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Opinion: 'Dublin Murders shows how our obsession with crime stories is just part of the human condition'

Author Sam Blake explores how readers got hooked on crime stories – and why it’s no bad thing.

Sam Blake

SET IN CELTIC Tiger Dublin in 2006, Dublin Murders, made by the BBC in collaboration with Element Pictures and the US broadcaster Starz, has the nation hooked.

Based on the books by multi-award winning author Tana French ‘In the Woods’ and ‘The Likeness’, the Dublin Murders series is based around a killing that rocks the town of ‘Knocknaree’. A 13-year-old girl has been murdered and the drama flashes back 21 years to a similar crime, then involving three children – one of whom survived.

Featuring Killian Scott as Rob and Sarah Green as Cassie Maddox, screenwriter Sarah Phelps has cleverly combined the stories from both books giving the two leads an equally balanced partnership, often finding strength together against the rest of the world. With the series aired on the BBC as well as RTE, it is bringing new viewers to the excellence of Irish crime writers in a gripping drama.

I’m teaching a creative writing group for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Libraries at the moment, and one of the first questions asked was “why do so many people get murdered in books?”

It’s a great question – what is the mystery with murder? Why does it appear so much in
fiction and work so well on TV?

Human condition

The enduring popularity of murder, and the crime novels it appears in, comes down to the nature of the human condition, to our innate curiosity. Readers love page turners, gripping reads that will keep them up at night, while TV viewers are desperate to know what happens next – in order to deliver that, authors have to make the stakes as high as possible for their characters – what’s a higher stake than the loss of life?

And if the means are foul, what better way to keep your reader hooked?

Murder is about the extremes of human emotion, as actress Sarah Greene told the Irish Times of Dublin Murders: “It’s a really personal story about personal battles. So you invest in these characters at a much deeper level. They’re not just cops. You’re constantly learning who they are and why they are. So it’s much more interesting. Especially to play.”

Crime fiction is one of the hottest selling genres alongside true crime, which, with its recent explosion in popularity on on-demand TV channels like Netflix, is focusing public interest on the mystery of murder.

And crime is popular everywhere – Director of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Alison Lyons’s previous role was as a head librarian in the prison service, as she explains:

Readers are endlessly fascinated with murder, true crime and crime fiction, in all sorts of libraries – from the small local public library to the prison library, both of which I’ve worked in and both of whose shelves stock the latest Sam Blake, Alex Barclay and Paul Williams. The crime genre is one of the most borrowed across the entire library service.

Perhaps Enid Blyton is to blame for instilling an early fascination for mystery in all of us, but even before Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie was one of the top selling authors of all time.

With 66 detective novels and fourteen short stories in print, she was one of the founding members of the London based Detection Club, an organisation for writers of detective fiction that was itself shrouded in secrecy. When Christie mysteriously disappeared for 11 days in 1926, there was a public outcry, with the case featuring on the front page of The New York Times. The home secretary called for a police investigation and a newspaper offered a £100 reward.

Over 1,000 police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and several aeroplanes scoured the rural landscape until eventually she was discovered in a hotel in Harrogate where she had registered under the name of her husband’s lover.

Christie is still one of the bestselling and most prolific authors of all time, her play The
Mousetrap, which opened in 1952, is the longest running show ever in London’s West End with more than 27,000 performances.

Agatha Christie was as deeply influential on the history of book production as she was on
the explosion in crime fiction during the Golden Age of detective fiction.

It was after visiting Christie and her husband that the then chairman of London Publisher The Bodley Head, Allen Lane, found himself standing at Exeter railway station with nothing to read – and it occurred to him that good quality fiction would reach a much wider readership if books were more affordable. On 30 July 1935 he introduced the Penguin imprint to the world with ten books, each one c

ost just six pence at a time when hardcovers were priced at seven or eight shillings. Of the ten books that were to revolutionise publishing, crime and thrillers were front runners with the titles including The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first Poirot novel and Dorothy L Sayers The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club , as well as Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. The success of the first 10 books persuaded Lane to launch Penguin as a standalone publisher in 1936 and within a year, Penguin had sold 3 million paperbacks. The sceptics who believed the paperback would be the ruin of the industry were proved wrong, and crime fiction boomed.

Crime, and with it murder, appeals to our natural human curiosity and need to problem
solve, to seek out answers.

As we await the next episode of Dublin Murders, speculation is rife as to what precisely has happened, and Sarah Phelps has cleverly kept certain elements of the books back to increase that speculation.

The very best crime novels, and TV dramas, are those that surprise us and ultimately leaving us feeling that we were part of the drama, as Curran says of Christie: “Although at first glance an Agatha Christie murder mystery may seem complicated, her last-chapter explanation always shows the underlying answer to be straightforward. When one simple fact is grasped, all the other pieces of the puzzle click neatly into place.”

Ireland’s International Crime Writing festival Murder One runs from 1- 3 November in Smock Alley Theatre. It will feature masterclass workshops for writers and a visit from one of London’s top literary agents. Authors including international bestseller Martina Cole will appear, alongside UK State Pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd, award winners CJ Tudor (The Chalk Man) and Stuart Turton (The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle). 

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Sam Blake

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