I was asked this question earlier today, and I started to write… It turned into a bit of long, mad ramble! How very me…
So here it is. Feel free to disagree, or to add in anything I’ve missed – whether it’s a favourite crime writer or another subgenre, or a different demographic.
As I add this introduction and apology for writing so long, of course, I am reminded that my interest probably started with those Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville adventure stories – and of course Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. So there’s now a thriving YA genre that I know very little about!
We are told that crime fiction is the most popular genre, and I suspect the reason for that is that there are so many different forms it takes, so many subgenres – that there’s something for nearly everyone.
Some of the earliest crime fiction was very much focused on solving a puzzle. Poe’s Murder on the Rue Morgue, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, and Agatha Christie’s novels, for example. These were derided by some critics as formulaic – it might have been Kingsley Amis, and also Edmund Wilson (I had to look that up!) who complained that the characters were generally two dimensional and had no emotional depth. I suspect that people who found Sherlock Holmes through the Benedict Cumberbatch version would be quite disappointed in the Conan Doyle. The people I know who love those stories tend to be rational, science-loving types who like figuring things out – quite often men. I do think they’re wrong about Christie though – I think her stories do show a deep interest in all the varieties of human nature and I suspect there’s a certain snobbishness about the fact that she wrote stories which are very readable.
In some ways I think the current love for true crime – podcasts and film and so on – harks back to this kind of old fashioned detective story and the urge to work out the puzzle, but is also married to an interest in psychological thrillers and working out what makes people tick – heroes, villains, and the rest of us. True Crime is supposed to have an audience dominated by women.
Other kinds of crime fiction may also appeal more to a male readership. There’s the tech thrillers which tell us all about the kind of weapons in detail. There’s the traditional detective story, the Ed McBain, and TV series from Z Cars to NYPD Blue, CSI., and the various forensic based novels by Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Jeffrey Deaver, and there’s the legal thrillers – courtroom stuff – John Grisham and Scott Turow. which have a strong appeal to men.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of female readers and viewers who love these subgenres – I am one of them, although they’re not my favourites and I wouldn’t attempt to write in those genres.
I know this is very reductive stereotyping, but I do think there’s something here about an enjoyment of the puzzle and maybe even the acquisition of very concrete real world knowledge about the justice system which appeals to male readers.
Then we have hard-boiled detective fiction – the ultimate being Raymond Chandler. These really are a form of fantasy – the maverick and heroic detective who struggles to retain his own integrity in the face of corruption. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Hammett’s Sam Spade, Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer – then later we have Robert B Parker’s Spenser. I rather like Megan Abbott, who has reworked some of this genre from a female perspective, but this genre is generally assumed to be dominated by men, as writers and readers.
Moving on to crime fiction which is more likely to be read by women, the stats show that women read more than men in general, and also that they read more crime fiction.
There was an explosion of feminist detective fiction in the 80s, giving us the earliest Val McDermid stories about a lesbian investigative journalist. And in America the brilliant Sara Paretsky, who created VI Warshawski. Many of these novels were published by The Women’s Press, Virago, and so were not generally assumed to appeal to a male audience.
Another aspect to crime fiction is that the social context of the story is always important. Writers have used crime fiction in a variety of ways to explore questions of sex and class and (sorry) privilege.
I love Dorothy Sayers’ crime fiction – for Harriet Vane more than the slightly irritating Lord Peter Wimsey. Then there’s the Adam Dalglish novels of PD James – her rather refined poet detective. James once famously caused an uproar by saying middle class crime is more interesting because middle class people have more options in life! She also wrote some excellent books about a female private investigator, Cordelia Gray.
Ruth Rendell wrote three types of novel – the traditional detective stories, featuring Wexford. The dark psychological thriller types which tended to focus on the story from a villains point of view. And my favourites, her long and complicated stories with a deep interest in psychology, as Barbara Vine.
This is where we come to my favourite subgenre – the psychological thriller. Once called woman in jeopardy stories, such as Joy Fielding’s See Jane Run, now they’re more often called domestic noir. In this subgenre, I’d include some Val McDermid, Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen White right the way through to Sharon Bolton and Gillian Flynn. Kellerman and White’s novels feature actual psychologists, which makes them a little different to the ones which focus on the psychology of the main character who is in danger.
In general, these dark and realistic psychological thrillers are more likely to appeal to women readers, I think. Although the serial thriller subgenre, with Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs as a key novel, would likely appeal equally to male readers.
The various Nordic Noir TV series, The Killing and The Bridge, with their focus not just on the crime and detection, but also the impact of crime on detectives and families – reached a very wide audience. Again, though, I would think there’s a slight balance towards female viewers, and quite a wide age range.
Sophie Hannah created a kind of crossover with stories which interleave a quite traditional detective story with a psychological thriller.
Patricia Highsmith also wrote deeply complex characters and also focused on psychopathic main characters, like Tom Ripley.
There’s a theory that all stories are about survival – from the campfire through fairytales to our love of crime fiction. We are social animals and we depend on each other to survive – none of us can go it alone. Understanding what makes other people tick is therefore a survival skill. This may go some way to explain why so many women love to read – and write – psychological thrillers. The domestic noir genre in particular is maybe a little bit close to home – crime stats tell us that we are most likely to be killed by someone who should love us. In fiction we can explore these situations and see them resolved and then return to our hopefully safer real lives.
Another long-standing theory about why people read crime fiction is that we enjoy reading about the everyday humdrum being turned upside down and then all is restored at the end as the criminals are caught and punished. This may still hold true in lots of crime fiction, but we are far more likely now to see loose ends and unsolved crime and criminals getting away with murder. And we also often enjoy identifying with the bad guys – and gals.
At the other end of the scale from dark realism, there are cosy mysteries – which hark back to an imaginary simpler time, where all the sex and violence is kept off stage and all the ends are neatly tied up. Everything in a cosy – even murder based on jealousy and revenge – is typically capable of rational explanation and can be safely tidied up and the everyday world restored at the end of the novel. There aren’t typically serial killers in a cosy – if there are I’ve never seen one – although the number of deaths in one village or the number of murder victims some amateur sleuths stumble across may make one wonder!
I would think in general the readers of cosy mysteries are more likely to be older women. As they are quite often series of novels, one of the pleasures is of getting to know a cast of characters – and cats – so there’s an element of familiarity to the novels.
For a writer there’s a lot of wiggle room in the genre, even though – just as with romance – there are a lot of conventions and tropes that readers expect – and although they want to be surprised and outguessed and to find something new and unusual in the story, they don’t want the writer to break the implicit promises of the genre.
I sometimes think that no matter her genius, Patricia Highsmith might find it difficult to get published today. Her stories sometimes – I’m thinking at the moment especially of The Cry of the Owl – are slow to build and are very subtle. In my experience I’ve had feedback from agents and publishers that my own novels start too slowly – and that’s even when the body of the first murder victim is found in Chapter One!
I love stories which focus on WHY the crime was committed, and where the tension and suspense come from questions other than WHO did the crime. Most readers seem to enjoy the WHO more than the WHY. I think that it’s possible to do this more if you are writing the kind of literary crime fiction favoured by Donna Tartt in The Secret History or The Goldfinch, or Tana French in The Witch Elm.
In summary – the target audience for crime fiction –
Anyone who likes solving puzzles. These kinds of novels appeal to either sex, I think. They’re fairly traditional and maybe have an older readership – unless they are combined with aspects of other subgenres.
Anyone who is interested in human nature – questions of morality, what makes a good person and a bad, explorations of why people sometimes break all the rules. Psychological thrillers and domestic noir probably appeal more to a female readership, serial killer stories more to male. But there’s likely a fair bit of crossover
Cosy crime fiction, often books in a series, are old fashioned and avoid graphic sex and violence. They tend to appeal to older readers, who like the familiarity of series characters and variations on the usual tropes – quirky amateur sleuths, for instance, or investigators who are helped by their pet cat.
Many kinds of crime fiction also satisfy a thirst for knowledge about other stuff which may feature as a setting or background.
There are legal thrillers, procedural detective stories, the forensics. These are enjoyed by both sexes but I have observed that men are often keener on these genres.
There’s also people who love crime fiction set in historical periods (Lindsey Davies Falco series, and Ellis Peters Cadfael series). There are others set in particular geographical locations – Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachian series, or Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series in California, Scotland for Denise Mina and Ian Rankin’s Rebus and so many more.
Different professions feature in some novels. I’ve recently read a novel which deals with the probation service, another the building trade.
I think there is a large subset of readers who like to learn something while they’re reading – often those who are worried that fiction is escapist and therefore a waste of time! Add in the other built-in excuses along the lines of exercising the little grey cells by trying to work out the mystery, and also about the relatively effortless acquisition of knowledge about ancient Rome or forensic science, and even people who reckon they’re too busy to read fiction will often find a crime novel when they want to unwind.
I think I’ve found reasons why more or less everyone should read crime fiction! Not that I’m biased, or anything.