There is a boom in crime and thriller fiction in the UK, with sales having increased by 19% since 2015 (18.7 million crime books were sold last year). It is the first time since Nielsen Bookscan’s records began that crime has sold more than general and literary fiction (dropping by 16%). It made up 36% of all book sales last year. Where has this rise come from, and what is it about crime that gets readers wanting to turn the pages?
There are numerous factors that help explain the increased popularity of crime fiction. Big authors in the field like Lee Child, James Patterson and Dan Brown have turned out new books last year, and their names help the books fly off the shelf.
The psychological thriller sub-genre has seen phenomenal growth. According to Julia Wisdom, a crime and thriller publisher for Harper Collins, they “immerse you straight into someone’s psyche” rather than relying on overly-complicated plots.
Crime fiction has been attacked by its critics for strictly obeying a formula
It continues to be the case that long-standing masters like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie remain popular with audiences, especially given the continued adaptation of their work (we saw the fourth series of Sherlock at the start of the year, and one of the year’s big cinema releases was a new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express).
So why is crime fiction booming now? David Baldacci, a bestselling thriller writer, has a theory: “When times are stressful and it looks like the bad is winning out over the good, along comes the genre of crime novels to put the balance back in life. People inherently don’t like folks who do bad to get away with it. In real life they do, all the time, because of a variety of factors. But in novels, evil is punished, and the good guys mostly win, after solving the puzzle. And all is right with the world. At least fictionally.”
Ian Rankin, author of the Rebus novels, also notes that there’s “a rise in domestic noir novels, where it’s pretty much ordinary people caught in these extraordinary situations. So the reader goes, well, that could be me.”
Crime fiction has been attacked by its critics for strictly obeying a formula: although there are always exceptions, you know what you’re going to get in a crime novel, and that is a gripping plot with a definite resolution. However, this often works to the genre’s favour – readers are more likely to turn to something they know.
If you pick up a crime novel, suspense and action is guaranteed in a way that it isn’t in other genres.
On top of that, crime is often an easy starting point for new readers, because everybody has heard of Sherlock Holmes. A murder mystery is accessible in a way that other genres aren’t – if you fancy a light and easy read, you’re definitely picking up an Agatha Christie or a James Patterson instead of Dickens or Austen.
If you pick up a crime novel, suspense and action is guaranteed in a way that it isn’t in other genres. The readers are presented with the worst in human nature, with crimes as abhorrent as murder and sexual assault filling their pages, but they continue reading because they know that in the end, the guilty will be punished. As Baldacci said, crime fiction has a comforting quality because things will be wrapped up and questions will be answered.
On top of this, we also have the thrill of the puzzle. If you pay attention and if you’re smart enough, you can figure out the answer before the author reveals it – there is no feeling quite as satisfying as reaching the conclusion of a murder mystery and realising that you have won the battle of wits.
Good crime fiction is necessarily a reader-centred experience
Good crime fiction is necessarily a reader-centred experience, because it only works if the reader is willing to engage with it – other genres can see the author be (for want of a better word) pretentious, and focus on what they want to get out of it. In crime fiction, the author wants a reader to try and solve their crimes.
Crime has always been historically popular and, as a fan of the genre, I’m glad that it is booming. If you’ve never tried it before, there’s no better time to delve in!