Why We Write and Read about Crime

While I share online event fatigue with many of you, there is no denying Zoom has saved the day or now, the year. This was evident to me during the fabulous MURDER AND MAYEM online conference, the brainchild of Dana Kaye and Lori Rader-Day, which was on Crowdcast this past weekend, when a single comment created value for me that transcended all else on the schedule.

One advantage of an online event comes in the form of a sidebar that appears next to the main presentation, where a contemporaneous conversation among attendees takes place. Among the chatter about how much we all miss one another, little gems will sparkle. Brilliant comments or provocative questions appear that never would be available to everyone who attended an in-person conference.

Someone (forgive me for not remembering who, but the scroll fires as rapidly as the synapses in the attendees’ brain cells) posed the question about whether writers who write about crime, most often murder, are ever troubled that they are essentially entertaining people with tales at the expense of the pain that real crimes bring. People chimed in, revealing they also had been troubled by the question.

The fascination with crime can feel prurient. Novels about crime can contain vivid descriptions about scenes of crimes, autopsy results, and manner of death. Even the subgenre “cozies” delve into details about the death of a victim, which while less graphic, still provide entertainment in the form of a story about the murder of a human being.

Why do writers write about murder and why do so many readers want to read about it? We know crime fiction is a large segment of the book market, not to mention the television and movie industry. Is it just human nature to crave sensational stories?   

I have been troubled by this question for as long as I have been a writer. Right around the time when my first crime novel, No Virgin Island, which is set in St. John in the U.S. was to be published, a real homicide occurred in St. John. A young man, like so many others who come to St. John to follow the sun, was brutally murdered in a botched burglary, the investigation of which was bungled by inept and corrupt law enforcement. He was the only child of parents who were devasted by his death. The pain of losing their son was compounded by the failure of the system to address the horrid injustice of his death. The brave and anguished parents vocally pursued “Justice for Jimmy” in the media and anywhere people would listen. Five years later, after countless setbacks, Jimmy’s murdered was finally sentenced.

I was conflicted about being so excited to publish my first crime novel while the story about a real murder victim unfolded around me. Not knowing what to do with my feelings, I wrote to Jimmy’s parents and asked if I could acknowledge their pursuit for justice in the acknowledgments in my book. They generously agreed. When my book was launched at an event in New England, the parents actually asked relatives to attend. They stood at the end of the line to have copies of my book they purchased signed. It was the highest honor of my writing career.

When I write about people being murdered, I set off on an adventure to explore and understand why human beings do such terrible things to one another and to validate the pain crime causes to the people who love them. I commit to telling a story that explores the pursuit of justice for victims and their loved ones, even when justice is denied.

I think why a person writes or reads about crime is likely highly personal. I welcome hearing from others about theirs.

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6 thoughts on “Why We Write and Read about Crime

  1. I attended Murder and Mayhem as well, and like you, pondered that same question. I believe it’s something I’ll continue to keep closer to the front of my mind as I write from now on.

  2. I write and read crime because I want to see justice in the world, the good guys win, the bad guys lose. It doesn’t seem to happen that often in real life. I’ve ripped stories because there is something in each of those real stories that fascinates me but I fictionalize the event so much that none of the real life people are recognizable.

  3. I think about this a lot, Michele. I’m intrigued with why and how people are pushed to extreme behavior. I’m also interested in issues of redemption and forgiveness. I just feel like with mysteries you see people at their best and worst and that’s what fiction is about.

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