Comfort Reading

by Henry Farrell on July 31, 2003

I settled down last night to re-read _Firebreak_, Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake’s) last-but-one Parker novel, which begins with the sentence.

bq. When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.

This induced a feeling of complete comfort in me, which is rather odd when you think about it. Why is it that so many people find it relaxing to read about murder and violent crime?

I’m not the only one by any means – there are murder mysteries by the yard down at your local bookstore, ranging from the hardboiled to the ghastly coy (housecats as detectives). All of them – even the goriest – are comfort reading. G.K. Chesterton, no mean constructor of mysteries himself, describes this property of the detective novel precisely in one of his Father Brown “stories”:, when a philosopher speaks to the joys of reading a penny-dreadful called _The Bloody Thumb_.

bq. “I can’t analyse myself well,” went on Boulnois; “but sitting in that chair with that story I was as happy as a schoolboy on a half-holiday. It was security, eternity–I can’t convey it… the cigars were within reach…the matches were within reach… the Thumb had four more appearances to…it was not only a peace, but a plenitude.”

My suspicion is that this feeling of murder-mystery nirvana stems from the specific nature of detective novels and crime thrillers. They’re little clockwork universes, in which everything is _predictable_. When you start a Parker novel, you know exactly what you’re going to get – amoral villains plotting a heist, unreliable civilians getting in the way, and Parker somehow finding his way through. This written in glistening hard prose, with all the meat stripped off. Westlake’s comic crime novels, such as his Dortmunder books, have the same basic heist-based plotline, but with some of the values reversed, so that the villains are friendly but inept, and the civilians are amoral and calculating. There are few authors out there who can pull this off as well as Westlake/Stark – Michael Blowhard calls him “America’s greatest fiction virtuoso”: – but his most successful books stick exactingly to the rules of the genre, and create self-contained universes in which a leads inevitably to b which leads inevitably to c. And that, I would contend, is precisely what’s comforting about them.

Although, come to think of it, this motif can be used against itself. The best single treatment of murder-mystery predictability that I know of is Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, _Death and the Compass_. It’s a crime novel stripped down to its barest elements, a game in which the detective and the villain are complicit. The villain creates an elaborate structure of murders, with hints of atrocious Kabbalism, in order to entice the detective to investigate. The detective realizes that this is a trap, but has no choice but to investigate anyway. Borges makes predictability into something scary and metaphysical – an elaborate, ritualized dance between detective and villain in which both know that they are playing out pre-ordained roles. Closed universes aren’t comfortable at all when the characters are aware that they’re closed universes; in fact, they’re damned creepy. But enough amateur literary criticism; I’ve got a paper to write …



brayden 07.31.03 at 8:25 pm

I know exactly what you mean about the comfort in reading crime novels. I am a James Ellroy fan – author of LA Confidential and White Jazz, classics in post-modern crime noir. Perhaps our fascination with terror stems from our own fear of it. We innoculate ourselves by toying with literary versions of danger. We’ve essentially ritualized a mystical, invisible danger that we perceive to be around us. Who knows?


Cobb 07.31.03 at 8:32 pm

Confronting fear literarily helps us recognize our own security. We are a coddled society in the mainstream. We need horror the same way we need exercise from sitting on our butts all day, we don’t face enough danger.

Reading crime novels is like chatting online with 14 year old girls.


Arthur D. Hlavaty 07.31.03 at 9:08 pm

W.H. Auden wrote an essay called “The Guilty Vicarage” about how the mystery serves as a ritual of violation followed by cleansing.


--k. 07.31.03 at 9:30 pm

But it’s also that, with a mystery novel, you can know The Answer. In a murder mystery, it’s Whodunnit. (Or sometimes How. Or Why.) –But the mystery is laid out before you, and you, with the detective, get to sort through the herrings red and otherwise and winnow out the definitive, objective truth. One can dress it up with police procedure or upper-class soap opera, one can even go pomo on its ass and ironically comment upon the impossibility of ever actually finding truth in this subjective world, but the basic, bone-deep satisfaction remains: there is a Mystery, a Question, and you can through a proxy solve it–or be dazzled by its solution.

Crime and caper novels work similarly, but are goal-oriented; it’s not what happened, but what will happen. X must be accomplished (a castle must be stolen, say; one of my favorite Dortmunders); how will it be done?

Certainly, the predictability and closed-world nature cited here are qualities to be found in any fiction that adheres slavishly* to the rules of a genre, whether it’s McSweeney’s whimsy, New Wave science fiction, O’Brianesque nautical fiction, fantasy by-the-yard epics, or the much-maligned professor-contemplating-adultery school. That’s what we want from any comfort food, literarily speaking: our expectations to be met–or at least most of them to be met, and others to be teased and disrupted artfully, to keep us delighted and surprised.

*Not intended as a negative comment; one can, after all, be a very good slave.


Henry 07.31.03 at 9:52 pm

–k – lovely comment, but could you expand a bit on how New Wave science fiction is formulaic? I take it that we’re talking about the same thing here – late 60’s New World, Judy Merril anthologies &c &c. Seems to me that they tried (sometimes too hard) to get away from genre formulae. I suppose that reaction can be its own set of cliches – but I’m having trouble in putting my finger on what the precise cliches of New Wave stuff ere.


--k. 07.31.03 at 10:20 pm

Damn. Try to be snarky and they catch you on it.

I’d be hard-pressed to articulate it at the moment, but a definite trend (heck, stampede) away from science-boosterism and tech-heavy problem solving (Golden Age SF, or a strong thick strand of it, is a close cousin to the mystery in that regard) toward: intensely subjective perspectives; a concern for the Other (especially as constructed along gender lines, but maybe that’s my own bias showing); and self-consciously lit’rary tropes and techniques–well, there’s a lot of different ways to solve those problems, but still: a reasonably coherent flocking pattern can be discerned.

Like any genre, it’s a construct, a convenience, and someone with a better grounding in SF criticism could make a better construct than I am at the moment–and as with any construct it starts to break apart if you pick at it too closely. Still: you can parody New Wave SF, broadly speaking (“Time Considered Where Late the Tik-Tok Man With No Mouth Sang,” to be cheeky); there’s a definite flavor–a there is there. For all that it is, admittedly, a sloppy and unruly example of genre.

I shoulda said “cyberpunk,” maybe, instead.


Henry 07.31.03 at 10:37 pm

Self-consciously literary sounds about right to me. Although there was some good stuff there – and at least one certified genius (Ballard). My favorite writer from that crowd, Mike (M. John) Harrison has a riff about how New Wave screwed him up for years – he kept on trying to react _against_ genre science fiction, instead of just going ahead and doing his own thing. I should do a post on this one of these days …


drapetomaniac 08.01.03 at 3:14 am

>Why is it that so many people find it relaxing to read about murder and violent crime?

perhaps bc we are murderous and violent people. the moral ending justifies to our consciences the immoral enjoyment it follows.


mitch 08.01.03 at 4:37 am

Personally, I don’t find it relaxing(!) to read about murder, and I find it disturbing that someone would respond as reported to that sentence, and even more so that the first handful of posters here blithely agree that this is a normal or at least a common reaction.


Laura 08.01.03 at 4:53 am

Well, mystery novels sell well. That suggests people find them relaxing, unless we’re to assume that people read them because they want to feel tense and upset. That’s not why I typically pick up a novel. I’m sure I’m extraordinary in many ways, but that’s not one I’d have picked.


Ruth Feingold 08.01.03 at 2:17 pm

Not only do mysteries sell well, they’re classic beach & vacation reading. This does seem to argue for a relaxation factor.

As to why people enjoy them, well, there are all sorts of possibilities. There’s the frisson that normally law-abiding citizens with ordinary lives can get via a vicarious brush with danger. There’s the pleasure of feeling smart and heroic, as we follow in the smart and heroic detective’s footsteps (even anti-hero detectives have something heroic about them, or we wouldn’t be reading).

Basically, though, I more or less agree with Auden (quoted above) although I wouldn’t have put it quite in those terms. In a murder mystery, something has gone wrong, fundamentally wrong, with the world. The detective’s job is not so much to find out whodunnit, but to restore order to a disordered universe. Finding the criminal not only contains that particular threat, but promises that other threats can and will also be contained.

Of course, then you have novels like The Big Sleep, in which the detective, although nominally restoring order, also discovers that he’s part of the disorder himself…


Kate Nepveu 08.01.03 at 4:01 pm

Reasons why some of my comfort books are shelved under “mystery” in the bookstores:

* Often craft-based (learning about whatever job the victim or detective has, for instance). I find how-things-work soothing.

* Inventiveness. I love well-crafted mysteries and capers for the creativity and cleverness that goes into them. Westlake’s Dortmunder books are excellent examples of this.

* Familiar characters. Many mysteries feature recurring protagonists whom I’ve grown fond of. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, for instance, or Dortmunder and the gang.

* The genre convention is generally that order will be restored.

This does not apply to Richard Stark, or Westlake’s non-comic novels, which I don’t read. OTOH, _everyone_ should read the Dortmunder books.


SKapusniak 08.01.03 at 6:13 pm

My comfort reading is filed under the Romance/Historical or Romance/Fantasy, rather than Mystery, and often has pictures of Bronzed and Shirtless Studly Guys (pant!) on the cover.

But it works the same way, I think. You know where it’s going from the very first page, you just want to see how they get there on this particular occasion, and how all the traditional elements have been played around with. Fun!


Duncan 08.01.03 at 6:42 pm

Crime fiction, by definition, involves a violation of the norm. This automatically distances us from the story because most of us (again by definition)lead normal lives (I’d guess that fewer people who have suffered from serious crime read it for escapism, though I’ve got nothing to prove that). The sentence Henry quotes is a particularly good example of this – if I read a sentence like that at the beginning of a novel, it immediately tells me that what happens in this book is going to be fundamentally different from my own experience of life. I think this, combined with the Puzzle factor that other people have mentioned, is the main reason why crime tends to be read in an escapist way.


Martin 08.01.03 at 10:50 pm

I like to read Alan Furst’s spy novels about Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s for escape, and I sometimes worry that it is wrong to be vicariously experiencing not just a murder or two but Facism, Nazism and Stalinism for fun and relaxation. Conversely, a book that I enjoyed but that created real anxiety and suspense for me, to an almost painful degree, was Balzac’s Lost Illusions. In this book the protagonist faced risks, not of violence, but of social embarrassement, excessive debt, business failure, pressure to commit unethical professional acts, etc. This stuff cut close to home.


Steve 08.01.03 at 11:36 pm

I’d say that caper novels are even more tightly constrained than mystery novels. A small band of people with distinct talents comes up with a complex means of acquiring something that doesn’t belong to them — seemingly unassailably protected — and getting away with it; things do not go quite as planned; afterwards, things go terribly astray, usually due to one team member’s incompetence or treachery. The essential plot is the same whether you’re reading The Score or What’s the Worst that Could Happen? or The League of Gentlemen.

The thing is, though, that while caper novels don’t seem to be a thriving genre beyond Westlake in his dual guises, caper movies have been critical and commercial successes (from at least The Asphalt Jungle through to the Ocean’s Eleven remake and The Italian Job). Is it just the opportunity for nail-biting direction in the caper itself (think Rififi)? Is it that moviegoers like seeing a variety of riffs on a well-worn formula? Capers made the name of Guy Ritchie (and arguably Quentin Tarantino, Resevoir Dogs being essential a caper movie that omits the caper). I can name easily a dozen comedy caper movies. What gives? Given the ratio between caper and mystery novels published every year, the genre seems disproportionally popular as a basis for movies.


Michael Blowhard 08.02.03 at 6:09 pm

Small factual point: mysteries (of the traditional sort, anyway) aren’t actually selling well these days. It’s a field that in a bit of a crisis, actually. Mystery readers of the traditional sort are getting older, and mystery writers haven’t learned how to hook younger people, who seem to crave more cyber-blasty, mediacentric entertainments. There are semi-related genres that seem to be taking up the slack (I think serial-killer thrillers are still viable, and thrillers generally seem to be prospering). And horror (especially erotic horror) is very big among young people. But, commercially speaking (and allowing of course for the occasional exception) old-fashioned puzzle mysteries have become a stagnant backwater. As escapist entertainments they seem too quiet for the masses.

One thought? Perhaps half-baked, but I think there’s something to it. I think people trying to explain the appeal of crime fiction overdo the setting-the-world-to-rights explanation and underdo something else — which is that a big part of what the various crime genres and subgenres offer is the pleasures of form. And not of the “literary” this-book-has-taken-on- its-own-unique-and-inevitable-form sort, which is something a lot of readers find a pain in the butt. But of known forms. I think there’s a lot to be said for the pleasures of this — of knowing the game that’s being played and enjoying watching how it’s being played. Much as there’s a lot to be said for poetry that uses conventional forms (or music, or building). While using accepted forms can often be a way of delivering a piece of snug escapism, it can also be a way to put across all kinds of fascinating other things, from psychology to politics to ideas to sociology. No one would say that Larkin wrote “comfort poetry” (not that there’s anything wrong with comfort poetry, or escapist entertainment); he was writing substantial and moving poems in traditional forms. Seems to me that crime forms are being used/have been used in similar ways by some writers; Ruth Rendell, for instance, or George V. Higgins. Both of whom, FWIW, strike me as delivering as much reading pleasure and even lit excitement as any contempo “lit” writers.


Chris Bertram 08.02.03 at 6:38 pm

I’ll probably post about this sometime soon, but I recommend Ken Worpole’s little book Dockers and Detective – Popular Reading: Popular Writing. Chapters 2 and 3 deal respectively with the detective novel and (another comfort source) the popular literature of the 2nd world war.

Comments on this entry are closed.