Jørn Lier Horst: Why Do We Read Crime?

The crime genre has always attracted me. Ever since my dad sat at my bedside and read the Donald Duck comics to me. The stories of Mickey Mouse with Goofy as his sidekick were those I liked best. Later I read The Famous Five, the Hardy Boys and other stories with enigmatic mysteries. As a grown up I still prefer to read and even write novels in this genre.

But why do we read crime? Why do we let ourselves be entertained by what we otherwise deplore? Why do we love cruelty in fiction?

These questions often arise when I'm interviewed about my books, either in Norway or in other countries. The first time I was asked about this was in my first interview as a writer. That time I misunderstood the question. Do we need crime? asked the journalist and referred to crime as a literary genre. I still worked full time as a police investigator and thought he meant crime as in offenses.

The answer to that is yes. We need crime. At least a passable amount of it. Crime is a natural, necessary, indispensable and fundamental structure in every society. We need someone who violates the norms. It strengthens and creates a necessary unity amongst the rest of us. By punishing the offenders, we illustrate where the limits are, and punishments function partly as a reminder to the law-abiding population. Those who behave properly may feel morally superior, good and self-righteous. It strengthens the team spirit and helps us maintain a collective awareness and social solidarity. Without such a unity, everyone would be left to themselves and have to fight for themselves without control from the community's law and order. Out of that there arises the kind of lawlessness that causes societies to fall.

Crime literature works in the same way. The stories of killing and other crimes are based on violations of the norm. A protagonist - a skilled investigator - restores the balance we want and ensures that justice prevails. As readers, we place ourselves on the right side of the law, together with Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple and all the others. We clap ourselves on the
back, pleased to follow the same moral compass. What we have read gives us a confirmation of
ourselves and our own innocence.

The moral order of man has been linked to religion since Moses gave us the ten commandments, but the church's moral guardians are no longer unique. The Bible has had competition. Today it is perhaps in crime books that morality and ethics are most discussed and debated, that is where the various ideas about crime and justice are explored. In this way, the genre helps communicate and convey the basic values on which our society rests, such as human dignity, justice, respect, charity, caring, co-responsibility, forgiveness, freedom, equality for all and solidarity with the weak and vulnerable.

We can still wonder why we read these kinds of books? The world is cruel enough as it is, so why should we read more about all the misery that exists? I think that's just why. Reading is about understanding. Crime literature gives us an opportunity to understand the incomprehensible. We are let in to places that are usually closed to us; behind the police barriers, we get insight into the victim's fears and in the criminal's mind. The crime novel is an open window towards the unsafe and uncertain, where we get the opportunity to get close to people and crimes that we otherwise would most likely pull away from. We are given an opportunity to understand crime and other deviates.

Last summer I think I come even closer to an answer of why we read crime. 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 conversation with the relatives and the bereaved. The person who took the death hardest was the sister of the deceased. I spent hours in conversation with her. I met her again in an airport last year 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 me 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. Crime books pulled her into something exciting and made her, for a while, able to forget everything around her.

As well as helping us to understand reality better, literature might also give us the opportunity to escape from reality. Given a chance to disconnect from the world around us through an exciting and easy-to-read story, the reader is pulled away from everyday worries and problems. We identify with the hero. For a moment we become part of his (or her) universe; the hero's enemies are our enemies, their friends are our friends. At the same time, we are sated with our intrinsic search for answers - whether it is who did it, or why.

And of course, we also read crime because of the excitement. Crime books take us away in time and place, out on an exciting journey. We like the adrenaline – the pulse beating a little faster. We like the sting in the stomach, the uncertainty, the curiosity - and finally the explanation with an unexpected and surprise end.

As readers, we let ourselves be entertained by killing and other serious crimes. As an author, I give you the pleasure and the amusement.

Killing is an outrageous act we all take a great distance from, but we also let ourselves be fascinated by it. As an author, I am fascinated by the bad intentions. That's why I became an investigator. The interest in the intent. What lies behind the crime.

My work as a murder investigator has taught me a lot about death, but even more about life. The books I write are about that, about the causes and consequences of crime. In addition to telling a good story, I like to make my readers think. I like to create a turmoil about how the destruction from crime is irreparable and disillusioning.

I genuinely hope that you only ever experience a crime through the pages of my novels!

To purchase your copy of Horst’s latest crime novel, please click on the highlighted The Katharina Code link.


Other events: