The Game of Crime Fiction

Crime fiction is written for entertainment.

Like all stories, crime stories are about people and not so much about crime. People who want to read about crime read real crime, not crime fiction.

Crime fiction is a way of exploring human behaviour and social injustice. It allows us to wonder why people commit acts like murder and to explore the consequences of those acts on a wide range of people, not just the offender. It also allows us an insight into the world of the people tasked with bringing offenders to justice.

Although crime stories allow us an insight into why people commit crime, they also usually provide a reassurance that crimes can be solved. The investigating officer arresting the offender before the end of the story is one of the unwritten rules of the game and it’s not often you read a story where the offender gets away – but it does happen. Take the second Inspector Morse story by Colin Dexter, Last Seen Wearing, for example.

Crime stories, especially murder mysteries, are a game between authors and readers.

Authors want to keep the suspense and mystery going to draw their readers into the story. Readers, on the other hand, are drawn into a murder mystery by their sense of curiosity and the challenge of working out who did it before the author reveals the identity of the killer.

Authors have the advantage at the start of the game. They’re the ones telling the story but they need to be careful not to give the game away too early. If readers are to win, they need to stay aware of the difference between genuine clues and misleading distractors, otherwise they’ll be led down the garden path by a scheming author.

The entertainment for both authors and readers comes from stories that keep readers guessing until the identity of the offender becomes known towards the end of the story. Well constructed mysteries allow authors to tell their stories in full, but they also allow readers to find out if they solved the crime along with – or way before – the investigating detective.

Of course, some people play by their own rules and read the ending first, getting their entertainment from watching how the story is structured to deliver that ending. I’m not one of those, even when I’m writing the story. I like discovering what happens as the story unfolds whether I’m reading or writing the story.

Crime stories allow us to walk on the dark side of the street from a safe place. They take us to places most of us would never dream of going. But, at the same time, they remind us we’re all capable of crossing to the dark side under the right circumstances. Maybe that’s why the game of crime fiction is so popular.

Peter Mulraney is the author of the Inspector West and Stella Bruno Investigates crime series.