Meriel Patrick, guest blogging on behalf of Lynne
Some time ago, I started reading a crime novel that had been on my to-read list for quite a while. Within a few pages, it became obvious that the first victim was a small child, and my heart sank. In fact, I still haven't finished the novel.
Now, on the face of it, there's nothing particularly odd about this. Child murder is a horrendous thing. But then, any murder in real life is a horrendous thing, and I quite happily read fictional accounts of all sorts of people meeting untimely ends - is fictional child murder really so much worse than the adult version?
As I pondered on this, I remembered something I heard at a crime fiction conference a few years ago: as a crime writer, you can bump off as many people as you like, and your readers will cheer and ask for more. But kill a cat - or worse still, a dog - and the chances are you'll get angry letters.
So what's going on here? Why are normal, law-abiding citizens happy to read about grisly deaths of fellow humans, but are shocked and outraged if the victim is a pet?
It struck me that in my case at least, my reactions to animal deaths and child victims in crime novels are very closely allied. It's partly that they're both helpless casualties of events beyond their control, but it's not wholly that.
The main reason I don't like these kinds of deaths in crime novels is that the victims aren't involved in the story in the right kind of way. They generally just happened to get in the way, or (particularly with animal deaths) were killed as a warning to someone else. You can't hope to solve the crime by finding out about the victim.
This all finally clunked into place in my head when I encountered the term 'malice domestic', used to describe a particular sub-genre of crime fiction. This is an umbrella term used of works where the crime is, in the broadest sense, domestic - where the victim(s) and killer know each other, and the key to the puzzle lies in figuring out the relationships between them.
This, I've realized, is a large part of the essence of what makes something a good crime novel for me: a delicate balance of a nice chewy intellectual mystery to solve, and some well-developed characters whose lives I can be drawn into. If those key relationships aren't there - if the central murders are in some way impersonal - there isn't the right kind of tension to keep me really interested. I may admire a high-octane thriller or a well-crafted serial killer novel, but the chances are it won't suck me in in the same way.
Given that there are plenty of people who do like thrillers and serial-killer novels, this is clearly at least partly a matter of personal taste. But I don't think I'm alone. That perfect blend of characters to love and puzzle to solve is a heady mixture!