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Opinion: 'Why do we like reading about crime so much in Ireland? Because it offers escapism'

Crime writer Sam Blake explains that writing and reading crime can help you get away from the news when it’s grim. And unlike in real life, there’ll always be a satisfying ending.

Sam Blake

WHY IS CRIME the biggest-selling genre? What is it that keeps us hooked, turning the page long into the small hours?

British crime writer Sophie Hannah, who I interviewed recently at the Red Line Festival, thinks that “as a genre, crime always promises suspense and action in a way that general and literary fiction does not.” You know what you’re getting with a great thriller, and that appetite is reflected in sales.

Nielsen Bookscan data reveals that in 2017, for the first time since their records began, crime sold more than general and literary fiction. In the UK, crime sales of have increased by 19% since 2015 to 18.7m, compared to the 18.1m fiction books sold in 2017, and the same pattern is seen in Ireland, which is very good news for us crime writers.

As well as offering a gripping page turner, crime offers a few hours of escapism (unless you’re a professional criminal or serial killer of course), it takes you to a world where no matter how bad things are, you the reader know that there will be a satisfying ending, one not always possible in real life. As authors, that’s our contract with you.

David Baldacci, the American bestselling thriller writer said: “When times are stressful and it looks like the bad is winning out over the good, along comes the genre of crime novels to put the balance back in life. People inherently don’t like folks who do bad to get away with it. In real life they do, all the time, because of a variety of factors. But in novels, evil is punished, and the good guys mostly win, after solving the puzzle. And all is right with the world. At least fictionally.”

Why write crime?

Crime fiction is the very essence of great storytelling, there is conflict and resolution – an act sparks the story, and we feel compelled to stick with the main character to find out what happened and why.

For writers, the challenge is coming up with a plot that grips. And the crime fan is no pushover, this is an intelligent reader who relishes puzzles and watches crime on TV, who understands forensics and psychology and wants to be one step ahead of the protagonist. We authors need to make you feel like you are, yet still surprise you.

Readers also like to learn something new, and crime is the perfect vehicle for that, whether it’s finding out the sinister ways we can all be touched by the Dark Web (in my latest Cat Connolly thriller, No Turning Back), or about the potential horrors of cruise ships (Catherine Ryan Howard’s Distress Signals), crime is always more than just an everyday story, it is both a challenge and an escape, a way for us to satisfy our innate curiosity without actually spying on the neighbours.

Thorough immersion in another world takes you away from your own problems – often to face much bigger ones between the covers of a novel – but that ‘breathing’ time, when your head is so full there is no space for your own worries, gives your subconscious an opportunity to process the day-to-day stresses.

I read recently that a huge number of people watch horror to deal with their anxieties (too scary for me, I’m afraid) but crime fiction does that too. Val McDermid, who will be at the Murder One festival next weekend, believes that one of the reasons that women are interested in crime fiction is because they are more often victims of specific types of crime. She said in an interview: “Women are more likely to be raped and murderedI think women want to understand that as much as anything else. I also think they want to be reassured. The thing about the crime novel is that at the end of the book there is some kind of realisation.”

Liz Nugent agrees and thinks that this is also a reason why there has been a rise in the number of women writing crime – women who are taking charge of the situation. She says in an article on crimereads.com, that in Ireland: “The 1980s was a gothic horror decade of hypocrisy.”

The country was deep in recession. Unemployment was high. Women could do no right. Unmarried mothers were a drain on the state. Women who travelled abroad for abortions were murderers. Abandoned wives should have hung onto their husbands…Church, state, and the law had let us all down, but most particularly women…and look at the explosion of Irish female crime writers who were growing up during that time.
In the 1980s, the veil began to fall and we saw the truth. You’re never going to shut us up now.

Opening the pages of a great crime novel gives you a little ‘me time’: it’s just you and the book and a whole new world. 

The Murder One International Crime Writing Festival runs from 2 – 4 November in Smock Alley Theatre and features authors including Michael Connelly, Peter James, Lynda La Plante, Clare Mackintosh, and Ruth Ware, Val McDermid, Professor Dame Sue Black, Ali Land , Mick Herron and Robert Goddard. There will also be workshops for writers and one of the world’s top literary agents. Many events are free, including Lynda La Plante’s CSI Murder Room workshop and Speakers Corner.

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Sam Blake

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