Criminal Minds is the name of a popular television series and is one of several popular shows streaming on various digital platforms, but you would be excused if you weren’t aware of just how many people also enjoy reading about murders, espionage and mysteries of all kinds. The fact that so many TV shows are based on books has only served to make this genre — crime fiction — even more popular.
Some of the most famous fictional characters come from the world of whodunits. Think Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Arkady Renko (Martin Cruz Smith), John Rebus (Iain Rankin), Kurt Wallander (Henning Mankell), Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen (Peter Hoeg), Cormoran Strike (Robert Galbraith), Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larsson), Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford (Ruth Rendell), Inspector Singh (Shamini Flint), and our very own Miss Lalli (Kalpana Swaminathan), Arjun Arora (Ankush Saikia) and Mr Majestic (Zac O’Yeah), to name just a few. As for James Bond, he emerged from the imagination of Ian Fleming long before he occupied the bodies of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig!
Long back, when a colleague in India Today told me her father was a detective, the picture that sprang to mind was of a hunched character, hatted, coated, collar turned up and wearing dark glasses following clues nose-deep, magnifying glass in hand. It was disappointing to discover that a lot of his work involved ‘vetting’ young men and women of marriageable age, or checking up on the ‘activities’ of spouses! A detective interviewed on TV once said that her agency got a lot of requests from parents wanting to know what exactly their children were up to.
Crime fiction novels are far more sumptuous fare. In the case of a writer like Julie Shaw, they are literally homegrown. Her bestselling My Mam Shirley, My Uncle Charlie and Our Vinnie draw from her own family’s history of criminal notoriety. Charlie Hudson, for instance, is still spoken of in hushed tones in Yorkshire where, in the 1940s, he ran betting rings and prostitution rackets. To Julie, however, he was just a loving uncle, her just-as-questionable father Keith’s brother.
Denzil Meyrick was a beat cop in Glasgow nearly 30 years ago. Today, he has seven published novels featuring DCI Daley. But most writers rely on research, sharp thinking, imagination and superb writing skills to craft novels that we find unputdownable. The last-mentioned quality is the first and best thing about crime fiction. No wonder, this genre is so popular. It gets the adrenaline seriously pumping as the plots twist and turn and hurtle towards an unexpected ending.
Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction, and truth is the foundation upon which all crime fiction is built: the investigator or investigating agency is after the truth of the matter, whether it is a murder, a theft, or a terrorist plot. In this context, the best person to quote is American novelist Tom Clancy who wrote mostly espionage and military-science thrillers. Famously, his Debt of Honour has a character piloting a Boeing 747 into the US Capitol when Congress is in session. The horrific incidents of 9/11 that came after publication of this book, immediately drew comparisons with this scene.
Writing about Clancy after his death in 2013, Christopher Mathews points to three other real-life incidents that Clancy seems to have ‘predicted’. Clancy released a video game called ‘Ghost Recon’ in 2001 featuring the conflict between Georgian rebel forces and Russian nationalists. The game is set in April 2008. The real conflict between Georgia and Russia took place in August 2008. In Dead or Alive, there’s an Osama Bin Laden-type character who is finally neutralised by special operatives in a hideout in Las Vegas. The book was published barely a few months before the real Bin Laden was taken out in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And Clear and Present Danger predates the US government’s secret tapping of phones and use of undercover military operations to counter terrorist activity in West Asia; Edward Snowden enabled this information to be leaked to the world. Clearly, imagination is all to do with the real.
Reading crime fiction definitely helps recharge the grey cells. As psychologist Miriam Henke says: “Mysteries 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 out something correctly.” Basically, stories of mystery, crime, espionage and the like offer an escape from reality. It’s danger with no risk to the reader and generally, justice is served in the end. All in all, it’s the perfect formula and the ideal salve for a world-weary reader.
It is interesting to note that fictional sleuths are rarely perfect; they have flaws that could take the form of troubled relationships, or dark pasts, or bad memories, alcoholism or drug addiction, or PTSD. Basically, their personal lives are often a mess. But when it comes to work, their eccentricities make them brilliant, like Hercule Poirot, for instance. Even the otherwise stable Jimmy Perez of the Shetland series written by Ann Cleeves has a difficult daughter, Cassie, to deal with; besides, he is her stepfather, although her real father also lives in the neighbourhood and they share fathering responsibilities in the absence of her deceased mother. So you see, crime fiction is not just about crime, it is also about people.
Sometimes books in this genre can be ‘darker’. For instance, the kind of murders solved by Jane Marple in a little English village portrayed by Agatha Christie are a far cry from the menacing undertones of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series set across Sweden. Often referred to as ‘noir’ fiction, the protagonists are often the victims themselves, or the perpetrators of the crime. Although not all Scandinavian crime fiction falls into this category, nearly all the books reflect the icy toughness of the landscape in which the novels are set.
Every country has its cast of crime fiction writers. However, one of the most famous books in this genre must surely be The Name of the Rose by the Italian writer Umberto Eco. This historical murder mystery is set in a monastery in the fourteenth century and is a must-read.
In an article titled ‘Why people like detective stories’, Joe Bunting says they are a game, a puzzle, and people love solving puzzles, in the same way that they love doing crossword puzzles (or Sudoku). “People are puzzles,” he writes. “It’s often difficult to understand why people do the things they do. Detective stories give us a glimpse into people we would never get in real life… These heroes lead us into the psyches of the dead, and in so doing, help us to understand the living.”
Reading crime novels sure gives the brain a solid workout. It’s also a way of dealing with stress. A good book is a mood elevator, and crime novels are engaging reads, besides winning you friends. The first time I took the Caltrain in San Francisco, I asked someone for directions. She said she was going the same way and asked me to follow her. We then spent the next 40 minutes chatting — about our favourite crime novels! That was the only time we met, but two years on we’re still exchanging notes and she’s read and enjoyed Ankush Saikia’s Remember Death. So, the next time you’re on a metro anywhere in the world, sneak a peek at what people are reading. Chances are it will be a juicy ‘murder’ mystery! Unless, of course, they’re reading on ‘devices’. Ugh!
Postscript: This is for the uninitiated: apart from the names already mentioned in this column, you may want to try Abir Banerjee, P D James, Sara Peretsky, Sue Grafton, Andrea Camilleri, Patricia Highsmith, Hakan Nesser, John Le Carre, Gillian Flynn, Vaseem Khan, Stephen King, Lee Child, Paula Hawkins, Sujata Massey… and many, many more. Go, find them and read them.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.