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Crime & Detective Fiction

Neil McCaw By Neil McCaw Published on October 11, 2016

Audiences, it seems, have always been interested in crime stories; they appear in Greek and Roman myths, Old Testament parables, and the early literature of the Middle East, China, Japan and various other parts of the world. And yet, most of the most well-known crime fiction characters are less than two hundred years old, such as Inspector Bucket, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe, V.I. Warshawski, Hannibal Lecter, and of course the inimitable Sherlock Holmes.

The reason for the prominence of these more recent characters is that the popularity of the genre of crime and detective fiction its itself relatively recent, a literary response to the professionalization of law enforcement in the nineteenth century, when an increasing number of countries created official police forces, and private investigating agencies, such as Pinkerton’s (1850-), were established. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders at the Rue Morgue’ (1841), which is often credited as the first detective story, was written just as these changes were taking place.

Likewise, when Dickens heroised ‘Inspector Bucket’ and ‘Inspector Field,’ both literary versions of the real-life Victorian celebrity-detective, Samuel Whicher, he was shaping the public response to these new developments in policing, and when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fashioned his forensically-innovative consulting-detective Sherlock Holmes, he was doing so just at the time when police investigative methods were becoming ever-more scientific.

Shaped by the work of writers such as Poe, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Emile Gaboriau, and Conan Doyle, the genre expanded dramatically during the twentieth century. From the English ‘puzzle’-fiction tradition of the ‘Golden Age’ of crime stories, featuring the work of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, to the US hard-boiled tradition first exemplified by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, by the mid-twentieth century crime/detection as a genre had become the most popular literary genre in the world. Some writers drew on the clarity of the classical Golden Age ‘whodunnit?’ format, with its narrative arc of criminal act-investigation-rabbit-out-of-hat-solution, others displayed a greater interest in the nature and wider causes of criminal acts, moving away from the idea of crime as a puzzle to be solved and exploring deviant human behaviour from above and below.

As a result, crime and detective fictions evolved into a remarkable variety of styles and tones, as is demonstrated by its array of sub-genres, including historical crime fiction and all of its cozy, serial killer, legal, medical, and forensic cousins. More recently, crime fiction has been associated with particular ethnic or regional identities, such as the so-called Tartan Noir of Scottish writers including Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and Stuart MacBride, the Scandi or Nordic Noir of Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, and the Noir Italiano of Andrea Camilleri and Massimo Carlotto.

Ironically, for a genre that has often been dismissed as escapist, and despite the wide variations that fall under the broad category of crime and detective fiction, one of the things that unites many of them is the way they reflect the world from which they emerge. Just as the whole ‘Golden Age’ obsession with crime as a kind of crossword-puzzle reflected a between-the-wars desire amongst audiences for the reassurance of a world that could definitively be understood and solved, so Hammett and Chandler established American hard-boiled noir amidst an American society dogged by organised crime and the growing influence of the Mafia during the years of prohibition and depression. Each successive evolution of the genre has been a response to shifting social, political and cultural circumstances in this sort of way. And so, it is hardly surprising to find that, in the twenty-first century, themes of terrorism and high-tech espionage are not uncommon within contemporary crime fiction.

What is also interesting is the way that the popularity of crime stories has seen them increasingly enmeshed into pretty much every one of the many multimedia platforms that exist in the modern world; it is no longer just a case of there being crime films (a tradition that goes back to film noir, the classics of Alfred Hitchcock, and more recently where crime stories intersect with political thrillers in adaptations of the works of Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum), and crime television (with global franchises such as Law & Order and CSI), but audiences can now access stories of crime and detection utilising most of their modern smart technology, especially via the world of computer gaming; the billion-dollar success of gaming franchises such as Grand Theft Auto (1997-) have ensured that crime fictions are now ubiquitous in many cultures.

The history of crime and detective fiction shows how adaptable, and malleable it has been. To the point that, we might assume, the debate about whether the genre belongs to the ‘high’ culture of the few, or the ‘low’ culture of the many, is now irrelevant. In the twenty-first century, it is for everyone; for, as T.S.Eliot astutely noted many years ago, ‘the craving for it is…perennial.’


    Professor of Victorian Literature & Culture, University of Winchester (UK)

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