What I like in a book

I've been thinking a bit recently about why I enjoy "crime fiction". This probably sounds ludicrous for someone who has been writing reviews and posts about this "genre" for so long, but I realize that I am not interested in criminals or details of crimes. Novels that focus on the criminal act, the mind and the motivations of people who commit crimes are of little interest to me. (I also have no interest in "true crime".)

What I find absorbing and rewarding as a reader is the perturbation of a status quo that a crisis, such as a crime, creates. The books I like best are not about the criminals or why they commit crimes, but are about the effect of the crisis on people's lives. Sometimes these people have some professional reason to be involved in the crime: police, detectives, lawyers and so on. Sometimes books are about people who are affected by the crime, as victims, witnesses or other reasons. That's all fine by me, I'll read it.

This explains to me why I don't like films that others rave about, such as The Godfather and many other examples of revered and commercially successful movies that feature gangs, criminals, heists and dastardly deeds of various kinds. It also explains why I am, in general terms (there are exceptions) not a fan of "noir" fiction and other types of novel that depict life seen from the mean side. It is also why I am not keen on books, including several by current bestselling authors,  whose main appeal is "lovingly dwelled upon autopsy details and/or physiological gore".

More to the point, I realise that the books I most like are books that have two key features: (1) a character study or studies on the effect of a dramatic act which puts those characters outside the rules of their normal existence and presents them with a challenge, often a tragic, extreme one; and (2) a puzzle. The second feature is less important but it is fun, an aide memoire and keeps one awake. How the characters react to the crisis, how they solve the puzzle despite obstacles, is what interests me.

The last three books I have read (reverse chronological order) are Punishment by Anne Holt; Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason; and The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer. They are all excellent books, for the reasons described here. (I'm not putting any links into this post because my USB ports have gone wonky so I can't use my mouse, and I am hopelessly inadequate at this clicky thing that is on the front of my keyboard. But I am sure these titles aren't hard to find if you haven't read them and are interested in doing so. For my part, they are a highly recommended trio.)

8 thoughts on “What I like in a book

  1. Thanks, Debra – interesting what one is driven to when one can’t make links!
    I should also have included that I don’t like books that excessively feature torture and similar focuses on things that the baddie does (though I don’t mind some of this in a book mainly about other things, eg Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, bits of which I skipped over hastily but enjoyed the book overall).

  2. Very nice post, Maxine. And I agree with you wholeheartedly. I’d also add a splash of dry humor to your list. It is for this reason I like Kate Atkinson so very, very much.

  3. I’ve never really stopped and thought about what I like in the books I read because my tastes are so eclectic as far as genre goes. But the one thing that seems to be common to all is that I have to like the characters enough to become emotionally involved in the book, cheering for the good guys and wanting to see them succeed. Historical fiction that deals with tough issues, like Bedlam South by David Donaldson and Mark Grisham, really appeals to the historian in me because it deals with the mental side of war that we don’t often hear about.

  4. I agree about the torture stuff. I did read two of Thomas Harris’s books because I was curious about the Hannibal Lecter back story. But I still regret having those images in my head.

  5. What an excellent, insightful post. I agree with you, and also with Kelly: I *love* Kate Atkinson (humor there *and* fabulous prose) and I’ve also fallen for Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell. She really deals brilliantly with the “perturbation of the status quo” you mention, Maxine. And, come to think of it, she is also sometimes extremely funny.
    Ah, I love to live in a world with so much good stuff to read. I started “The Draining Lake” (and was much enjoying it), when my husband hijacked it to read on our recent vacation. I really want to get back to it and find out what Erlendur is doing…He’s a great character. Perhaps my favorite detective in a series.

  6. Susan, thank you so much. That means a lot, coming from you, such an excellent judge of literature.
    I haven’t read Kate Atkinson’s latest two yet, but Malcolm has read the last-but-one and says it is very good.
    Get that Indridason back from your husband! When you have finished it, Arctic Chill, the next one in the series, is even better, I think.

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