Why we like reading novels

It was quite appropriate, I suppose, that in the train on the way to the Harrogate crime writing festival, I read an article in the Times It’s no mystery why we love detective stories.The hook for the piece was the recent award of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction to Kate Summerscale for The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (and not, as was widely expected among the so-called literati, the warts-and-all biography of V. S. Naipaul), a book which “re-examines a famous Victorian murder: the killing in 1860 of three-year-old Saville Kent in Road Hill House, Wiltshire, the home of a well-to-do and apparently upright factory inspector.”  The author of the Times article, Ben Macintrye, goes on to examine the enduring popularity of the British detective novel, with the usual answer that in an increasingly amoral and uncertain world, such books fulfil our internal need for a faith in reason, as well as this view: “we are even more obsessed than the Victorians with the notion that surface respectability conceals evil. The McCanns were hounded because they might have stepped straight out of the Boden catalogue; Amanda Knox, one of the accused in the Kercher murder, might be the girl next door…….As we consume detective fiction in ever greater quantities, we distrust our neighbours and trust in the power of human ingenuity more than ever.” I don’t disagree with him, but one cannot generalise from a couple of superficial examples. The recent case of the two French students from Imperial College London does not seem to fall into this category, nor what is being called the “current spate of knife crime” in inner cities in the UK — yet both are getting plenty of media coverage and public interest, as did the likes of Fred/Rosemary West and Peter Sutcliffe at the time.

Many of the discussions at Harrogate were along similar lines: why do people read, and like, “cosy” crime (the adjective should instead be “classic” or “detective”)? Can women “get away with” writing more explicitly about sexual violence than men? How do crime writers “cope with the stress” of their jobs? All these questions are unanswerable in terms of defining a novel as “crime fiction”. Out of the several nasty excerpts provided in the “violence” section, for example, the worst was from American Psycho, an unpleasant work (unread by me) reviewed as mainstream, not crime, literature by the international press. Stef Penney won the Crime Novel of the Year award at the festival, for Tenderness of Wolves, a novel that many people would not regard as “crime fiction”. The events at Harrogate were all very well attended, but the one sell-out was not to see a “crime fiction” author but rather ex-soldier Andy McNab. The more I read and hear people trying to shoehorn “crime fiction” into various psychological and sociological analyses, the more irrelevant the genre-definition game seems to be. Good books are good books, and don’t need to be discussed in a certain context, which could end up turning into a straightjacket.