Human beings have always enjoyed reading about their fellows being murdered, sometimes in quite brutal ways. Lots of killing happens in Homer`s Iliad and hideous infanticide is central to both the Euripides play Medea and the fifth century Norse epic Atlakvida. From Cain and Abel onwards the Bible has plenty of killing. The Elizabethan plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Thomas Kyd and others are full of it. The four greatest novels of Dostoyevsky are all murder stories. Modern films and bestselling books frequently deal with murder, its occurrence, its detection, its motives and methods.
So, why do human beings enjoy reading about death? Does it suggest we are more comfortable with evil than we would like to admit? Does `the dark side` simply fascinate us? Wouldn`t nice people prefer to spend their time watching romances with happy endings or hearing improving reports of noble, selfless deeds.? For most of us neither of these options makes the blood run hot. We`d prefer to reach for something in the wide range from a disturbance in the tidy, ordered world of an Agatha Christie to the brutal sordid realism of recent Scandinavian output. I suspect the reasons for this choice can be complex and varied. I don`t think either the writer or the average reader of a current, gritty potboiler has much in common with the output of Dostoyevsky.
Let us begin at the other end, the writer. Why is the murder/detective genre what you would want to write? Do we simply rejoice in the pain and sufferings of others? Is sadism an essential part of being a writer along with a reasonable vocabulary and some wordprocessing skills? Actually there is a section of the market, quite a big one, where that does appear to be true. I can`t say I understand that and can`t say anything useful about it. There is, however, a larger section where, I think, the motivation is quite different.
Consider some of the attractions of detective stories for reader and writer. First of all, there is one that applies whether the detection is concerned with murder or, less commonly, some other mystery. The story has a natural structure which is absent from everyday life. Normally the story will begin with the appearance of the mystery, probably a murder, and will continue until the mystery is solved or, occasionally, abandoned. Normal life doesn`t have that type of structure. It flows on from one minor incident to another. If there are major ones they are often sudden events like an illness, a car accident, a house fire. They are dramatic but they don`t usually offer much of a story.
Another major attraction of murder stories is that they often bring together very different personalities who would not necessarily be involved with one another for other reasons. You can examine the hidden motivations of a lawyer, a lover, distant relatives, a local tradesman, any number of contacts. If you are interested in human nature the opportunities are endless and that is one of the greatest attractions of reading fiction. Again in normal life passions and motivations are rarely as open to examination as in a murder inquiry. The fact of murder often means people have been pushed to limits that normal life would not reveal.
Then there is the obvious charm of the murder story that it usually allows unexpected interventions. People may appear without warning. Others may disappear. What we thought we knew about characters may suddenly be revealed as a deception. Whilst these things happens in everyday life it`s rare for them to be dramatic. In the murder story these events may take place in the home or in the world of business, politics, sport or any other human activity. The location can be humdrum or exotic and can switch from one to the other.
So, the murder story has attractions for those who like some structure, who find human nature interesting and who like the excitement of the unexpected. They can also appeal to those who enjoy a puzzle. A well-written murder story may present the reader with all the clues needed for the solution, as does a good crossword puzzle. By contrast with the crossword puzzle however it should be very enjoyable even for the reader who doesn`t want to solve it or who fails.
So, the many fans of detective fiction need not worry that their addiction implies they are bloodthirsty or heartless. They can indulge their pleasure with a perfectly good conscience. Even so, there is a huge difference between the style, humour and poetry of Raymond Chandler on the one hand and the graphic cruelty of The Killing. Superb as that production is the description of what happens to the young victim is likely to be upsetting for most people but almost as difficult is how powerfully the suffering of her family is depicted. Maybe a murder story is as good an exercise in self-knowledge as we can get in relative safety.
The Women from Crete, The Moves of Murder and The Celebrity of Anders Hecht are all detective stories in The Rojas Casebook and can be bought from Amazon online. Currently only The Moves of Murder can be bought from other online retailers and bookshops. More information on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk