Killer Year–The Class of 2007

The Right Kind of Reader
August 23, 2006, 9:07 am
Filed under: Killer Year Founders, Sandra Ruttan

There’s more than one kind of crime fiction reader, and I’m the right kind.

Not just because I actually buy books, although that’s good news for the authors I read. What I mean by ‘the right kind’ of reader is that one of the critical elements in crime fiction, for me, is that I’m invested in justice. I want to see the guilty pay.

Sometimes, I think we can dance all around a topic, a philosophy, but then in one simple moment we put our finger on exactly what it is we think and we have clarity. We understand.

I’ve stated on numerous occasions that I’m a bit of a police procedural junkie. And curiously, British police procedurals have dominated my bookshelves. I never understood those who griped about the dominance of police procedurals in the UK market. To me, this just meant more great books to love. Whenever people groaned about another British police procedural, I’d feel my spine stiffen. I felt threatened, like they wanted to put an end to the books I loved. I took the griping personally.

But I never really processed why I loved police procedurals, until last week. I was reading views on a topic on The Billingham Talk Zone and it was only as I read through the various opinions that it finally clicked for me.

I want to know there’s someone else out there, somebody who sees the evils of the world and wants to stop the bad guys. That doesn’t mean I need to see every fictional criminal locked up in every book I read – it isn’t necessarily about succeeding. It’s about connecting, to a character who believes in justice, goes after it, tries to right wrongs.

Now, that doesn’t even mean the book has to be about cops. It’s just that you tend to find that aspect of the story in police procedurals. There are amateur sleuth/PI books that do the same: Cornelia Read’s debut, A Field of Darkness. Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books. John Rickards, in both Winter’s End and The Touch of Ghosts. And I’m curiously invested in Simon Kernick’s character, Dennis Milne. Flawed, yes, but not without redemption. And in some ways, a man more able to deliver justice than the average cop.

Now, you might be surprised at me, saying I’ve only realized this recently. Sandra, you’re writing police procedurals, aren’t you?

Not exactly.

Pairing a cop and a reporter as the two protagonists wasn’t something any author I was reading was doing when I started Suspicious Circumstances. Oh, I’m sure other authors were, but it certainly wasn’t about copying or being influenced by someone’s example.

What it was about was going into territory I felt confident with. I could step into the reporter’s shoes. Dealing with police procedure, for me, would be trickier.

But it didn’t really matter for this story, because corruption within the police department is such a key element that most of the time, Lara and Farraday are working well outside of standard procedure. Hell, a cop and a reporter, forced to work together after she’s attacked and they discover a body… Rewind and stop at the cop and reporter working together – this isn’t anything remotely like standard procedure.

Which brings me to another characteristic of the common popular cop. One who ignores their superiors and puts justice and truth ahead of politics and protocol. Why are these characters – Rebus, Thorne, McRae –so popular with readers? Precisely because they’re invested in justice. They say to hell with the politics and do what needs to be done, despite the risks to their career.

I know on the surface, people can look at those behaviours and say they’re reckless and self-destructive, but I think one of the reasons these fictional cops have such a wide appeal is because they put truth above a promotion. Not some ass-kissing political schmoozer who will change position in the blink of an eye. Someone with integrity, even if it’s just to their own moral code.

To me, this is why the police procedural will never die. There are a lot of readers out there who, like me, want to believe that when we’re the victims of a crime, some cop is going to put justice for us ahead of everything else, a cop we can trust, who won’t just go through the motions. We want to believe they’ll actually care.

For me, this is the appeal of reading about cops and writing about cops. Oh, obviously I don’t believe all cops are perfect. Rewind back to what I said about Suspicious Circumstances – corruption within the police department is such a key element that most of the time, Lara and Farraday are working well outside of standard procedure. The underlying themes of justice and trust are the critical elements to the story. As Julia Buckley said after reading it, Everyone in the book suspects somebody of something, not just the cops and reporters, but family members, kids, adults, townspeople. It creates a lot of tension.

Which was the whole idea. ☺ And, I hope, makes the reader that much more invested in seeing the bad guys brought down.

Because when you can’t trust your partner on the police force, standing up for the truth could cost you your life.

Welcome to Farraday’s world.

Are you the ‘right’ kind of reader? Or writer? What is it about crime fiction that appeals to you?

Sandra Ruttan
Author of Suspicious Circumstances
January 2007
On Life and Other Inconveniences
PS: If it’s an average day, I’ll cross the 23,000 visitor mark on my blog today. Thanks to all who read my ramblings. I promise a rant tomorrow like you haven’t seen from me in at least five days…


14 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Invested in justice? Maybe. Hate to admit it, but mostly I think it’s a morbid facination with the whys and wherefores of people doing horrible things. People are infinitely mysterious & interesting.

Honestly, I’m a terrible reader. I’ve put down more books in the last 3 months than I have in the last 3 years. The used bookstore is very happy with the huge number of books I’ve taken there. My budget is not happy at all – I prefer to buy new when I can, so I’ve spent more than I should have on books that ended up recycled. Hopefully someone else will enjoy them.

I think I’m all out of patience with cliched characters, cliched plots, and completely unbelievable scenarios. Hey, I’m down with that whole suspension of disbelief thing, but it damn well better at least be in the farthest corner of the realm of possibility. There seems to be a tyranny of genre conceits that 99% of thrillers & mysteries feel obliged to pay homage to and…I’m kinda tired of it.

Just call me…Desperately seeking a good book that doesn’t involve a cop with an alcohol/drug problem, marital difficulties, anger management problems, or is the constant and unbelievable obsessional object of each and every serial killer that comes into their sphere of activity. Or an amateur novel that doesn’t involve the critter detective brigade, female leads who are way too concerned with shoes and potential boyfriends, or unbelievably overly sensitive male protags. Is that so much to ask for?

Comment by Angie

I don’t think that’s too much to ask for, Angie. And I agree with most of it, except that in reality, there are a lot of cops who do struggle with serious problems as a result of their job stress. I grew up friends with lots of kids who had dads who were cops, so the idea of perfectly well-adjusted, happy smiley people who leave the job after 8 hours, always make it to the parent-teacher interviews and plan special getaways for the anniversary isn’t going to fly in the extreme either. I liked the early Allen Banks books, because he seemed to be trying at normal and for the most part, achieving it, but was still interesting. Of course, things have changed…

That said, I think Tymen Farraday is the cop you’re looking for. I know, I know, what a horrid thing to say to you. I’m such a tease. But there’s no serial killer, he’s not an alcoholic, doesn’t have a drug problem, he’s single and he’s in control.

And despite all that, I don’t think he’s boring, but I don’t want to give too much away…

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

LOL, Angie, and I think Bobbie Faye is the woman you’re looking for. She definitely isn’t worried about shoes and when you see the shirt the poor thing is forced to wear… 😉

Sandra, I love this post… I just posted on a corollary to Angie’s frustration — finding the unexpected. I think I’m attracted to crime novels and police procedurals because I want to have the sense of that tenacity in such a disconnected world — that someone cares, that they won’t quit, even when it would be so much easier to do so.

Comment by toni mcgee causey

Thanks Toni. I think, fundamentally, we all want people to care about something. An apathetic protagonist has to be the hardest sell. I think that’s why I’ll lean to those who take the law into their own hands instead of the cozies if I’m going to swing, because I don’t like books that treat crime like it isn’t serious or is just a big joke.

And what are you saying about Bobbie Faye’s t-shirt, hmmm? I can’t wait to see how that turned out.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Hey, any protag described as “a pissed off Cajun queen” has a spot in my book budget. I can’t imagine any of the Cajun folk I know arguing over whether or not Louis Vuitton is passe or classic. Thank god.

Comment by Angie

Cajun queen thing caught my eye, also.

Husband’s a doctor. He deals with cops everyday. I ran the question by him:

“Just how drunk, alienated, morose, unsmiling, tortured, divorced, out of control are they?”

He scratched his head. “Not at all, that I can tell. Least, no worse then the rest of us schmucks. Maybe they’re all good actors?”

Comment by m.g. tarquini

Hey Sandra. I read crime fiction for some of the same reasons you do. For justice. Turn on the tv and see all the horror that goes on in the world. And a lot of times there isn’t any justice. So I read crime fiction to read a story of a crime where in the end justice is served. Maybe not always but in the majority of crime fiction the bad guy gets it and the good guys save the day. Well maybe not quite so cliche but… And also I read crime fiction because even before I begin a book I have some idea what the story is about. Comfort factor.

I also read crime fiction because there are a lot of damn good crime fiction writers out there! Good writing, good stories, good characters….what more can you ask for?

My taste in crime reading goes from cozy to police procedural to hard boiled to noir. My cozy reading is more for the times when I’m down. On those days I just can’t read some of the grim crime novels I have so I’ll read a cozy. Which sometimes are far from reality but it’s my escapist reading. 🙂

Right now I’m reading Dying Light by Stuart MacBride. Boy is it a terrific book! But boy is it grim!

Comment by Andrea Maloney

MG, they have to stay awake for shifts on radar giving speeding tickets and make it look important. Of course they’re good actors.

Andrea, I can see the comfort factor of cozies. I’m also glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks like this. I think crime is something that affects us all, be it higher insurance premiums or being afraid to walk our dog at night if there’s a rapist in the neighbourhood, for example. And so crime fiction tends to speak more about society and social ills than any other kind of fiction.

The very best books I read linger with me long after I’ve read the last page, because they made me think about something important. Not in a hit-you-over-the-head-heavy-handed kind of way, even subtle. Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal did that, for example.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

I have to say that the idea that justice needs to prevail isn’t a major reason I read crime fiction. If that were the case, then no one would read Jim Thompson or Richard Stark. I think one of the reasons anyone reads crime fiction (or at least the more realistic stories in the genre) is like any piece of literature: to understand ourselves. Robert Warren Penn wrote a great essay on why we read fiction for The Atlantic(?) about thirty some-odd years ago; and I think his theories on reading in examining the self still hold true. As crime fiction (at least the non-cozies) turn more realistic, I think they present a greater opportunity to look at not only ourselves, but at society as a whole. Sure, we all want the bad guys to go to jail, as a society we need to believe in that; but in reality, that doesn’t always happen. Why? But one of the more important questions is why does crime happen at all? Crime fiction enables us to focus on the criminal and understand his/her motives. I can’t remember the name of the writer, or the name of the story; but after the assassination of Martin Luther King, a short story came out told through the POV of the killer. In fact, the FBI used the story as part of their psychological profile.

Justice doesn’t always prevail, and basing our reading habits on ensuring it does in fiction hinders one of the important reasons for fiction – no matter the genre.

But your mileage may vary.

Comment by Steve Allan

Don’t forget Steve, I never said that there had to be justice. More that the protagonist cared about justice. I’m very much in the ‘realism’ camp. But it’s an underlying theme that’s important to me. If there was a cop who was completely apathetic and didn’t care about any of the victims or the crimes, it would be a hard sell for me to read about him.

I mean, if you want real endings, read Rankin, McDermid, Billingham… But their characters care.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Crime fiction has been said to be about the restoration of order.

But for me, it’s the destruction and rebellion that are the more attractive qualities of crime fiction.

Order can be stifling and breaking free from it is exciting, even if it’s all in our minds.

Comment by Daniel Hatadi

I am buying Daniel a t-shirt that says Anarchy Rules. 🙂

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

And I’m gonna cross out the word ‘anarchy’ and write ‘RULING’ on top of it.

Comment by Daniel Hatadi

Can some people deal with alcohol and other drugs better than others? WBR LeoP

Comment by Medic

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