All sorts of ‘rules’ can be bent or broken when writing genre fiction except one: that the story must confront the genre’s greatest fear. In romantic fiction, for example, it is that love cannot prevail. In crime fiction, it is that the riddle may go unsolved.
All sorts of novels can encompass murder, or be about unlocking the past, confronting secrets, pursuing justice, righting a wrong, revenge, investigating current social and moral concerns, but a crime novel must also solve a puzzle. ‘Perhaps,’ wrote Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, ‘this is the purpose of detective investigations … to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.’
Certainly two other great crime writers would agree. Raymond Chandler described the detective story as a tragedy with a happy ending, while P.D. James spoke of the detective taming the outrageous breach of nature that is crime and restoring society to order and stability by unraveling complexity and containing irrationality. Sometimes the pattern is reversed, and we identify with the perpetrator and wait to see whether we will get away with it. Either way, in choosing crime as a favourite genre, we seek the frisson of risk that the breach will not be resolved, that evil will escape unpunished and we will not be safe.
Our anxiety is pleasurably channeled into how we as readers collude in arriving at the solution to the puzzle. It’s vital that we actively experience that heady mix of transgression, anxiety and satisfaction that makes crime so popular, whether in books, film or television: the question ‘How will all this turn out?’ has to be made to matter to us. The settings, characters, social issues and means of detection will always change, but what must remain is the addictive gratification of teasing out the riddle in tandem with the teller of the story.
It’s clear from the long and distinguished tradition of series protagonists – Holmes, Marlowe, Marple, Warshawski, Rebus, Salander – that readers also desire the satisfaction of repetition. Freud thought that we enjoy the compulsion, conscious or unconscious, to re-live events that were traumatic because, in doing so, we can gain mastery over them. As readers, we have the reassurance of knowing that a familiar central character will crack the riddle while simultaneously we can believe that we’re working it out for ourselves – and maintain the illusion that we might fail.
The crime writer’s ability to never quite let us in on the secret, to create suspense, anxiety or dread by crafting hooks, twists and unexpected reversals or by scattering false leads and withholding information, and in the end to allow us to feel as if we have uncovered the truth for ourselves, is not a matter of superficial puzzle-solving cleverness but of truly understanding the primal pleasure of reading crime fiction.
For, after all, the riddle to be solved is not only ‘outside’: it is also within ourselves. Our greatest fear – glimpsed through the flaws of the greatest detective protagonists – is that we ourselves might not be either safe or good. As in the classic whodunit, we’re all guilty until the killer is unmasked.
This post was originally written for the Crime Readers Association National Crime Reading Month, June 2015.