Yesterday NPR ran an interesting, if short, book review by Bruce Machart entitled “Devil in the Details: 3 Artful Tales of Murder.” You can find it here: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/19/139002629/devil-in-the-details-3-artful-tales-of-murder. While the article offered brief reviews of three novels, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen, The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock and So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, I was mostly attracted by the question Machart posed at the beginning of his piece, which I’ve paraphrased as the title of this post.
What, indeed, draws us to fiction that focuses on the worst aspects of human nature?
As a reader I’m attracted to crime fiction that features a strong protagonist as the representative of law, order, rationality and the human need to challenge and defeat the brutal side of our nature. Perhaps it was my misspent childhood reading comic books with shining, invulnerable heroes that’s responsible, but there you go.
As a person I abhor violence and I’m afraid of death. Much of my life has been a process of trying to come to grips with the existence of these things in life and to find ways to cope with them. I read fiction not only to be entertained but to learn what I can about perspectives other than my own, so as a result I’m drawn to stories featuring a central character who can move in these worlds and handle these things better than I can. Even if they fail, it represents the struggle to do what’s right in this life, to resist, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” if you will.
As a writer of crime fiction my motives are essentially the same. The central characters in the Donaghue and Stainer series deal with death and brutality every day. When Hank Donaghue’s mother, a retired State’s Attorney, asks him in Blood Passage how work is going, he jokes that it’s the same as usual: “The hours suck, the pay is worse and all my clients are dead.” Law enforcement officers are notorious for their black humor, but it’s a defense mechanism, a way of depersonalizing the horror they witness every time they punch the time clock.
Is depersonalization the key? Are we drawn as readers to crime fiction because it gives us a chance to deal with death and brutality from an objective, third-person perspective? Does it provide an opportunity to examine the horror and the emotional reactions of others through a filter, to imagine from a safe distance how we would cope if we were put in such a position? A rehearsal against the day when we might have to face such horrible things head-on?
What draws you as a reader to crime fiction?