Why we write crime

Louise Welsh’s essay in today’s Scotsman offers up some reason why so many writers turn to the proverbial dark side:

…[E]ven if murder fascinates, is it an appropriate subject for fiction? Is it perhaps appealing to parts of us that shouldn’t be appealed to? Might it excite readers into committing the very crime we’re exposing? Why not write nice stories about people with simple problems? Perhaps we could concentrate on the loss of a handbag rather than the loss of a life?

We read novels for different reasons: entertainment, information, to make sense of our lives and to confront things that disturb us. Fiction has always dealt with difficult subjects and the writer’s role is partly to confront what is happening within society.

There are many novels that entertain without challenging, novelists who present a genteel picture of a Scotland that I for one don’t recognise – good luck to them. But the novel does not merely exist to support the Scottish tourist board. If novelists were confined to writing "nice books" we would end up with the fictional equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters – bland, unchallenging, with no-one we recognise ever appearing – a book full of product placements, a means to social control.

Crime, murder in particular, is a conduit through which we can explore what is going on within our world. When the modern fictional investigator delves into wrongdoing and corruption, he’s also exploring the flip side of society, and the reader travels with him or her into places they would be ill advised to tread in real life.

We can pretend we live in a Scotland where there is no crime or violence, but I believe novelists should engage with society.

And though it’s been talked of endlessly, the link between crime fiction and social commentary is likely why they’ve been accepted more into the mainstream, and why such books will continue to do so.