Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The literary rebus

by Jorn Lier Horst, Norway

Why do we read crime? The question pops up in the Norwegian media periodically, just as the statistics of this year's best-selling books or the libraries most borrowed books are presented. And it is a good question. Why do we let ourselves be entertained by what we otherwise deplore? Why do we love cruelness in fiction?

The genre's popularity is difficult to explain. It has been claimed that it is linked with a society characterized by pace, new online media, superficial reality shows and gossip magazines that provide literature with increasingly tighter conditions. A development due to the fact that we live in a time that is characterized by entertainment and a general tendency to flattening and stultification as a result.

I think the reason for the popularity is more complex than that, and that crime is more than superficial entertainment.

The Famous five
The Crime genre has always attracted me. Ever since my dad sat at my bedside and read Donald Duck comics to me. The stories of Mickey Mouse with Goofy as his sidekick were those I liked best. Later I read the series about The Famous Five, the Hardy Boys and other stories with enigmatic mysteries. These books had their own vitality that pulled me in and let me be part of an exciting journey. The literary rebus attracted me.

Martin Beck mysteries
When I became older and read books by authors like Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Henning Mankell and Gunnar Staalesen I realized that books of this genre also offered something more than an exciting and riveting story. These books broke with the established norms of delivering pure entertainment. Social criticism and existential dilemmas were interwoven into the crime format, and the genre distanced itself from other mass-produced formula literature. The distinction between so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ forms of literature became more diffuse, and the crime novel today has gained admittance to the same market as other serious literary fiction in Norway.

But the social concern of the authors does not provide a good answer to why so many readers prefer crime.

Local newspaper: Young man died after blind violence
I think I came closer to an answer in an airport last summer. I met a woman I had not seen in five years. In 2009 I led the investigation of the murder of her brother. He was beaten to death during an argument at a local pub. It was a simple investigation. The pub’s CCTV cameras filmed everything. The hardest task was the dialogue with the relatives and the bereaved. The one who took the death hardest was the sister of the deceased. I spent hours in conversation with her. Last summer I met her again when I was on my way to New York. She came up to me in the departure hall and dragged my latest novel out of her bag. She had bought it in the airport shop and wondered if I could sign it. As I did so, she told how much joy she had found in my books. I could not hide my surprise that she, who had experienced her own brother being killed, could find pleasure in reading a crime novel. She told me that she read crime to unwind from everyday life. In the couch she could sit on a comfortable distance from the ghoulish. Crime books pulled her into something exciting and made her, for a while, able to forget everything around her.

I think the joy of crime books have to do with this, and that we all have an inherent force that seeks equilibrium and clarity in the face of mysteries. In the novel we meet a protagonist who creates order in the chaos. He gets us to understand the incomprehensible and create justice out of injustice. The crime novel can give us an answer in our quest for the truth - whether it's about who did what or why. It's all about finding the solution to a riddle; the investigator must restore an order that has been disturbed, and I think that such a restoration of law and order has an appeal to the reader in our chaotic world. 

Jorn Lier Horst


  1. Jørn, I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head in your last paragraph. I started reading Scandinavian mysteries for the different settings. I still prefer to be put into a foreign setting that may or may not be vaguely familiar. Maybe that is part of the escape I get from reading, not unlike a small vacation.

  2. In my previous post I wrote about how literature can help us to understand reality, but also how it can be an escape from an unpleasant reality. Barabara Leavy asked med how a book of mayhem, murder, and misery can be an escape from reality. I'm thinking that the crime novel also meets another genuine human needs: our dreams. We use this form of literature to dream away. For a brief moment we become a part of the hero's universe, the hero's enemies are our enemies, his friends are our friends, and often we would just like to also see that his men were our women (or her men were our men).

  3. Jørn, I add my praise for your hammer hitting skills to that of Jono's! Last summer I participated in a literary festival where I was the only crime writer among a slew of Greek, Balkan, Asian, and Scandinavian poets. It was quite an experience on many levels, but what stood out most to me was how the poets who went at the heart of things--their personal experiences in the "Balkan Crisis of the 1990s" for instance--and engaged the reader, rather than soaring above the fray on some existential plain, attracted the most attention from the audience. Readers, in this case listeners, struck me as looking for some escape from their daily dilemmas by trailing along with a protagonist (or poet) on a journey toward returning some semblance of order to a fractured society. Bravo!

  4. Yes, I agree completely. And add this thought. In a mystery, often the efforts of the "investigator" (of whatever type) engage the reader in a special way. When we read mysteries, we not only observe what is happening, as we might in a different kind of story. We also try to solve the mystery. We "help" our protagonist by considering the clues, evaluating the possibilities, "psychoanalyzing" the suspects, theorizing about what to do next and especially about who dunnit and why. This makes the escape much more complete, because we are taking part in an active way.

  5. I find it interesting that literature (along with all of our cuture, really) changes... no, that's not right, that the POPULARITY of various areas of culture, that's better... that it changes as society goes through its generational swings. In post-WW II, when the world was rebuilding and 'everyone' had a can-do attitude, science fiction hit its stride and created some remarkable works that studied, not only the future and how we would deal with it, but humanity itself, by placing humans in strange and non-normal situations and environments. Times have changed, society is much less... forward-looking? optimistic? Today we're more stressed, tired and weary from too many pressures, and science fiction has been pushed to the back of the bus by pure escapist fantasies, and crime/mystery stories have become a force of their own, offering reassurance that, no matter how bad things are or get, there will be justice and order soon. We hope.

  6. Very interesting post. Not every crime novel brings justice; just look at Donna Leon's series with Commissario Guido Brunetti. And not every Salvo Montalbano book does either.
    But, a mystery pulls us in, especially if the writing is good and the scenario interesting and the plot gripping.

    We can be tired, stressed, and needing an escape.
    A regular novel may not pull us in quite the same way. But usually crime fiction pulls us in -- and if it's a good book, it's unputdownable. One wants to get through the mystery and find out whodunnit or whydunnit -- and that strong undercurrent keeps us reading until we get to the denouement.
    A crime fiction blogger just asked me about a good book if there is a strong mystery in it. That's what she wanted to know -- not about the characters, the setting, the time period -- but the mystery: Was there a murder? Is it resolved?