British Crime dramas: why fictional crime is so popular - the psychology behind our macabre fascination

Crime dramas are a British staple - but why are we so invested in them?

Crime stories have always grabbed our attention. In the 1800s penny dreadfuls were called “a 19th-century British publishing phenomenon”, enticing readers with weekly stories about detectives, criminals, and supernatural entities - each macabre piece costing only one penny.

As media evolved, crime stories adapted from books and papers onto the stage, films, decade-long TV series and even into board games. They’ve splintered into genres of their own - cosy crime, thrillers, mysteries - and generations later we’re still enamoured by a good (fictional) murder.

So, why do we love a good whodunnit, despite the often grim and gritty storylines? We spoke to the experts to find out what makes them so popular.

Crime dramas are a British staple - but why are we so invested in them?

Dr Chelsea Slater of the University of Wolverhampton, who specialises in forensic psychology, says there’s “no set single answer with this” as people are complex and not one single theory is going to fit everyone - but she suggests an element of escapism is what draws people in.

“I think, on the one hand, you have a little bit of escapism, it gets you out of your normal life - it’s exciting but you know a good guy is gonna win. There might be some casualties, but there’ll be an overall win eventually and we don’t necessarily get that with True Crime.”

Dr Slater offers some alternative theories to why we’re attracted to crime stories. She explains: “There’s also some ties with old fairy tales. We used to use stories to teach morals and warn people ‘don’t go into the forest at night’, ‘don’t talk to strangers’ and it’s maybe not morals but feeling a little bit smug that, well, *I* wouldn’t be taken in by this, because with fictional stories we focus a lot on those stranger attacks.

“I think there’s also that adrenaline fight or flight and fear we see with scary movies - it can scare your nervous system and make you think about things. A lot of people who watch a lot of crime shows are the people who make sure their doors are locked - they might not stay on the ground floor if they’re a woman - just for safety purposes.

“So I do think there’s a little bit of learning - sometimes with empathy with the victims, sometimes empathy with the killers.”

Brenda Blethyn has played the role of Vera for 10 years (Picture: ITV)

Another reason is simple: as humans, we like solving puzzles. Dr Slater adds: “When I catch up on books or TV shows, it’s for the puzzle. Writers especially want their work to be complicated enough that people don’t get there until just the end. But you need enough clues that the audience can tell and go ‘ohh I got it now!’ and they can go back and rewatch and reread.”

But if it’s puzzles we like - why do we turn to crime? Offering a historical overview Dr Slater explains: “Crime is a little more apolitical. Obviously, there can be shows that can be a little bit political but I think for the most part when you focus mostly on the crime and solving it, you get people from either side of the political spectrum.

“You think about what sells newspapers - sex and violence. Well, due to the Victorians, it’s not really polite to like things about sex but violence? TV and movie ratings go up faster because we still have this puritanical view of things. With crime shows - people can just put it on and put up with it because it’s not too extreme.”

How accurate are fictional crime dramas?

Neil Lancaster, a former detective turned crime writer, previously worked in the military police before joining the Met and retiring in 2015. In 2019 he picked up the pen and later published the DS Max Craigie series.

On the perennial appeal of crime stories, Lancaster says: “I prefer the fictional world. It’s much easier to get lost in. People do love it - I’ve often thought as to why and I think that crime touches everybody at some point in their life and I think people want to try and make sense of it. Crime fiction allows people to maybe make some sense of the world.”

But as someone with experience working as a detective and writing crime novels, Lancaster says it’s getting harder to write a police procedural accurately: “You can’t portray the cops as 100% good because we only need to open a newspaper to see a negative story about the police - not all of them are deserved but there’s a good proportion of them that are deserved.”

Fictional crime also needs to be glamorised. “If I wrote a book as if it’s a real murder inquiry, nobody would want to read it”, he says. “Because murder inquiries are all about routines about painstakingly going through the evidence, painstakingly going through CCTV, through telephone records. If you talk too much about police procedures, you bore the life out of people.”

What do crime dramas do right and wrong? 

Dr Rana Khalife, lecturer in Biochemical Engineering at UCL, specialises in stem cells and gene therapy. She was also one of two consultants from UCL to help out in a Silent Witness episode in 2022 (History: Part 5 - for anyone interested).

Reflecting on her involvement, she recalls: “It was fun…they contacted us through our professional team. And at the beginning, they wanted a science advisor but because of my expertise in stem cells I was advising them on stem cell therapy - how can you create stem cells in the lab? How can you culture it, how can you deal with it, how can you identify, and more of the things that you do to identify the type of stem cell.

“I was surprised because the scriptwriter had so much knowledge about pluripotent stem cells, that I was like, maybe you know more than my students when I teach them. The scriptwriters went through the literature and did their research.

Cast of Silent Witness 2022

Meetings were done via Zoom or email and the script was sent over to ensure the wordings were correct. “I was glad that we were involved to make sure every word is correct because if they are saying the wrong things on TV you’re educating people on the wrong terms.”

But is there anything the media gets wrong? Lancaster says: “The classic one is the protagonist at the centre of a book or a TV show tends to be beyond Detective Inspector. Anybody above the rank of sergeant won’t leave the police station or the incident room. It’s not their job. Their job is to conduct the investigation to have oversight and make sure there’s sufficient resources there. They have to read everything that comes in and decide the strategy.”

Surprisingly, senior officers don’t interview suspects as “they’re almost universally done by constables or sergeants sometimes”, Lancaster adds. “It’s a real skill, and there’s an awful lot of training courses involved in it. But you won’t have a superintendent in the interview room. They’ll be in the back waiting - they’ll hear the result but they’re not going to conduct it - people confuse rank with expertise.”

Surveillance is another thing wrongly portrayed, according to Lancaster: “To follow one person might take 10 to 15 people in six, seven cars with a motorbike. But the media hugely glamorises the process and of course, so it should - we’re there to tell you this is entertainment.”