Crime fiction

Crime fiction is a generic term used in literature for a genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives. As such, it is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as science fiction or historical fiction. It should be noted, however, that boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred. See also the List of crime writers.

Table of contents
1 History of Crime Fiction
2 Categories of crime fiction
3 "High art" versus "popular art"
4 Film and literature: The case of crime fiction
5 Availability of crime novels
6 Further reading

History of Crime Fiction

Crime fiction began to be considered as a serious genre, only as late as 1900. The earliest inspiration for books and novels from this genre came from earlier dark works of Edgar Allan Poe (eg. The Cask of Amontillado). The evolution of Locked room mysteries was one of the landmarks in the history of crime fiction, as it helped invlove the reader to a major extent. Sherlock Holmes mysteries are said to have been singularly responsible for the huge popularity in this genre. Later, a set of stereotypic formulae began to appear, to cater to various tastes.

For a detailed explication, following the development of crime fiction to modern times, see the main article - History of Crime Fiction.

Categories of crime fiction

Crime fiction can be divided into the following branches:

On the blurred boundaries between crime fiction and mainstream fiction

Some people have observed that, a majority of fiction is about love and/or death. In particular, unrequited love and violent death have fascinated authors throughout the ages. This may be because there may be an endless range of possibilities as far as the treatment of either of these motifs is concerned. (In humorous fiction, death is usually replaced by danger -- the sort of danger which we know beforehand will never seriously jeopardise any of the characters' lives or thwart a happy ending.)

When it comes to pigeon-holing fiction, one is suddenly faced with the fact that it is extraordinarily difficult to tell where crime fiction starts and where it ends. For example, William Somerset Maugham's (1874 - 1966) novella Up at the Villa (1941) could very well be classified as a piece of crime fiction: This short novel revolves around a woman having a one-night stand with a total stranger who suddenly and unexpectedly commits suicide right in her bedroom, and the woman's attempts at disposing of the body so as not to cause a scandal about her own person 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. To quote a more recent example, Bret Easton Ellis's (born 1964) seminal novel American Psycho (1991) is about the double life of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street yuppie in the New York of the 1980s -- a charming if slightly superficial and decadent young man and successful banker during business hours who, whenever he is overcome by his most basic urges, metamorphoses into a serial killer devoid of any form of morality and who cruelly tortures and mutilates his victims. 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 with Cain's thrillers such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), under the heading "Vintage Crime".

The novel literally tended to be a crime novel to such an extent, that a few years after its first publication, film director Michael Curtiz adapted the novel for the big screen, he lived up to the cinemagoers' and the producers' expectations by adding a murder which is absent from the novel. In Curtiz's film Mildred Pierce (1945), the tension among the characters that gradually builds up in the book is finally resolved by an act of violence. 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 cheap paperbacks 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"

The discrepancy between taste and acclaim

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 clivilized world was often interested or at least pretend to be the "high art" categorised by classical music, paintings by renowned artists, in famous classical plays and novels 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 that kind of stuff weird and/or uneducated. 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.

A re-assessment of critical ideals

In the long run, the vast output of popular fiction could not be ignored any longer, and literary critics -- gradually, carefully and tentatively -- started questioning the whole idea of a gap between "high art" (or "serious literature") on the one hand and "popular art" (in America often referred to as "pulp fiction", often verging on "smut and filth") on the other. 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 reassessment of science fiction, the western, pornographic literature and all the other subgenres that so far 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 'uncultered,' 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 "low".

Accordingly,

  • 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 early 20th century-Britain -- a novel about shocking working conditions, trade unionists, strikers and scabs -- need not be more acceptable subject-matter per se and a well-crafted and fast-paced thriller about modern life.

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.

Pseudonymous authors

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". A few examples may suffice: In the late 1930s and 40s, British County Court judge Arthur Alexander Gordon Clark (1900 - 1958) published a number of detective novels under the nom de plume Cyril Hare in which he made use of his profound knowledge of the English legal system, for instance in Tragedy at Law (1942). When he was still young and unknown, award-winning British novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) published some crime novels under the assumed name of 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.

Contemporary critical views

At the beginning of the new millennium the output of crime novels in both Great Britain and the U.S.A. is enormous. As far as many authors writing today are concerned, crime fiction is still seen as a distinct literary subgenre, but it is no longer regarded as automatically inferior to "mainstream" fiction. However, there is a certain amount of overlapping. Lots of novels cannot really be categorized, a fact which is gradually being recognized. For example, Patrick Redmond's (born 1966) first novel The Wishing Game (1999) certainly deals with both capital and petty crime, and has been advertised as "a powerful psychological thriller of haunting suspense", but it could just as well be subsumed under mainstream literature. Similarly, Helen Zahavi's novel Dirty Weekend (1991) about a frustrated woman on a three-day killing spree can either be seen as a fresh voice in radical feminism or as a thriller, or as both.

Film and literature: The case of crime fiction

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 punished. 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.

Availability of crime novels

Quality and availability

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 -- books which may or may not some day become "classics"; books which will either be remembered (and reprinted) for a long time to come or forgotten (and not available) tomorrow.

Classic bestsellers

In other words, the books which are most readily available are those published over the last few years, whether they are selling well or not. In addition, a handful of authors have achieved the status of "classics", which means that all or at least most of their novels can be had anywhere anytime. A case in point is Agatha Christie, whose mysteries, originally published between 1920 and her death in 1976, are available in both British and U.S. editions practically wherever you go. But also lesser known authors who are still producing books have seen reprints of their earlier works. One example is 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.

Forgotten classics

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 has achieved enormous fame in German-speaking countries due to the countless German B movies made between the late 1950s and early 1970s which are based on his novels and which are again and again broadcast on TV, 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 Great Britain -- books such as The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937), The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister (1953), etc.

Revival of past classics

From time to time publishing houses decide, seemingly at random, to revive long-forgotten authors and reissue one or two of their better-known novels. Apart from Penguin Books, who for this purpose have resorted to their old green cover and dug out some of their vintage authors, Pan started a series in 1999 entitled "Pan Classic Crime", which includes a handful of novels by Eric Ambler, but also American Hillary Waugh's Last Seen Wearing . In 2000, Edinburgh-based Canongate Books started a series called "Canongate Crime Classics", in which they published John Franklin Bardin's The Deadly Percheron (1946) -- both a whodunnit and a roman noir about amnesia and insanity -- and other novels. For some strange reason, however, books brought out by smaller publishers like Canongate Books are usually not stocked by the larger bookshops and overseas booksellers.

Sometimes older crime novels are revived by screenwriters and directors rather than publishing houses. In many such cases, publishers then follow suit and release a so-called "film tie-in" edition showing a still from the movie on the front cover and the film credits on the back cover of the book -- yet another marketing strategy aimed at those cinemagoers who may want to do both: first read the book and then watch the film (or vice versa). Recent examples include Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (originally published in 1955), Ira Levin's Sliver (1991), with the cover photograph depicting a steamy sex scene between Sharon Stone and William Baldwin straight from the 1993 movie, and, again, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991). Bloomsbury Books on the other hand have launched what they call "Bloomsbury Film Classics" -- a series of original novels on which feature films were based. This series includes, for example, Ethel Lina White's novel The Wheel Spins (1936), which Alfred Hitchcock -- before he went to Hollywood -- turned into a much-loved movie entitled The Lady Vanishes (1938), and Ira Levin's (born 1929) science fiction thriller The Boys from Brazil (1976), which was filmed in 1978.

Older novels can often be retrieved from the ever-growing Project Gutenberg database.

Further reading


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