Over 70 years ago, in an article, “Who Cares who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” Edmund Wilson wrote disdainfully of crime fiction as a “trivial pursuit”. “Reading detective stories,” he said, “is simply a kind of vice, for silliness and minor harmfulness, somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” Trivial or not, the crime or thriller novel genre remains one of the most popular genres (“Crime novels” and “thrillers” aren’t the same. “Crime” is usually more about solving the puzzle, while “the thriller” is often more morally complex). It’s estimated that one out of every three books bought is crime fiction. Why?

The crime or thriller novel genre remains one of the most popular genres. One out of every three books bought is crime fiction. Why?

One of the most popular contemporary practitioners of the genre is Lee Child. Child has penned 24 novels, all starring his hero, Jack Reacher. It’s said that, somewhere in the world, every two seconds someone buys a Jack Reacher novel. Almost 100 million copies have been sold. Reacher has retired from the U.S. Army, where he was a Major in the Military Police. But since retirement, he can’t settle down. Instead—with just his wallet and his toothbrush—he travels around America; by bus or hitch hiking. And wherever he goes, he finds trouble. Somewhere, some very bad guys are making life miserable for innocent people. And Jack Reacher rights the wrongs and gives the bad guys their just deserts. Best-case scenario for the villains is that they end up in hospital with broken bones. Normally, though, they end up in the morgue and Jack strides off into the sunset to again return order to our world of moral chaos.

Righteous Avenger

The most recent Jack Reacher novel is called, Past Tense. On the front cover are the words, “We all need Jack Reacher, a righteous avenger for our troubled times.” And the words, ‘righteous avenger’ are in bold print.

I was struck by this line. There’s an implicit agreement with the reader that we all desire vengeance and, there is a vengeance which is righteous and which, by implication, may transcend the law.

Righteous vengeance is a theme in many crime novels. From Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder on the Orient Express to Stieg Larsson’s popular Millennium Trilogy (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), evildoers pay the ultimate price for their heinous crimes. The significant factor is that those dispensing justice are usually not the legal authorities.

Legal justice is justice served when the law is executed, irrespective of the perceived morality of the law. Moral justice is served when, irrespective of the legality of the action, the punishment meted out is perceived to fit the crime. The heroes of crime fiction, like Jack Reacher, are typically purveyors of moral justice; Reacher has no legal authority to execute criminals.

Mickey Spillane sold over 200 million copies of his pulp fiction novels starring private investigator, Mike Hammer. Hammer is investigator, judge and executioner. In his 1951 novel, The Big Kill, Hammer explains to a cop: “I want the guy who made somebody decent revert back to filthy crime, and I want him right between my hands so I can squeeze the juice out of him. I’m still a citizen and responsible in some small way for what happens in the city.” In other words, as a citizen of New York, Mike Hammer believes he has a moral obligation to execute the guilty. The cop’s silence implies acquiescence and a recognition of the rightness of moral justice over legal justice.

We may have voted against capital punishment in our parliaments, but we celebrate it in our books and films. Surely, actor Liam Neeson’s most memorable movie line is from Taken, where he warns those who kidnapped his daughter, “I will find you and I will kill you”. True to his word, he kills 33 bad guys in the film and returns home untouched by the law. Justice has been served. Order is restored. Filmgoers return home satisfied.

Longing for Justice

What does the popularity of this genre tell us?

1. We long for justice.

I was speaking at a Pastor’s Conference a few months ago and the topic of judgment came up. One of their leaders admitted that he avoids speaking about judgment in church, although he feels guilty about it. On the one hand, he wants his church to be a welcoming church. He’s worried that if he speaks about judgment, and this is someone’s first visit to church, then they won’t come back. On the other hand, he knows it’s a topic the Bible makes much of. He lives with this tension but preaching on judgment loses out each time.

It’s odd, isn’t it? We love the righteous avengers of our storybooks, but we’re uneasy preaching about the true righteous avenger, the Lord Jesus.

But it’s odd, isn’t it? We love the righteous avengers of our storybooks, but we’re uneasy preaching about the true righteous avenger, the Lord Jesus. Perhaps “preaching judgment” is both Biblically faithful and is tapping into a deep-seated human desire.

2. We are frequently left unsatisfied by the expressions of “legal justice” in our society.

We perceive that “just deserts” are rarely meted out. Rachel Franks suggests that crime fiction may provide “a cathartic outlet” for our violent desires to see justice done. She writes, “Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise has done almost a billion in the box office for a reason”. We long for justice that is both legal and moral.

3. Deep down, we believe “that those who do such things deserve to die.”

Capital punishment is labelled today as “primitive”, “immoral”, and “barbaric”. There may be compelling reasons not to exercise capital punishment. For me, the chief amongst them is that the legal process is too often flawed and the innocent are punished. Biblically, though, it is difficult to affirm that capital punishment is inherently immoral. If, in this life, evildoers do not receive their just deserts, we know that they will in the Final Judgment. Again, if crime fiction is telling us something about ourselves, (and it’s not just a ‘trivial pursuit’) it’s that we recognize there is a rightness to retributive justice.

No Grace, No Repentance

However, the most striking feature about the justice meted out in many crime novels is that there’s no grace, no repentance, and no hope of rehabilitation.

Jonah warned Nineveh, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Paul told the Athenians that God has commanded all people to repent, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed” (Acts 17:31). In both cases the implication is that there is still time to repent, turn to God, embrace his grace, and escape the wrath to come. The gospel is good news because this is possible through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus. There is no “good news” for sinners in the world of crime fiction.

The Last Avenger

Of course, the coming of the true righteous avenger is also good news. In Revelation, John sees “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained”. They are crying out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” The answer John sees is all people calling on the rocks to hide them “from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:9-17). He is the righteous avenger for our troubled time.

Perhaps, then, if crime fiction teaches us anything, it is that our world both needs and wants to hear this news.