best about crime fiction. I've moved in different directions since then, adding many more authors to my "must-have" list, especially from the UK and other foreign countries. But the hardboiled/noir/social novel school (it's a broad spectrum, but a spectrum nonetheless) is what I gravitate towards, rather than the amateur sleuth/traditional stuff.

So what is it about the genre that I love so much? Many things of course, but ultimately it boils down to the tension between order and chaos. Sometimes, chaos is resolved into order. Other times, order gets broken down into chaos (the hallmark of noir novels.) Sometimes chaos persists throughout, and other times there's a constant mixture. Add in, at least in the best examples, great characters, good writing, and a reasonably cohesive plot and there are the necessary ingredients for a good book.

It's occurred to me at various points to wonder if I'll ever get tired of reading within the genre, and occasionally, I do have to take breaks with non-fiction and other types of fiction. But I always come back, because I must have my order/chaos fix that isn't quite fulfilled anywhere else. And luckily, though the constraints are there, the possibilities are ever-expanding for what's acceptable within a crime novel. As long as people have imagination and a questioning mind, crime fiction will continue to go down the dark alleys and secret pathways that other types of fiction wouldn't dare touch.

And sometimes, it's a good idea to remember exactly why we read, why we love this genre.

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