Cold-blooded murder, page-turning twists and chilling thrillers; the literary world won't stop pumping out page-turning crime fiction reads — and us armchair detectives can't get enough!
From novel-cum-box-office-hit 'Girl On The Train' to buzzed-about 'The Couple Next Door', our obsession with (often violent) crime fiction is hard to refute. Particularly here in Australia where research has declared it our first choice in genre when it comes to reading for enjoyment.
So what does our love of crime fiction and thrillers really mean? We asked three psychologists to weigh in:
A means of escape
One of crime fiction's biggest appeals is its escape factor. For most readers, the events in each story are intriguing and far away from their everyday reality.
"As long as people continue to enjoy a relatively low-crime, war-free lifestyle where they can go about their normal lives and then escape into crime fiction for a bit of a thrill, we'll see crime fiction as popular as ever," explains psychologist Miriam Henke.
"Crime fiction stimulates parts of our brain that we often don't fire off, and it creates a chemical cocktail that can be quite addictive (such as the releasing of adrenaline), producing a euphoric effect. It's linked to our general morbid fascination with violence and calamity."
Following a serial killer as they shadow their next victim down a dark alleyway isn't an activity we're likely to encounter in reality (hopefully). The 'fiction' component of crime fiction enables us to revel in our imaginations and partake in something we'd never actually do.
Having worked with patients within some of Australia's maximum security prisons, psychologist Sandy Rea has come face-to-face with a variety of offenders. Rea believes the risk-free exposure to dangerous situations that crime fiction allows its readers to experience has similar affects to that of real-life.
"For many, the physiological responses to reading crime fiction (heart racing, adrenaline pumping) parallels to real 'risk-taking behaviour' which they otherwise would not experience. There is also an addictive quality to adrenaline (hence exercise junkies and thrill-seekers)," she explains. "Crime fiction evokes a visceral response."
It's this addictive quality of the genre that sees many crime fiction writers develop a cult following. After the overwhelming reception of her gripping thriller 'Crimson Lake', Australian author Candice Fox decided to pen a sequel, despite never having planned one. The New York Times bestselling author released her follow-up 'Redemption Point' in February, her fan base eagerly awaiting her latest story.
This time, we return to the Queensland town of Crimson Lake where former police detective Ted Conkaffey has been wrongly accused of abducting thirteen-year-old Claire Bingley. With Claire's father at his heels, Ted must find the real abductor with haste. Add in a double homicide, a first-time detective and a formerly convicted one, and Fox forms a compelling crime read full of surprising twists.
The value of justice
At the heart of crime fiction is a desire for justice in an unjust world.
Clinical psychologist Dr Janet Hall believes that although it's not always the case, most will read crime fiction with the expectation that the 'baddies' will be punished and that good will prevail.
"With non-fiction we have a fascination that some people have criminal minds and do dastardly deeds. If we ever thought like that, we are trained to choose the side of good and follow the law. There is a security in that."
So, is there something wrong with me?
Short answer: No.
Just because you love reading about crime (read: horrific, gruesome murder) doesn't mean you're planning on taking out anyone in real life. In fact, according to Rea, having a passion for crime fiction could actually mean you're a more empathetic person.
"The imagination identifies the reader to the crime, the offender and their own life in the safety of their home." Rea says. "Contrarily, crime fiction also evokes empathy. For some, they align themselves with the perpetrator — feeling their anger, their rage, their inadequacies, their poor problem-solving skills, their impulsivity. Others, of course, align themselves with the victim."
Having worked with criminals in the past, psychologist Miriam Henke believes there's a huge difference between those who commit crimes, and those who enjoy reading about them knowing it's an untrue story:
"I've found people who have been involved in criminal matters or who have been traumatised in the past will generally not be interested in, or avoid watching or engaging in crime fiction," she says. "It certainly doesn't mean readers secretly wish to commit crime or that they like crime." Phew.
'Bad guy' psychology
As well as solving the mystery of the crime, readers love untangling the mystery of the 'bad guy'. Our curiosity leads us to empathise with the killer or culprit in order to find out their motive; what happened in the murderer's life to make them carry out such heinous acts? According to Rea, this backstory is another of crime fiction's appeals:
"I think there is also a developmental curiosity i.e. what happened in their childhood, adolescence etc., and the idea of 'profiling an offender'. Indeed this is the enjoyment for a psychologist of which developmental psychology underpins forensic psychology."
One of 2018's most talked about thriller releases, 'The Chalk Man' by C.J. Tudor, uncovers the mystery surrounding a 30-year-old murder of a young girl. When Eddie was 12 years old he met a man who showed him a game that saw Eddie and his friends share coded messages via stick figure chalk drawings. One day, the chalk figures lead Eddie to a dismembered body and Eddie's life changes forever. Spine-tinglingly gripping, the novel is told from the perspective of one character in two different stages of his life. The insight makes for an even more engaging read, the character's complexities becoming just as absorbing as the mystery itself.
Readers of crime fiction often participate in the narrative, deducing their own theories based on what they've read. Playing second-hand detective to the story's narrator or sleuthing protagonist, most crime fiction readers can't help but formulate their own predictions prior to the final reveal or resolution.
"Humans are intellectual creatures who like to turn their brain power to different tasks," says Henke. "Mysteries (that do not involve our own lives) challenge the brain, activate natural chemicals in the body and hold our interest. We love the endorphin release of being told a clue or knowing we've figured something out correctly."
Our love of a good mystery is nothing new — the classic 1920s 'whodunnit' continues to top bestsellers' lists. With today's digital age finding new ways of consuming mysteries (real-crime podcasts and documentaries finding huge success), it's a fascination that has managed to transcend times and captivate a wide range of audiences.
While our brain understands the difference between non-fiction and fiction, the way we absorb the information from both can be similar.
"Both fiction and non-fiction are kinds of vicarious learning, meaning we learn from others' experiences without having to go through those situations in our own reality," Henke explains. "We can learn how the world works in different situations, and that can translate into knowledge we apply in our own lives. We may take non-fiction more seriously (e.g. display more empathy for victims of crime) but in reality, if there's too much dissociation from our own realities, fiction and non-fiction experiences will likely be stored in a similar way."
Future of crime fiction
"Ultimately what makes a good story is that it will appeal to all personalities," Hall declares. "We can always find a character that reminds us of us. We especially like to like the quirkiness of the hero/heroine, who typically is super clever but still has flaws — just like us."
Today, the genre of crime fiction is expanding to become more inclusive, with strong female protagonists knocking down some of the stereotypes prevalent in the often male-dominated crime fiction novels that were popular throughout the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
New release, 'Mine' by Susi Fox, paves the way for a new style of crime fiction. Waking up after having an emergency caesarean, a woman is taken to the nursery and shown her baby — the only thing is, it's not her baby. When nobody believes her, she becomes desperate to find her real child, her miracle baby.
Evoking feelings from the reader that are usually reserved for the drama literary genre, the boundary-crossing novel suggests an exciting new breed of crime fiction may be just around the corner.
Brought to you by Penguin Books Australia, lovers of crime and thrillers.