Crime fiction as escapism
I love crime. I was lost to the crime fiction genre the moment I first cracked open a Sherlock Holmes story in childhood. It might seem odd to be obsessed with books about grisly murders and bodies, but I am not alone: according to The Guardian, in 2017, crime novels outsold “general and literary” fiction books in the United Kingdom for the first time. Crime fiction, with its subgenres — the whodunit, the hard-boiled, the noir, the traditional detective story — has always enjoyed a great deal of popularity.
For many, crime fiction represents an orderly, satisfying, even predictable entertainment, where no matter the nuances of the story, there exist the goodies and the baddies, and the hunt in between. It is a distinction and a necessity that crime fiction proceeds with certain conventions, which have become more lax over time but which are still a part of the genre: the gradual depiction of clues, the pursuit of truth and its revelation. Writing a “defence of the detective story,” G. K. Chesterton wrote of how the genre appeals to our sense of romance, saying that “it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure,” with our modern police force “a type of knight-errantry.” The writer David Baldacci attributes the popularity of crime fiction to the need for balance and justice in a chaotic world: “[When] 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… in novels, evil is punished, and the good guys mostly win… And all is right with the world. At least fictionally.”
Could the growing chaos of the last few years have prompted the rise in popularity of crime fiction both here and abroad? It’s not a far-fetched theory. Crime is more popular than ever and its platforms have evolved, with the podcast rising as an attractive, easy-to-digest format. The popularity of crime fiction is also tangled with that of the true crime genre, which is the nonfiction equivalent, detailing actual crimes and the actions of real persons.
“Serial,” the game-changing investigative podcast about the 1999 murder of a young girl, is the most downloaded podcast in history, and has sprouted a number of copycats pursuing the trail of decades-old cold cases hoping to uncover the truth.
Maybe this appeals to our sense of justice; maybe it satisfies some of our voyeuristic tendencies. Maybe it gives us puzzles we can solve tidily when no such tidiness is to be found in real life. I believe my own hunger for crime as entertainment stems from a desire for escape. Like many I see articles and photos about extrajudicial killings, but in the third year of President Duterte’s drug war, I have lost count, and have forgotten names—only graphic images linger in the memory, like a boy with a bloodied shirt on the side of the road, or a naked girl bobbing facedown in the water of Manila Bay, or weeping mothers in wakes. We have all wondered when there would be an end to the madness. The Philippines, an already fractured society to begin with, has been turned upside down, with institutions being shot down and discredited one by one until all that remains is a mountain of bodies, and a strongman who never takes
accountability for his words or actions or the culture he has inspired. There is no romance here and no sense of justice, and we have no tidy solutions.
And so we turn to fiction, to distraction. The latest podcast I have downloaded is about a teacher who went missing in 2005, and about the detectives — both official and amateur — who have given years of their life to solving the mystery. The podcast, which has helped to stir interest in the cold case, ends with an arrest. It is easier to think about than the latest EJK, or the girl whose drowned, bloated body was so graphically described by journalist Lynzy Billing in a recent Topic article which lingers in the mind. As with the tens of thousands of EJK victims, there will be no detectives pursuing the case of that nameless girl for years, and there will be no podcasts made about her; and we all know that their stories will not end in arrests.
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