As anyone who’s ever gone on the case with Sherlock Holmes or with Lisbeth Salander of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” books knows, it’s no mystery that crime and mystery novels have achieved new records in sales in recent years.
After all, they provide the thrill of pursuit and the comfort of a tidy resolution. But any gumshoe worth her salt knows that a closer look reveals that there is more to the story.
Our fascination with crime and mystery reflects our cultural anxieties and desires, say experts.
“The current popularity of crime and mystery makes sense during these stressful times,” says Kathryn Duncan, an English professor at Saint Leo University in Florida.
“Stories reflect our culture and help us cope. During a time of fake news and a seemingly endless quest for truth, it makes sense that a genre about truth seeking would be popular and reassuring.... We psychologically crave closure, and detective fiction gives us this,” she says.
That may be why we’ve seen a plethora of crime and detective programming recently – think “Mindhunter” on Netflix, which debuted in October and will air a second season; “The Alienist,” a limited series that aired on TNT earlier this year; and “Sharp Objects,” an upcoming HBO miniseries based on the novel of the same name by “Gone Girl” writer Gillian Flynn that will air in July.
And now there’s “C.B. Strike,” a television adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s “Cormoran Strike” novels that will debut on Cinemax June 1.
The stories chronicle the cases of private investigator Cormoran Strike, an Afghanistan War veteran with physical and psychological injuries, and his assistant, Robin Ellacott.
Considering its megawatt author, it’s no surprise the “Strike” series was a bestseller.
What is surprising: For the first time since Nielsen BookScan began keeping record, crime novels outsold general fiction in the United Kingdom in 2017. Mysteries, thrillers, and crime was the most popular genre among readers in the United States in 2015, according to market research database Statista. Indeed, this genre makes up almost half the May 6 New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list.
Experts offer clues to our national – in fact, transatlantic – fascination with the genre.
In fact, the appeal is nothing new, says Laurah Norton, a senior lecturer in the English department at Georgia State University in Atlanta and the co-creator behind the true-crime podcast “The Fall Line.”
“We have always been interested in crime,” says Professor Norton. “Just look at the true detective pulp novels and magazines that began to gain popularity in the latter part of the 19th century, or Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin and [Arthur Conan] Doyle’s Sherlock.”
Whether it is 1918 Britain or 2018 America, the fascination is the same: a universal curiosity about the extremes of human behavior and the allure of crossing – literarily, at least – the yellow tape at a crime scene.
An obsession with evil appears to be heightened in these turbulent times, says Dean Flower, a retired English professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
“The worse we think our society is getting, the more hunger we have ... for meaning,” says Professor Flower. “[Mysteries satisfy] a craving for bringing order out of chaos, or nastiness, or social sickness.”
In real life, says Flower, we hear about violence and chaos, but often without a clear understanding of its source or how to make sense of it.
Mysteries take that same mayhem and give readers “the possibility of a solution, of figuring out the source of corruption or evil.” It is a rare mystery novel that doesn’t wrap up with the criminal being revealed and an explanation of why he or she committed the crime. Astute readers may have gotten there before the book’s sleuth.
In the case of the “Strike” novels, there may be another appeal: a female author.
“Women have always been consumers of crime media and today are the majority of the audience,” says Norton. “Our interest in the genre has at least something to do with our need to confront the fact that, by and large, we’re more likely to be the victims of the kind of crimes we read about.”
In a sense, when a woman writes the story, that puts power back in the hands of women everywhere, adds Flower, especially in light of the #MeToo movement.
“I think for women, it can be quite energizing, even thrilling, that ‘we have the right to write our own stories.’ ”