As a mystery writer, I’m inclined to think everyone would benefit from reading an occasional crime novel or short story. Here’s my list of reasons to visit your favorite brick-and-mortar or online bookseller, or to stop by the library and browse the shelves.
Escape into another world
Note I did not say “escape from the real world.” When it comes to crime fiction, this is a matter of personal choice. Readers vary as to how much they want to be reminded of the realities (and anxieties) of daily life. There are subgenres of crime fiction -- traditional/classic whodunits, PI novels, police procedurals, historical mysteries, medical thrillers, legal thrillers, forensic thrillers, paranormal, and romantic suspense – to suit every reader’s mood and preference regarding sex and/or violence.
When Edgar Allan Poe, the “father of the mystery short story,” created a brilliant, eccentric sleuth in the 1840s, he introduced the first of the character archetypes in mystery/detective fiction. These archetypes include tough guy private eyes, femme fatales, criminal masterminds, and sidekicks. In the modern era, writers use these archetypes as a starting point, but strive to create three dimensional characters. They know that their characters must hold the attention of readers who are sophisticated consumers of popular culture.
Setting has always been one of the reasons to read crime fiction. From Paris to London, Los Angeles to New York City, isolated islands to cozy villages, where the story is set has always been essential to the plot. In modern mysteries, writers have tried to get one up on the competition by finding a setting that has not been used before or a setting that can be explored from a different perspective. The reader can become an armchair traveler to the locale of his or her choice.
Although this aspect of crime fiction has always been present, in the late 20th century, crime writers began to openly tackle issues ranging from racial bigotry, sexism, and homophobia to climate change and corporate crimes. This has been especially true of the women writers and writers of color who emerged during this era. However, most crime writers are aware that soap boxes are not welcomed by readers and take care not to let the issues that they feel passionate about overwhelm their stories. Books dealing with social issues allow readers to think about the pros and cons – and offer substance for reading group discussions.
Mystery/detective fiction offers readers an opportunity to match wits with the protagonist as he or she attempts to solve the crime. This puzzling solving aspect of mystery/detective fiction is important – good exercise for the brain. But aside from figuring out whodunit, the reader of any subgenre of crime fiction may also has the opportunity to consider ethical dilemmas and the nature of justice.
In crime fiction, the characters’ occupations and hobbies are generally relevant to the plot. One can pick up a mystery and learn about subjects from bell ringing to autopsies, from life on the home front during World War II to what happens behind the scenes when catering an event. Crime writers do their research because readers expect them to get it right. Readers can select books that deal with topics that they are interested in and would like to learn more about.
Finding the right crime novel is as simple as searching online databases such as Stop, You’re Killing Me! or consulting a librarian or bookseller. Reviews are helpful, too. Or, ask a mystery reading friend for a recommendation.