The lure of the dark side, or why we like to be frightened

Crime offers in the bookshop

Crime offers in the bookshop

It seems odd indeed that even the mildest mannered of us love to read about murder and mayhem. Those who shrink from killing a spider and recoil in horror when the cat brings in yet another partially disembowelled offering will think nothing of picking up a crime novel to ‘relax’.

Crime is the best-selling genre in fiction and according to a survey four out of five books borrowed from libraries in the United Kingdom are thrillers or detective fiction. Why is that do you think? Is there a hidden serial killer deep within us all? Are we all one leylandii away from bashing our neighbours over the head with a shovel and burying them under the patio? Possibly. Best not to go there, you may not like what you find.

One reason may be the range of crime fiction available. The murky side of the seedy streets is very broad church (or do I mean Broadchurch?) There is indeed something for everyone. One can chose the gritty realism of the American police procedural which never shrinks from the detail of crime or autopsy and whose detectives tend to overshare regarding their own turbulent sexual escapades – or the cosy period charm of Miss Marple and her fluffy knitting and tutting over the arsenic.

There are detectives to suit every fantasy: P D James’ Adam Dalgleish, the troubled poet (the thinking woman’s crumpet this one, a poet and a widower: what more could you ask except a steely jaw and broad shoulders and yeah he has those too). Chesterton’s intuitive Father Brown or Conan Doyle’s deductive Sherlock Holmes, Patricia Cornwell’s coroner with a bent for Italian cooking (stick to the early Cornwell – later on she became obsessed with her one woman crusade to prove Stickert was Jack the Ripper) or Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter with a hilarious New Jersey family, a complicated private life and a hamster with a taste for grapenuts.

Front cover, The Daughter of time by Josephine Tey

Front cover, The Daughter of time by Josephine Tey

You can opt for a murderer from beyond the Iron Curtain who uses a poisoned umbrella on a busy street, a beleaguered baronet who slips cyanide into the soup or a simple thug who picks up a blunt instrument. You can chose the level of gore you would like from prurient voyeurism and sordid detail which would make your vicar blush to a genteel historical investigation into a crime where the blood stains have long dried and the investigation is purely cerebral (I loved Josphine Tey’s Daughter of Time where the bedridden detective revisits the murder of the Princes in the Tower).

There are many great crime novels based on real life crimes from James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia to Lionel Shrivner’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Indeed the fictional format can help elucidate and provide structure to something which on the late night news is frightening and disturbing. And, to descend to cliché, truth is stranger than fiction. There is a lot of true crime which tells a fascinating story like Catherine Bailey’s Secret Rooms and the story of the Duke of Rutland who fought to the death to hide his family’s shameful secret.

Crime novels also offer the element of a puzzle for those bored with the sudoko in the Metro. Not for nothing are they classed as who-dunnits and part of the charm is trying to double guess the outcome and congratulate yourself on getting it right way before the fictional detective. Also, and I stray disturbingly in to cod psychiatry, here there is a pleasing symmetry and sense of resolution to a crime novel which is missing from the everyday. Rare indeed is the evil perp who gets escapes scot free (and if they do they usually have some redeeming characteristics or a moral imperative). Unlike in life where the toe-rag who steals your bike gets away with it and the over-worked PC who handles the case palms you off with case number and a leaflet on victim support. In fiction, every case is handled by a troubled yet disturbingly attractive detective sergeant who works 24 hours a day until the criminal is brought to justice.

Fiction provides control. We are contrary beasts. We enjoy the frisson of fear in measured doses. Reading late at night we goggle (yes goggle not google, put that tablet down) at the gruesome details and jump at the sound of the cat flap. The adrenalin rush but without the risk is compulsive. That is what these books deliver. That and a dose of smugness. We can read and judge. It is so easy when you are not personally involved. Crime is wrong and look how clearly it does not pay. We flip through the pages, the baddie is identified and punished. We cheer for our hero as he risks all to uncover THE TRUTH.

It is so simple, coshing a little old lady is wrong, poisoning your aunt for the family silver clearly a bad decision, serial murder, none of us are going to go there, we wouldn’t even be tempted. In life, choices are more complex. There are shades of grey. We chose to believe we are moral people but our approach to The Commandments can be akin to a child in front of the Woolies pic’n’mix counter. Thou shalt not kill, tick, revere thy father and thy mother, easy, thou shalt not bear false witness, makes sense,  but move on to some of the more lifestyle-oriented edicts and a whole swag of extenuating buts raise their ugly little heads. It doesn’t count if nobody gets hurt or if he is the love of your life. Think it through as you complete your tax return or pour another chardonnay for your girlfriend with the married lover.

For summer we in the bookshop have decided to pander to this predilection amongst the reading public for the second part of our sale and have collected a capsule collection of crime perfect for those long hot nights. We have a ‘biography’ of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, The Unofficial Biography by Nick Renniston), some historical crime fiction (Sins of Our Fathers by Catherine Hanley) or a juicy conspiracy theory (Who Killed William Shakespeare?) All great holiday reading. Take a little break and explore your darker side. I promise once the summer’s over we will be back with worthy tomes on the origins of the Second World War and how to trace your Methodist ancestors.


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