Murder mystery redirects here. For other uses, see Murder mystery (disambiguation)
Crime fiction is the genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as science fiction or historical fiction, but boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred. It has several sub-genres, including detective fiction (including the whodunnit), legal thriller, courtroom drama, and hard-boiled fiction.
History of crime fiction
Crime fiction can be divided into the following branches:
- The whodunit
- Locked room mystery
The Golden Age Whodunit
Later and contemporary contributions to the whodunnit
The historical whodunnit
Spoofs and parodies
The inverted detective story or "howcatchem"
The American hard-boiled school
The police procedural
The legal thriller
The caper story
The spy novel
The psychological suspense novel
The criminal novel (Novels told from the point of view of criminals such as The Godfather) Categories of crime fiction
When trying to pigeon-hole fiction, it is extraordinarily difficult to tell where crime fiction starts and where it ends. This is largely attributed to the fact that love, danger and death are central motifs in fiction. A less obvious reason is that the classification of a work may very well be related to the author's reputation.
For example, William Somerset Maugham's (1874–1966) novella Up at the Villa (1941) could very well be classified as crime fiction. This short novel revolves around a woman having a one-night stand with a total stranger who suddenly and unexpectedly commits suicide in her bedroom, and the woman's attempts at disposing of the body so as not to cause a scandal about herself or be suspected of killing the man. As Maugham is not usually rated as a writer of crime novels, Up at the Villa is hardly ever considered to be a crime novel and accordingly can be found in bookshops among his other, "mainstream" novels.
A more recent example is Bret Easton Ellis's (born 1964) seminal novel American Psycho (1991) about the double life of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street yuppie and serial killer in the New York of the 1980s. Even though in American Psycho the most heinous crimes are depicted in minute detail, the novel has never been labelled a "crime novel", maybe due to the fact that the police are conspicuously absent and Bateman is never tracked down and brought to justice.
On the other hand, U.S. author James M. Cain is normally seen as a writer belonging to the "hard-boiled" school of crime fiction. However, his novel Mildred Pierce (1941) is really about the rise to success of an ordinary housewife developing her entrepreneurial skills and — legally — outsmarting her business rivals, and the domestic trouble caused by her success, with, in turn, her husband, her daughter and her lover turning against her. Although no crime is committed anywhere in the book, the novel was reprinted in 1989 by Random House, alongside Cain's thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), under the heading "Vintage Crime".
When film director Michael Curtiz adapted Mildred Pierce for the big screen in 1945, he lived up to the cinemagoers' and the producers' expectations by adding a murder which is absent from the novel. As potential cinemagoers had been associating Cain with hard-boiled crime fiction only, this trick — exploited in advertisements and trailers —, in combination with the casting of then Hollywood star Joan Crawford in the title role, made sure that the film was going to be a box office hit even before it was released.
Seen from a practical point of view, one could argue that a crime novel is simply a novel that can be found in a bookshop on the shelf or shelves labelled "Crime". (This suggestion has actually been made about science fiction, but it can be applied here as well.) Penguin Books have had a long-standing tradition of publishing crime novels in paperback editions with green covers and spines (as opposed to the orange spines of mainstream literature), thus attracting the eyes of potential buyers already when they enter the shop. But again, this clever marketing strategy does not tell the casual browser what they are really in for when they buy a particular book.
"High art" versus "popular art"
Up to the 1960s or so, reading the paperback edition of a crime novel was usually considered a cheap thrill — with the word "cheap" used in both meanings: "inexpensive" and "of minor quality". The educated and civilized world was often interested, or at least pretended to be, in the "high art" categorised by classical music, paintings by renowned artists, in famous literature and classical plays like those of William Shakespeare. The term "popular art" referred to folk music, jazz, or rock 'n' roll, photography, the design of everyday objects, comics, science fiction, detective stories or erotic fiction (the latter circulating in private prints only to beat the censor) to quote a few examples. The idea of a "main stream" of literary output suggested that any book deviating, in either content or form or both, from the established norm of "high art" was "cheap", and anyone interested in popular culture was uneducated and unsophisticated, and most probably originated in a lower socio-economic division of the contextual society. The universities and the other institutions of higher learning also looked down on artists producing "popular art" and categorically refused to critically assess it.
This often did not correlate with the immense popularity of popular art on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes due to sensationalism. For example, the British had been fascinated by Edgar Wallace's (1875–1932) crime novels ever since the author set up a competition offering a reward to any reader who could figure out and describe just how the murder in his first book, The Four Just Men (1906), was committed.
The discrepancy between taste and acclaim
In the long run, the vast output of popular fiction could no longer be ignored, and literary critics — gradually, carefully and tentatively — started questioning and assessing the complete notion of the perceived gap between "high art" (or "serious literature") and "popular art" (in America often referred to as "pulp fiction", often verging on "smut and filth"). One of the first scholars to do so was American critic Leslie Fiedler. In his book Cross the Border — Close the Gap (1972), he advocates a thorough re-assessment of science fiction, the western, pornographic literature and all the other subgenres that previously had not been considered as "high art", and their inclusion in the literary canon:
The notion of one art for the 'cultural,' i.e., the favored few in any given society and of another subart for the 'uncultured,' i.e., an excluded majority as deficient in Gutenberg skills as they are untutored in 'taste,' in fact represents the last survival in mass industrial societies (capitalist, socialist, communist — it makes no difference in this regard) of an invidious distinction proper only to a class-structured community. Precisely because it carries on, as it has carried on ever since the middle of the eighteenth century, a war against that anachronistic survival, Pop Art is, whatever its overt politics, subversive: a threat to all hierarchies insofar as it is hostile to order and ordering in its own realm. What the final intrusion of Pop into the citadels of High Art provides, therefore, for the critic is the exhilarating new possibility of making judgments about the 'goodness' and 'badness' of art quite separated from distinctions between 'high' and 'low' with their concealed class bias.
In other words, it was now up to the literary critics to devise criteria with which they would then be able to assess any new literature along the lines of "good" or "bad" rather than "high" versus "popular".
But, according to Fiedler, it was also up to the critics to reassess already existing literature. In the case of U.S. crime fiction, writers that so far had been regarded as the authors of nothing but "pulp fiction" — Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and others — were gradually seen in a new light. Today, Chandler's creation, private eye Philip Marlowe — who appears, for example, in his novels The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940) — has achieved cult status and has also been made the topic of literary seminars at universities round the world, whereas on first publication Chandler's novels were seen as little more than cheap entertainment for the uneducated masses.
Nonetheless, "murder stories" such as Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or Shakespeare's Macbeth are not dependent on their honorary membership in this genre for their acclaim.
A conventionally written and dull novel about, say, a "fallen woman" could be ranked lower than a terrifying vision of the future full of action and suspense.
A story about industrial relations in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century — a novel about shocking working conditions, trade unionists, strikers and scabs — need not be more acceptable subject-matter per se than a well-crafted and fast-paced thriller about modern life. A re-assessment of critical ideals
As far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, it is an astonishing fact that many authors have been reluctant to this very day to publish their crime novels under their real names — as if they were ashamed of doing something "improper". In the late 1930s and 40s, British County Court judge Arthur Alexander Gordon Clark (1900–1958) published a number of detective novels under the alias Cyril Hare in which he made use of his profoundly extensive knowledge of the English legal system, for instance in Tragedy at Law (1942). Scottish journalist Leopold Horace Ognall (1908-1979) authored over ninety novels as Hartley Howard and Harry Carmichael. When he was still young and unknown, award-winning British novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) published some crime novels under the alias Dan Kavanagh. Other authors take delight in cherishing their alter egos: Ruth Rendell (born 1930) writes one sort of crime novels as Ruth Rendell and another type as Barbara Vine; John Dickson Carr also used the pseudonym Carter Dickson.
Crime fiction and the motion picture industry have complemented each other well over the years. Both cater to the need of the average audience to escape into an idealist world, where the good reaps the rewards, and the bad incur their punishment. Adaptations of crime fiction into films have been hugely successful.
For a detailed explication of the history of the relationship between crime fiction and the film industry, see the main article crime film.
Film and literature: The case of crime fiction
Availability of crime novels
As with any other entity, quality of a crime fiction book is not in any meaningful proportion to its availability. Some of the crime novels generally regarded as the finest, including those which are regularly chosen by experts as belonging to the best 100 crime novels ever written (see bibliography), have been out of print ever since their first publication, which often dates back to the 1920s or 30s. The bulk of books that can be found today on the shelves labelled "Crime" consists of recent first publications usually no older than a few years.
Quality and availability
Furthermore, only a select few authors have achieved the status of "classics" for their published works. A classic is any text which can be received and accepted universally, because they transcend context. A popular, well known example is Agatha Christie, whose texts, originally published between 1920 and her death in 1976, are available in UK and US editions in all English speaking nations.
Other less successful, contemporary authors who are still writing have seen reprints of their earlier works, due to current overwhelming popularity of Crime Fiction texts among audiences (One only has to look at the amount of crime related television series to observe the astonishing popularity). One example, Val McDermid, whose first book appeared as far back as 1987; another is Florida-based author Carl Hiaasen, who has been publishing books since 1981, all of which are readily available.
Classics and bestsellers
On the other hand, English crime writer Edgar Wallace, who was immensely popular with the English readership during the early decades of the 20th century (and who achieved fame in German-speaking countries due to the many B movies made in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s which were based on his novels), had almost been forgotten in his home country until House of Stratus eventually started republishing many of his 170 books around the turn of the millennium. Similarly, the books by the equally successful American author Erle Stanley Gardner (1889–1970), creator of the lawyer Perry Mason, which have frequently been adapted for film, radio, and TV, were only recently republished in the United Kingdom — books such as The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937), The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister (1953), etc.
Even television adaptations are not enough to save some authors. Gladys Mitchell rivalled Agatha Christie for UK sales in the 1930s and 1940s but only one of her 66 novels remains in print despite a BBC television series of the Mrs. Bradley Mysteries in 1999.
Revival of past classics
The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time
Murder mystery game
List of crime writers
Crime Writers' Association
- Locked room mystery