A few weeks ago, after having a stressful week, I came home Friday evening with the knowledge that I would not spend the weekend reading complex academic tomes or challenging literary experiments. Instead, I would immerse myself in Scandinavian thrillers. They were all I had in me. Not because thrillers are low-brow. They take immense thought to create. But they don’t—and this is key—take commensurate mental energy to consume. They are the kindest art form, because they do the work for the consumer, allowing us a break from fretting about our very real woes so that we can worry, safely, for the fates of fictional characters instead.
Whatever your poison may be, genre fiction, in times of great turmoil, is a wonderful distraction.
Stuck at home and working remotely, I now find myself with lots of time on my hands to worry. Lucky for me, I’m surrounded by plenty of crime novels, mysteries, and thrillers to carry me through. If this plague lasts long enough, I may turn to ebooks to expand my library—electronic files are a blessing in a time of restricted access to goods—but I, like most readers, have accidentally accumulated enough books to take me through a good chunk of the apocalypse.
I once saw a play where a couple prepared for a nuclear holocaust by building a bunker and stocking enough canned food for decades, but when the apocalypse comes, they realize they failed to bring a single book down with them. The rest of the two-hour play involved the couple’s elaborate attempt to remember the plot of Moby Dick and recreate their own version of the book. I just now realized the source material is a pointed joke—the book is their own white whale.
The reader has two great fears in times of impending doom: not having enough books, and ending up in that Twilight Zone episode where that guy has all the books and time in the world but then breaks his glasses.
When I think of which five books I would take with me to a desert island, the answer is practical and based on length. I would take a giant Russian dictionary, and four equally giant Russian tomes. By the time I was rescued from my island paradise, I would have learned Russian.
If there’s been a nuclear war, and you’re safe in a bunker, you know what you’re going to be doing for the next three decades: you’re going to wait for the world to be habitable again. You’ll want to read as many long, informational books as possible, to gain new skills for the new challenges ahead, and preserve the historical memories of the world before.
Asked what books I would stockpile for an pandemic, the answers are different than a desert island or an underground bunker. If you’re stuck inside during a pandemic, the timeline shrinks to months, maybe years, but certainly not decades. The goals for literature, correspondingly, becomes not alleviating boredom or preserving memories, but instead processing uncertainty and channeling anxiety. We’re not going to be isolated for decades. But we will be anxious, uncertain, increasingly lonely, and unable to do much to change any of these facts over the next few months.
Why are crime books so soothing? Or for that matter, why is genre fiction, or even fiction in general, a place of solace in times of need?
Fiction in general, and much narrative nonfiction, is immersive, and perhaps that is part of the answer. Genre fiction, with its need to pay attention to both the contents of the book and how those contents measure up to genre conventions, seems particularly good at distracting busy minds. I tend to judge the success of fiction by the following measure: does it require enough concentration, or grip my attention so fully, that I don’t start thinking about doing my laundry?
Maybe right now, we can all enjoy reading whatever books grip our attention so fully that we don’t have to think about anything outside the closed world of storytelling, for at least the few hours that it takes to read that story.
Don’t stop keeping up with the news. We need information right now. But we also need distraction, and crime and mystery novels provide that in spades.
If you need to relieve your anxiety….
Thrillers have an added benefit—it gets the heart pounding. If literary fiction is the heavy lifting of reading, then thrillers are the cardio. They are a contained way to channel some of your anxiety into a format that allows that energy to build, then dissipate, under controlled circumstances. Horror novels fulfill similar needs, although they seem to help more with channeling dread than anxiety.
If you need to fulfill your evolutionary tendency towards problem solving…
Mystery fiction is equally as good at using all of our attention, since our duty as a reader is to attempt to solve the mystery alongside the detective. We’re engaged with the characters, but we also compete with them, attempting to stay one step ahead and piece together information to find a solution. Our problem-solving brains are frantic with worry right now. There are people being paid to deal with Covid-19, people who for the most part are not reading CrimeReads.com. We can’t fix this as individuals. We can, however, occasionally figure out who killed who in the locked billiards room of the manor house, and that’s a level of control that is both precious and fleeting in the world right now.
If you believe in the system….
Police procedurals provide yet another way to sooth, for they are often written in ways that bolster our faith in both the system and those who work for it, and that’s comforting regardless of how well the system is actually functioning. Crises can expose systemic faults, but they are also opportunities for countless acts of individual and community heroism. Medical thrillers can be just as reassuring, when they’re about contained scenarios. I’ll probably be staying away from pandemic thrillers, but to each his own.
If you don’t believe in the system….
For the pessimist, there’s plenty of noir to remind us of the brutality of the human condition and the growing isolation of modern life, regardless of the presence of the plague. Sometimes, soul-crushing depression at the end of a novel is just as emotionally satisfying (one might even say cleansing) as a resolution, because there’s no cognitive dissonance for those who have a normally bleak outlook on life. In noir fiction, we don’t have to strain ourselves to suspend our disbelief, because noir is dedicated to a realistic and impressionistic vision of the world.
If you need a reminder that not all surprises are bad surprises…
Shocking twists can also be therapeutic. There’s satisfaction in knowing that a psychological thriller can still surprise, even after so many have been written. Psychological thrillers take us along for the ride—they’re equivalent to a consensual relinquishment of control, as we let authors take us into bonkers territory where perceptions of the entire fictional world may shift at any moment. Psychological thrillers are a safe distortion, a funhouse mirror, of a world full of surprises.
If you need to put a name to the horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach…
Espionage fiction can be just as twisty, although the thrill of spy novels for me is just how damn complicated they can get. Plus, you can use them to channel your fears of rising nationalism and poor cooperation between nation states. For those who have a sinking feeling in their stomach, John le Carre in particular will fill your world with so much betrayal, corruption, and sleaze that you’ll forget all about why you actually have a sinking pit where your bowels used to be. Spy fiction will also remind you that you’re being watched—and given the ramping up of surveillance in a time of plague, that’s probably a good thing to be mindful of.
If you need to remember that someday you will travel again….
International crime novels are the perfect armchair voyage for those of us going through jet-setter (or just wannabe jet-setter) withdrawal as planes are grounded and borders close across the world. Crime novels have always explored worlds beyond the sanitized paradises shown to tourists, and international crime novels, with their built-in encouragement of inter-cultural cooperation, are particularly necessary at a time where we must be able to place faith in our neighbors.
If you need to know that life will go on…
Straight up crime novels are more upbeat—but not for the reasons you think! Crime novels, with their focus on life at the margins, the grind of everyday existence, and the challenges of extra-legal professions, are the perfect reminder that no matter what, life goes on. The characters in crime books are often desperate, lonely, miserable people, and yet they strive, and sometimes, preserve some honor and dignity while doing so. Plus, crime fiction often reminds us that humor is everywhere, and laughter doesn’t need to wait for a sunny day.
If you need to remember what life used to be…
Historical fiction, like a good fantasy novel, will fill your head with so many details about the setting that you’ll be completely immersed in the past and forget all about the terrifying present. You can go the true escapist route, and enjoy some Regency mysteries or Victorian capers, or you can go with an attitude of “At least we’re not on the Russian Front” and spend some time mucking about in the grotesque realities of our disgusting and ever-disturbing past. History, like life, allows room for the playful and the horrifying, often intertwined.