Encyclopedia > Crime fiction

  Article Content

Crime fiction

Crime fiction is a generic term used by publishers, booksellers, reviewers and aficionados for a subgenre of fiction that deals with crimes and their detection and criminals and their motives. As such, it is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other subgenres such as science fiction or historical fiction. It should be noted, however, that boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred.

Crime fiction can be divided into the following branches:

See also the List of crime writers.

* * *

The following introduction to crime fiction in English is targeted at the newcomer to this for many people delightful genre rather than at the specialist. It is blatantly incomplete, ignoring some of the most important figures in the evolution of the genre. However, rather than aiming at completeness, its intention is to gently guide the novice into the world of crime fiction by explaining the development of the various forms of crime writing in the course of the 20th century, by including relevant background information, and by referring to some representative examples.

Table of contents

From the beginnings to the mid-20th century: A short historical survey

Apart from being a genre which has always been dominated by the British and the Americans, crime fiction is basically a phenomenon of the 20th century. It did not occur to many pre-20th century authors or readers to view novels and stories depicting crime and its consequences as a distinct literary subgenre, and, accordingly, there were practically no writers specialising in that particular field. What was absent from these earlier novels and stories anyway was any systematic attempt at detection: There was no private detective, whether amateur or professional, trying to figure out how and by whom a particular crime was committed; there were no police trying to solve a case; neither was there any discussion of motives[?], alibis, or the modus operandi[?], or any of the other elements which make up the crime novels of subsequent ages.

There were of course forerunners of today's crime fiction, most notably the ghost story, the horror story, and the revenge story. An example of the latter is American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe's (1809 - 1849) seven-page tale "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846): It is set during the carnival season in 19th century Italy, in an ancient city of palazzi and secret vaults and catacombs. The first person narrator bears a grudge -- we never learn exactly why -- against one of his "friends", ironically called Fortunato, and wants to take revenge on him:

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled - but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. [...]
It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

The narrator, whose family motto as inscribed in their coat of arms is Nemo me impune lacessit, carefully plans Fortunato's murder: As both men are wine connoisseurs, he lures Fortunato into the extensive catacombs beneath his palazzo, allegedly for him to taste some amontillado[?] -- a kind of Spanish sherry -- of which the narrator says he has just received a cask. Fortunato, dressed up for the carnival in a costume to which jingling bells are attached, is already slightly drunk when he enters his killer's vaults and, accordingly, does not suspect anything out of the ordinary when he is led deeper and deeper into the underground maze. Finally, the narrator chains him to the wall of a dark recess, takes the bricks and mortar which he has already prepared and walls his enemy in for good.

No answer. I called again --
No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

But Poe was also one of the first writers to actually choose a detective (a word unknown at the time) as the central character of some of his short stories (which he called "tales of ratiocination"). In the words of William L. De Andrea (Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, 1994), he "was the first to create a character whose interest for the reader lay primarily (even solely) on his ability to find hidden truths. [...] Poe anticipated virtually every important development to follow in the genre, from the idea of a Watson to the concept of an armchair detective to the prototype of the secret service story". In other words, this is where crime fiction proper begins.

One of the early developments started by Poe was the so-called locked room mystery, in which the reader is presented with a puzzle and encouraged to solve it before finishing the story and being told the solution. A "locked room" in this narrow meaning of the word -- also referred to as a "hermetically sealed chamber" -- is a room in which a murder is committed. There is a limited number of suspects, some of them possibly even without a watertight alibi. So far so good. But on closer inspection it turns out that no one could possibly have done it because at the time the murder was committed there was definitely no way of entering and/or leaving the room unseen or without leaving a trace. The prima facie impression invariably is that the perpetrator has vanished into thin air: The only door, locked from the inside, has to be forced open (and the position of the body clearly suggests that the victim could not have locked it after being struck down by the killer); there is no fireplace or chimney through which the murderer might have escaped; the only window is barred from the inside, or there is virgin snow on the window sill outside; there is no secret passage leading to, or trapdoor anywhere in, the room; the murder weapon is nowhere to be found although the victim has clearly been poisoned, stabbed, shot, strangled, or whatever (with the cause of death established beyond doubt in an autopsy[?] some time later); if the victim has been electrocuted, no live wires can be found anywhere near the corpse; if they have been shot, no one within usual hearing distance remembers hearing a report; etc. etc.

In many locked room mysteries, plausibility was neglected in favour of ingenuity, suspense and a maximum of reader involvement. Among avid readers, heated discussions ensued after the publication of a particular novel on whether it is really possible to commit the perfect murder the way it is described in the book. For example, if the victim is found stabbed in a locked room on one of the upper floors of a building, no murder weapon is found and a window giving onto a backyard has been left open, could they have been killed by a professional knife-thrower from the building across the yard by means of a knife to which a long cord was attached? (This is a variation on the "dagger with wings" idea.) Can eye-witnesses be deluded into thinking they have seen a particular person enter or leave a room when in fact what they saw was just an image in a mirror? Can you gain access to a house by posing as someone else, wearing clothes made of paper, and then get rid of them -- as they would be evidence if you did not -- by burning them in the open fire? And are there really murder weapons that dissolve over time one way or another?

Lots of authors tried their hand at new and far-fetched yet eventually plausible locked room scenarios, with one of the underlying principles always being that supernatural powers or any form of magic must be ruled out from the start. American writer Anna Katharine Green (1846 - 1935) wrote Initials Only[?] (1911), Margery Allingham (1904 - 1966) exploited the same motif in Flowers for the Judge[?] (1936), and many more joined the ranks. The undisputed master of the mystery surrounding a hermetically sealed chamber is John Dickson Carr (1906 - 1977), whose novel The Hollow Man[?] (1935; published in the U.S.A. under the title The Three Coffins[?]) has frequently been hailed as the best of all locked room mysteries. According to the evidence presented at the beginning of the book, one wintry night in London two murders are committed in quick succession. In both cases, the murderer has seemingly vanished into thin air. In the first case, he has disappeared from Professor Grimaud's study after shooting the professor -- without leaving a trace, with the only door to the room locked from the inside, with people present in the hall outside the room, and with both the ground below the window and the roof above it covered with unbroken snow. In the second case, a man walking in the middle of a deserted cul-de-sac at about the same time is evidently shot at close range, with the same (!) revolver, but there is no one else near the man; this is witnessed from some distance by three passers-by -- two tourists and a PC -- who happen to be walking on the pavement. It takes Dr Gideon Fell, scholar and a pompous pain in the neck who keeps hinting at the solution without giving it away, some 200 pages to finally condescend and minutely reconstruct the two crimes and thus solve the mystery.

Rather an interesting thing about The Hollow Man is Chapter 17, which consists of a theoretical digression entitled "The Locked-Room Lecture". In it, Dr Fell gives an extensive explanation of how the murderer is able to deceive everyone else (at least until the riddle is finally solved). How, for example, Fell asks, can the perpetrator create the impression of a hermetically sealed chamber when in fact it is not? What means are there of tampering with a door so that it seems to be locked on the inside? This is just one of the answers -- and, as it happens, a most simple one -- given by Fell:

[...] An illusion, simple but effective. The murderer, after committing his crime, has locked the door from the outside and kept the key. It is assumed, however, that the key is still in the lock on the inside. The murderer, who is first to raise a scare and find the body, smashes the upper glass panel of the door, puts his hand through with the key concealed in it, and finds the key in the lock inside, by which he opens the door. This device has also been used with the breaking of a panel out of an ordinary wooden door.

In 1887, Scotsman Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 - 1930) gave fresh impetus to the emerging form of the detective story by creating Sherlock Holmes, resident at 221B Baker Street, London -- probably the most famous of fictional detectives and the first one to have clients, to be hired to solve a case. Holmes's art of detection consists in logical deduction based on minute details which escape everyone else's notice, and the careful and systematic elimination of all clues that in the course of his investigation turn out to lead nowhere. Conan Doyle also introduced Dr John H Watson, a physician who acts as Holmes's assistant and who also shares Holmes's flat in Baker Street with him. Again in the words of William L De Andrea,

Watson also serves the important function of catalyst for Holmes's mental processes. [...] From the writer's point of view, Conan Doyle knew the importance of having someone to whom the detective can make enigmatic remarks, a consciousness that's privy to facts in the case without being in on the conclusions drawn from them until the proper time. Any character who performs these functions in a mystery story has come to be known as a "Watson".

In 1929, English mystery writer and critic Ronald Knox (1888 - 1957) categorically stated as one of his rules for fledgling writers of detective fiction that "the stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader". Many of the great fictional detectives have their Watson: Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, for example, is accompanied by Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings does not appear in all Hercule Poirot mysteries though; he does, for instance, in Three Act Tragedy[?] (1934).

The 1920s and 30s are commonly known as the "Golden Age" of detective fiction. Most of its authors were British -- Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 - 1957), Josephine Tey (1896 - 1952), Anthony Berkeley[?] (aka Francis Iles[?]) (1893 - 1971), and many more -- , some of them -- John Dickson Carr, for example -- American, but with a very British touch. By that time certain conventions and clichés had been established which limited any surprises on the part of the reader to the twists and turns within the plot and of course to the identity of the murderer. The majority of novels of that era were whodunnits, and several authors excelled, after successfully leading their readers on the wrong track, in convincingly revealing to them the least likely suspect as the real villain of the story. What is more, they had a predilection for certain casts of characters and certain settings, with the secluded English country-house at the top of the list.

A typical plot could go like this: A body, preferably that of a stranger, is found in the library by a maid who has just come in to dust the furniture. As it happens, a few guests have just arrived for a weekend in the country -- people who may or may not know each other, people who may or may not have a skeleton in the cupboard. Who knows? They typically include such stock characters as a handsome young gentleman and his beautiful fiancée who, as everyone knows, will be the sole heiress to her father's vast fortune; a heavily made-up actress who has seen better days, pretending that her comeback to the stage is imminent, and her husband, who is unable to hide his drinking problem; an aspiring young author, middle-class to the core, bespectacled, self-conscious, maybe even with a slight stutter, and shabbily dressed anyway; a retired Colonel in a Harris tweed jacket who has spent many years in the Colonies and has met Indians there who poison their arrows with curare; a quiet middle-aged man no one knows anything about who is said to be an old school chum of the host's but who has not been seen talking to the latter at all; and, last but not least, a famous detective who, as the police are either unavailable or incompetent, is assigned to lead the investigation for the time being.

As the detective soon finds out, the household staff consists of an old butler who has faithfully served his present employer ever since the latter was a little boy; a well-nourished female cook who, for some reason or other, knows all about strychnine, arsenic, and food poisoning in general; a gardener, slow on the uptake, who has just informed the butler that a bag of weed-killer, several pruning shears with razor-sharp blades, and a canister of some highly inflammable liquid are missing from the garden shed; a chauffeur who is an ex-convict; and one or two maids secretly in love with someone and possibly pregnant. Finally, there is the host, who has been busy welcoming his guests and tending to his second wife, who has not made her appearance yet due to a spell of migraine. The detective also finds out that, as the couple have just recently got married abroad and then gone straight on their honeymoon to some exotic place, none of their guests has actually ever come face to face with her.

Who the hell has dumped the corpse of a total stranger in the library? How could they have done so without anyone noticing? Who is the man anyway? Does anyone too afraid to say so know him after all? Is a case of mistaken identity at the base of this mystery? While the detective is pondering these questions, weird things start happening. One of the maids almost faints when she sees the young author for the first time, but she quickly regains her composure. The Colonel complains that several pages have been torn from his diary while he was having a bath or dressing for dinner or whatever. The ageing actress is seen near the garden shed, gesticulating in an exaggerated manner while arguing with the seemingly imbecile gardener. A slip of paper with some cryptic message is found. Some time later, just as the guests are having supper, the lights go out. There is commotion in the darkened room. When the blown fuse has been mended and the lights come up again, it is only to find the beautiful young heiress stabbed in the back with a pair of pruning shears, her face in the bowl of soup in front of her, her eyes wide open. Now it suddenly occurs to all the people present that the murderer is still in the house: He (or she) is one of them. People now start talking behind each other's backs, suspecting, fearing and denouncing each other.

As the noose around the murderer's neck tightens, he (or she) is prepared to bump off anyone who has found out his (or her) guilty secret. A third and fourth murder may be committed anytime. Just before the worst comes to the worst, the detective, having made use of his "little grey cells" (as Poirot calls it), assembles the whole party in the library and minutely reconstructs the real chain of events from beginning to end. At first what he says sounds absolutely incredible. Of course everyone accused vehemently objects to all the allegations. At the end of his closing statement, the detective zooms in on the only person -- very often the least likely suspect -- whose actions cannot be accounted for. Often the detective admits having no evidence of any kind to prove his theory; sometimes he bluffs the murderer by pretending he does. Eventually, the murderer is trapped and has just three options left: be arrested without further resistance, try to escape, or commit suicide on the spot.

The rules of the game -- and Golden Age mysteries were considered a game -- were codified in 1929 by Ronald Knox. According to Knox, a detective story "must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end." His "Ten Commandments" (or "Decalogue") are as follows:

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues upon which he may happen to light.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

The outbreak of the Second World War certainly was some kind of caesura as far as the light-hearted, straightforward whodunnit of the Golden Age was concerned. As Ian Ousby writes (The Crime and Mystery Book, 1997), the Golden Age

was a long time a-dying. Indeed, one could argue that it still is not dead, since its mannerisms have proved stubbornly persistent in writers one might have expected to abandon them altogether as dated, or worse. Yet the Second World War marked a significant close, just as the First World War had marked a significant beginning. Only during the inter-war years, and particularly in the 1920s, did Golden Age fiction have the happy innocence, the purity and confidence of purpose, which was its true hallmark.
Even by the 1930s its assumptions were being challenged. [...] Where it had once been commonplace to view the Golden Age as a high watermark of achievement, it became equally the fashion to denounce it. It had, so the indictment ran, followed rules which trivialized its subject. It had preferred settings which expressed a narrow, if not deliberately elitist, vision of society. And for heroes it had created detectives at best two-dimensional, at worst tiresome.

A U.S. reaction to the cosy conventionality of British murder mysteries was the American hard-boiled[?] school of crime writing, sometimes also referred to as noir fiction[?]. Writers like Dashiell Hammett (1894 - 1961), Raymond Chandler (1888 - 1959), Jonathan Latimer[?] (1906 - 1983), Mickey Spillane (born 1918), and many others decided on an altogether different, innovative, approach to crime fiction. Their central character is a private investigator working alone. He is between 35 and 45 or so and both a loner and a tough guy. Displaying numerous macho attributes, he is certainly no family man and he does not associate with lots of friends either. Alone at home, his usual diet consists of fried eggs, black coffee and cigarettes. He meets his casual acquaintances at his favourite haunts, which are shady all-night bars where he turns out to be hard-drinking without ever getting too drunk to realize what is going on around him or being able to defend himself when attacked. He always "wears" a gun and does not mind shooting criminals if the necessity arises, or being beaten up if it helps him solve a case. He certainly has a penchant for attractive "dames", especially the gorgeous blonde clients, many a femme fatale[?] among them, who come to his shabby little office on one of the upper floors of a downtown highrise to have their unfaithful husbands shadowed by a private eye. He is always short of cash and invariably asks for a down payment. Cases that at first seem easy and straightforward often turn out to be quite complicated, forcing him to embark on an odyssey through the urban landscape which often involves having to deal with organized crime ("rackets") and low life of all sorts crowding the "mean streets" of urban America, preferably Los Angeles, New York[?], or Chicago. This is how he acquires his reputation as a troublemaker.

A hard-boiled private eye has an ambivalent attitude towards the police. On the one hand, he realizes that both the "cops" and he himself are fighting on the same side. On the other hand, especially where police corruption and foul play are involved, it is his ambition to save America and rid it of its mean elements all by himself. Also, as Raymond Chandler's protagonist Philip Marlowe -- immortalized by actor Humphrey Bogart in the movie adaptation (1946) of the novel The Big Sleep (1939) -- admits to his client, General Sternwood, he finds it rather tiresome, as an individualist, to fit into the extensive set of rules and regulations for police detectives:

'Tell me about yourself, Mr Marlowe. I suppose I have a right to ask?'
'Sure, but there's very little to tell. I'm thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there's any demand for it. There isn't much in my trade. I worked for Mr Wilde, the District Attorney[?], as an investigator once. [...] I'm unmarried because I don't like policemen's wives.'
'And a little bit of a cynic,' the old man smiled. 'You didn't like working for Wilde?'
'I was fired. For insubordination[?]. I test very high on insubordination, General.'

As can be seen very easily, hard-boiled crime fiction just uses a different set of clichés and stereotypes. Generally, it does include a murder mystery, and there is no reason why the readers, while they are reading along, should not try to have guesses at who the murderer is. It is just that the atmosphere created by hard-boiled writers and the settings they chose for their novels are diametrically opposed to those of, say, English country-house murders or mysteries surrounding rich old ladies elegantly bumped off on a cruise ship, with a detective happening to be on board. 'Hard-boiled fiction would have happened anyway,' Ian Ousby writes,

even if Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers [...] had not written the way they did or Knox had not formulated his rules. The impetus came from the conditions of American life and the opportunities available to the American writer in the 1920s. The economic boom following the First World War combined with the introduction of Prohibition in 1920 to encourage the rise of the gangster. The familiar issues of law and lawlessness in a society determined to judge itself by the most ideal standards took on a new urgency. At the same time, the pulp magazines were already exploiting a ready market for adventure stories -- what Ronald Knox would have called 'shockers'-- which made heroes of cowboys, soldiers, explorers and masked avengers. It took no great leap of imagination for them to tackle modern crime and detection, fresh from the newspaper headlines of the day, and create heroes with the same vigour [...].

Ever since its independence from Great Britain, the U.S.A. had been proud of its image as a land of freedom and opportunity, as a "free country" to all intents and purposes. (Let us just think of Bing Crosby singing "Don't Fence Me In".) Among many other things, this kind of all-inclusive freedom is about the right to own, carry, and use firearms (a concept still advocated today by the National Rifle Association), the relatively unbureaucratic procedure people have to undergo if they want to set up their own business, the habit of moving away without leaving a forwarding address, but also about the lack of a national health system and a social safety net in general. As opposed to the "closed" society experienced in Britain - the village of St Mary Mead, where Miss Marple lives; the small island off the coast of England which becomes the scene of a capital crime; the Orient Express or any other train travelling through Europe; even London's West End, including Soho -- , America stands for an "open" society (not in the Popperian sense), consisting of rootless and uprooted people coming and going, with no boundaries to keep them in check, a society characterised by shifting loyalties and radical individualism. America either stands for wide open spaces -- as presented in countless westerns and, at a later point, road movies[?] -- , or the anonymous big city with all its dangers lurking round each and every corner. Careful, young man, it's a jungle out there!

It is only natural that all this should be reflected in the fiction of the day. As early as the turn of the century -- almost a century before the BSE crisis hit Europe -- , Upton Sinclair attacked the U.S. meat-packing industry in his muckraking novel The Jungle (1906). In this powerful exposé‚ Sinclair depicts the capitalist entrepreneurs who own the slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants of Chicago as criminals forming giant trusts[?] and syndicates[?] and exploiting virtually everyone who works for them, whether office clerk, foreman, farmer, simple labourer, or animal. It is the big bosses who are responsible for the lack of safety measures, which results in frequent accidents among their employees who operate machinery, with able workers turning into useless invalids within seconds, and also for the lack of hygiene in the stockyards, which causes innumerable cases of food poisoning and death all over the country. The Chicago of The Jungle -- this is the Chicago before the days of arch-villain Al Capone (1899 - 1947) -- is a city certainly beyond control and almost beyond hope: The unemployed, the sick, the homeless, the evicted[?], many of them immigrants, crowd the dirty streets of the slum districts; con men, thieves, robbers, rapists, quacks performing illegal abortions, loan sharks, greedy landlords, illegal prostitutes, and corrupt policemen and government inspectors are everywhere and are never brought to justice. Everyone has their price, everyone can be bought, everyone who is in a position of power "takes graft", including the judges and the local politicians. (As Sinclair sees it, the only solution to all these problems is socialism, but that's a different story.)

Novels and journalism written by muckrakers informed the U.S. public about the plight and the grievances of certain portions of the population. At the same time, they set the stage for the writers of the hard-boiled school. It was city life of the sort described in The Jungle which formed the background to many a novel to be published in the years to come. If we leave the big city, however, and travel into the country, the idyllic picture we have been expecting vanishes when we become aware of all the misery that can be found there as well. Very soon on our trip we encounter the tramp, or hobo, who roams the country, carrying all his worldly possessions with him, a man willing to work wherever he is needed -- for a meal, a bed, or a few cents. John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968), a U.S. author of mainstream fiction, described two itinerant farm workers in his novel Of Mice and Men (1937), and James M. Cain (1892 - 1977) made use of the hobo tradition in his classic novel The Postman Always Rings Twice[?] (1934): A tramp comes across a small service station situated somewhere along a lonely country road and gets a job there from the owner. The proprietor, a middle-aged Greek, is either too stupid, or too drunk, or both, to realize that his beautiful young wife, bored stiff by the life she is forced to lead in the middle of nowhere, very soon is more than just on friendly terms with the tramp. Together, the two lovers start planning the Greek's murder. Unforeseen events intervene, and they have to start scheming against her husband all over again.

Another author who enjoyed writing about the sleazy side of life in the U.S.A. is Jonathan Latimer[?]. In his novel Solomon's Vineyard[?] (1941), private eye Karl Craven aims to rescue a young heiress from the clutches of a weird cult. Apart from being an action-packed thriller, the novel contains open references to the detective's sex drive and, worse still, allusions to, and a brief description of, kinky sexual practices. The novel was considered "too hot" for Latimer's American publishers and was not published until 1950, and then in a heavily Bowdlerized version. (The unexpurgated novel came out in Britain during the Second World War though.) From an early 21st century point of view, the reasons for declining publication of Solomon's Vineyard seem absurd. For example, these are the opening lines of the novel, with Karl Craven, the narrator, describing his first encounter with a young woman called Carmel:

From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she'd be good in bed. The silk was tight and under it the muscles worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and, brother, those are things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and went after her along the station platform.
She walked towards the waiting-room. She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pineapples. [...]

Later, when Craven and Carmel are already on more intimate terms, they find themselves alone in some shack, and the following scene unfolds:

'I like big men,' she said.
Her voice was raspy, like she had a cold. She came up to me and grabbed my arm. Her fingers hurt the muscles. I could smell her perfume. She came close to me. I thought I knew what she wanted. I tried to kiss her. She jerked away.
'I'm sorry.'
She slapped me. She was strong; my cheek stung. She moved in, swinging both arms. Now she had her fists closed. She hit my arms and my chest. I tried to hold her.
'Hit me!' she said.
It was goddam queer. I held her arms, but she got loose. She struck my chest.
She said: 'Hit me.'
I ripped the shirt off her, she fighting all the time and liking it. I ripped at her clothes, not caring how much I hurt her. She squirmed on the dirty floor, panting. There was blood on her mouth. I don't know if it was mine or hers. It tasted sweet. Suddenly she stopped moving.
'Now,' she said. 'Now, goddam you. Now!'
Later we lay on the floor.

At least two more authors are worth mentioning here. One is Mickey Spillane, who is often seen as an epigone, as a mere imitator of the hard-boiled style of writing. It cannot be denied, however, that Spillane has made a genuine contribution to the development of American crime fiction. His novel I, the Jury (1947), for example, combines action, a wisecracking private eye, a murder mystery and a lot more.

The other author is Kenneth Fearing[?] (1902 - 1961), not necessarily a hard-boiled writer, whose novel The Big Clock[?] (1947) exemplifies the individualism prevalent in American society around the middle of the 20th century. In addition, The Big Clock is remarkable in regard to the narrative technique[?] employed by Fearing: A multiple first-person narration, the novel presents the same events seen from various perspectives and angles.

"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". As an educated and civilized person, you at least had to pretend to be interested in what is often referred to as "high art": in classical music rather than folk music, jazz, or rock 'n' roll; in paintings by renowned artists exhibited in respectable museums and galleries rather than photography, the design of everyday objects, or Carl Barks's Scrooge McDuck comics; in Shakespeare's plays and, say, Charles Dickens's novels rather than science fiction, detective stories or erotic fiction (the latter circulating in private prints only to beat the censor). 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 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 did not correlate with the immense popularity of popular art on both sides of the Atlantic. 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. (Eventually, although it was a huge bestseller, the novel was a financial disaster for Wallace: He had failed to restrict the prize to the first person who gave the right answer, and innumerable correct solutions kept pouring in.) 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". Why, for example, should a conventionally written and dull novel about, say, a "fallen woman" automatically rank higher than a terrifying vision of the future full of action and suspense? Similarly, why should a story about industrial relations in early 20th century-Britain -- a novel about shocking working conditions, trade unionists, strikers and scabs -- be an acceptable subject-matter per se and a well-crafted and fast-paced thriller something altogether negligible?

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.

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.

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.

On the blurred boundaries between crime fiction and mainstream fiction

If we come to think of it, great, if not all, fiction is basically about love and/or death. There is hardly a novel or short story from which both these motifs are altogether absent. In particular, it is unrequited love and violent death which have fascinated authors throughout the ages, and there is 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". When, 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.

Film and literature: The case of crime fiction

The beginning of the 20th century saw the arrival of film as a new medium. By and large, what people wanted to watch on the screen did not differ from what they expected to see on the stage or read in short stories and novels: the good and the bad things in life (clearly separated from each other); virtue and vice; human prowess and human weakness; sin and redemption[?]; and, probably more than anything else, poetic justice[?], or iustitia commutativa[?], as it is called according to Aristotle, with everyone getting what they deserve. In this respect, the cinema has always served as a means of escape from real life, if only for one or two hours. This escapist function of both literature and film did not change substantially in the course of the 20th century: We still feel uncomfortable if at the end of a film the baddy gets away with all his evil doings, if order is not restored, if justice does not succeed in the end. Subconsciously, we feel that if the wicked character is not punished, the film we have just watched comes too close to reality and makes us remember rather than forget about our own hopelessly inadequate lives.

When film producers turned to novelists in their search for material to be filmed, they were soon faced with the difficulties inherent in adapting fiction for the big screen. The underlying problem is that two distinct literary genres clash if a narrative is to be made into a movie. It is comparatively easy to film a stage play because the dialogues are already there, whereas turning a piece of fiction into a film requires a complete rewriting of the material, a process referred to as dramatization[?] or the writing of a screenplay. (But again, this is not our topic here.) Many fiction writers, among them authors of crime novels, went to Hollywood, stopped writing novels and short stories (some of them altogether) and started producing screenplays instead.

In addition, thematic changes had to be made if a piece of fiction was to be turned into a film. As already mentioned, the public, with few exceptions, wanted their screen heroes to succeed. Financially speaking, a lot of money was at stake: A novel is relatively cheap to produce if you compare it to a movie. Those few authors who had written experimental novels in which the evil forces are not brought to justice were left with two options: They could refuse to rewrite their stories (or sell the film rights and have them rewritten) and remain unknown and poor; or they could meet the requirements of the big producers, alter the storyline, include a happy ending and become rich and famous (or at least mentioned in the credits of the film).

Several famous examples of tampering with the plot exist. One of them is Alfred Hitchcock's (1899 - 1980) film Suspicion (U.S., 1941), which is based on Francis Iles[?]'s novel Before the Fact[?] (1932). Alterations of the plot are often due to external factors such as a particular actor's previous roles. While director Howard Hawks was filming The Big Sleep (1946) -- a classic example of film noir -- , Humphrey Bogart and his leading lady, Lauren Bacall, got married, which resulted in the studio exploiting -- and cashing in on -- their off-screen relationship by adding several scenes featuring the couple which are not based on Chandler's novel. Eric Ambler[?]'s (1909 - 1998) spy thriller Journey into Fear[?] (1940) clearly lacked a female part -- you cannot lure men into the cinema if they cannot watch a beautiful woman on the screen and dream about possessing her -- , so when the novel was filmed in 1942 the protagonist's wife accompanied her husband on his dangerous trip, whereas in Ambler's novel she stays at home and is only present in his thoughts (and heart). What is more, screen villain Orson Welles, who co-authored the script and co-produced and co-directed the movie, was given a role as Colonel Haki, the sinister police chief of Istanbul, which was larger than Ambler had originally intended it. Again, for some strange reason, the ending -- but not the outcome -- of the film is wildly different from the novel.

However, there are also straightforward adaptations of crime and mystery novels. Sir Peter Ustinov is seen by many as the definitive Hercule Poirot in several films based on Agatha Christie's novels such as Death on the Nile[?] (1978; novel first published in 1937), Evil Under the Sun[?] (1982; based on a 1941 novel), and Dead Man's Folly[?] (1986; novel first published in 1956). As far as Miss Marple is concerned, the early films starring Margaret Rutherford were disappointing to Christie purists because a lot had been changed and Rutherford looked and behaved very differently from how Christie had sketched her Miss Marple. On the other hand, these old black and white films -- starting with Murder, She Said[?] (1962; based on the 1957 novel 4.50 from Paddington[?]) -- are good entertainment in their own right. Later Miss Marples, including Joan Hickson[?], who appeared in made-for-TV films, were truer to the original.

The ever-increasing popularity of TV brought about the emergence of lots and lots of TV series featuring all sorts of detectives, investigators, special agents, lawyers, and, of course, the police. In Britain, The Avengers (1960s) about the adventures of gentleman agent John Steed and his partner, Emma Peel, achieved cult status. U.S. TV stations produced series such as 77 Sunset Strip[?] (1958-1963); The Streets of San Francisco[?] (1972-1977), starring Karl Malden[?] and a young Michael Douglas; Kojak[?] (1973-1978), with Telly Savalas[?] playing the lolly-addicted police lieutenant; Charlie's Angels (1976-1981); Murder, She Wrote (starting in 1984), about the adventures of Cabot Cove-based mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury; and many many more. Hardly any of these series has novels or short stories as its literary basis; they are just fun to watch, however mediocre many of them are. One of the outstanding achievements of TV in this field though was the creation of Columbo, inseparably linked to actor Peter Falk. Just like in the novels of Francis Iles[?] or, say, Patricia Highsmith (1921 - 1995), the perpetrator, convinced that he or she has committed the perfect murder, is known to the audience right from the start. However, Lieutenant Columbo's "just one more question" approach, his watchful eyes, and his careful investigation of all the clues available to him guarantee 90 minutes of suspense per episode. Columbo is the antithesis of a whodunnit: The thrill solely lies in the question, unanswered to the very end, how on earth Columbo will be able to prove the murderer's guilt.

As a rule, remakes are a particularly annoying viewing experience. It is not easy to fathom why film-makers should want to film the same material all over again, especially if the first version is already good or, worse, perfect. When the talkies came up at the end of the 1920s, it was understandable that people wanted to watch a sound film instead of a seemingly antiquated silent movie, even if it was only a few years old. But there is no point really in remaking a film which has already become a renowned classic. This, however, is being done ever so often. A recent example is Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Rear Window starring Grace Kelly and James Stewart as the photographer with a broken leg who, confined to his small apartment, keeps staring out of his window and, gradually having metamorphosed into a Peeping Tom, thinks he has witnessed a murder in the building across the yard. The screenplay is based on Cornell Woolrich's (1903 - 1968) short story "It Had to Be Murder" (1942). Recently, the film was remade starring ex-Superman Christopher Reeve, himself completely paralysed after a riding accident. The remake, only loosely based on Woolrich's story, added some electronic gadgetry but no suspense.

In almost all cases, the remake is considered far less interesting than the original. The series of disastrous remakes is endless: Suspicion (1941; remade in 1987); The Postman Always Rings Twice[?] (1946; remade in 1981, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange; first filmed -- without permission -- in Italy in 1942 by Luchino Visconti under the title Ossessione[?]); The Big Sleep (1946; remade in 1978, with the setting relocated to London [!]); etc. etc. One of the few notable exceptions to the rule is Kenneth Fearing[?]'s novel The Big Clock[?] (1947), which has also been filmed twice. Compared to the first movie version (1948), the remake -- entitled No Way Out[?] (1987) -- has nothing in common with Fearing's novel except the storyline. The time, the setting, even the characters' names have been changed. As under these circumstances the original title did not make any sense any more, it was changed, too. Still the film is a good thriller, with Kevin Costner finding himself trapped in an unlikely but dangerous situation from which there is no escape -- until the very last minute, that is.

Apart from remakes, maybe one of the few important things to remember about film and literature in connexion with crime fiction is that novelisations[?] are usually of inferior quality. The idea of writing a novel based on a film and its screenplay (rather than the other way round) is a stupid one and can only be explained with some unknown author or even the film studio itself trying to cash in on a successful movie. Anyway, if you have seen the film, there is nothing whatsoever to be gained by reading the novelisation afterwards (as it is based on the film you already know). If you have not seen the film, go and see it. Why should you want to consume the novelised version of the movie rather than the real thing? A case in point seems to be Basic Instinct[?] (1992), a film starring Michael Douglas as a San Francisco cop and Sharon Stone as the seductive young lady with a penchant for ice-picks. Why would you want to read about Sharon Stone if you can watch her in action?

Crime in literature is of course not restricted to fiction alone. As far as films are concerned, there are innumerable original screenplays dealing with crime and its consequences. An example is U.S. playwright David Mamet's (born 1947) screenplay for the film Homicide[?] (1991), which he also directed. Gold, an assimilated Jew, is a member of the homicide squad of an anonymous big city somewhere in the U.S.A. One day he is assigned to investigate the death of the owner of a grocery store. While on the job, he gets to know all the members of a family of orthodox Jews -- whose attitudes to the case, to life in general, and to God, make him reconsider his own place in the universe. Gold also has to deal with a group of militant neo-Nazis. A parallel, action-packed, thread of the plot revolves around a dangerous drug addict who is threatening to do harm to his own mother.

Generally, lots of films dealing with crime and its detection are based on plays rather than novels. Agatha Christie's stage play Witness For the Prosecution[?] (1953; based on her own short story, published in 1933) was adapted for the big screen by director Billy Wilder in 1957. The film starred Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton and is a classic example of a "courtroom drama[?]". In a courtroom drama, a charge is brought against one of the main characters, who says that they are innocent. Another major part is played by the lawyer (in Britain a barrister) representing the defendant in court and battling with the public prosecutor. He or she may enlist the services of a private investigator to find out what really happened and who the real perpetrator is. But in most cases it is not clear at all whether the accused is guilty of the crime or not -- this is how suspense is created. Very often, the private investigator storms into the courtroom at the very last minute in order to bring a new and crucial piece of information to the attention of the court. For obvious reasons, this type of literature lends itself to the literary genre of drama: There is a lot of dialogue (the opening and closing statements, the witnesses' testimonies, etc.) and little or no necessity for a shift in scenery: The auditorium of the theatre becomes an extension of the courtroom. When a courtroom drama is filmed, the traditional device employed by screenwriters and directors is the frequent use of flashbacks, in which the crime and everything that led up to it is narrated and reconstructed from different angles.

In Witness for the Prosecution, Leonard Vole, a young American living in England, is accused of murdering a middle-aged lady he met in the street while shopping. His wife (played by Marlene Dietrich) hires the best lawyer available (Charles Laughton) because she is convinced, or rather she knows, that her husband is innocent. Another classic courtroom drama is U.S. playwright Reginald Rose[?]'s Twelve Angry Men[?] (1955), which is set in the jury deliberation room of a New York Court of Law. Eleven members of the jury, aiming at a unanimous verdict[?] of "guilty", try to get it over with as quickly as possible. And they would really succeed in achieving their common aim if it were not for the twelfth juror (played by Henry Fonda in the 1957 movie adaptation), who, on second thoughts, considers it his duty to convince his colleagues that the defendant may be innocent after all, and who, by doing so, triggers a lot of discussion, confusion, and anger.

On humour in crime fiction

There are a lot of mainstream novels which are awfully sad as far as their contents are concerned and, consequently, utterly depressing to read. Serious illness, the death of a beloved person, war and its cruel aftermath, grave social injustice and, generally, absolute hopelessness described at length in a novel usually make for very serious reading, especially if the narration does not offer the reader any comic relief (which in such cases would be more or less out of place anyway). We are not considering tear-jerkers here, the equivalent of soap operas on TV, books whose intention it is to make the reader feel pleasantly sad and sentimental: We are reflecting on novels and stories depicting tragic events and the reactions of the desperate people affected by them. Throughout literary history, there has been a vast spectrum of this sort of fiction, a category which contains such novels as Grant Allen's The Woman Who Did (1895), about a woman slowly driven to suicide by her ungrateful daughter; E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), about unfulfilled love and the loss of a beloved child; Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), about cowardice and death in wartime; Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), about the disastrous effects good intentions can have on two people; or Russell Banks[?]'s The Sweet Hereafter (1991), about the tragic events in the wake of a fatal accident.

As opposed to this kind of mainstream fiction, crime novels -- no matter what their content or when, where and by whom they were written -- are never completely serious. Even if their authors refuse to admit it, they are a game: a game played between author and reader, or even between different authors. How else could we accept murder and mayhem without shedding a tear? How else could we react in a pleasantly thrilled way to violent death most cruelly executed? How else could we be made to read on?

In crime fiction, the humorous element is always there; it just comes in different shapes and sizes. In many a whodunnit, it is a Watson clumsily deducing the wrong things; in hard-boiled fiction, it is usually the one-liners delivered by a wisecracking private eye; in more recent novels, it may be the complicated love life of a lesbian sleuth. Just consider this passage from Kinky Friedman's novel The Mile High Club[?] (2000), in which the first person narrator takes his friend's advice and answers every question put to him by two federal agents with another question:

'We'd just like to ask you a few questions,' said Agent McKinley, his tones soothing.
'A few questions?' I said. Agent Ford fidgeted slightly in his chair. [...]
'About the woman who sat next to you on the flight from Dallas,' he said.
'The flight from Dallas?'
'Our records indicate that three days ago you traveled from Dallas to New York on American Airlines Flight Number 207,' said Agent McKinley, like he was reading the back of a cereal box. 'We are routinely looking into a small matter of another passenger on that flight who became separated from her luggage.'
'Another passenger?'
'A woman seated in 11C,' he said.
'A woman seated in 11C?'
'You were seated in 11A, Mr Friedman,' said Agent Ford rather pointedly.
'11A?' I said, as Ford's face reddened ever so slightly.
'If we need any more information,' said Agent Ford, as if the maddeningly futile ordeal had never taken place, 'we'll get back in touch with you.'
I stood in the open doorway as they walked into the hall.
'You'll get back in touch with me?' I said.

The humour displayed in many crime novels can be best described as tongue-in-cheek. Nothing is ever meant absolutely seriously, there is always this slight humorous undercurrent suggesting to the reader that what they are doing just now is having a good time. Through this kind of humour, the reader is constantly reminded that it is a fictional world they are reading about, a world that has little in common with the real world outside their own doorstep.

In addition to the kind of humour that pervades practically all genre novels, parody and pastiche have had a long tradition within the field of crime fiction. (A pastiche is a piece of writing in which the style is copied from someone or something else, in particular one which contains a mixture of different styles.) Shortly after Conan Doyle had published his first stories, Sherlock Holmes spoofs appeared. Similarly, there have been innumerable Agatha Christie send-ups. The idea is always to exaggerate and mock the most noticeable features of the original and, by doing so, amuse especially those readers who are also familiar with that original. One of the earliest parodies of a whodunnit is Englishman E.C. Bentley's (1875 - 1956) novel Trent's Last Case (1913), which introduced (!) Philip Trent, a detective who gets everything wrong right from the start: Assigned to investigate the murder of English millionaire Sigsbee Manderson, who is found shot in the library of his country house, Trent makes his first major mistake when he falls head over heels in love with the main suspect. In the course of his investigation he jumps at the wrong clues, in his reasoning he carefully eliminates the wrong suspects, and finally he arrives at a conclusion concerning the identity of Manderson's murderer which turns out to be completely false. At the end of the novel, the real perpetrator casually informs him during dinner that he/she has shot Manderson. These are Trent's final words to the murderer:

'[...] I'm cured. I will never touch a crime-mystery again. The Manderson affair shall be Philip Trent's last case. His high-blown pride at length breaks under him.' Trent's smile suddenly returned. 'I could have borne everything but that last revelation of the impotence of human reason. [...] I have absolutely nothing left to say, except this: you have beaten me. I drink your health in a spirit of self-abasement. And you shall pay for the dinner.'

A more recent example of a spoof, which at the same time shows that the borderline between "serious" mystery (if there is any such thing) and its parody is necessarily blurred, is U.S. mystery writer Lawrence Block[?]'s (born 1938) novel The Burglar in the Library[?] (1997). The burglar of the title is Bernie Rhodenbarr, who has booked a weekend at an English-style country house just to steal a signed, and therefore very valuable, first edition of Chandler's The Big Sleep which he knows has been sitting there on one of the shelves for more than half a century. But, alas, immediately after his arrival a dead body turns up in the library, the room is sealed off, and Rhodenbarr has to track down the murderer before he can enter the library again and start hunting for the precious book.

From the mid-20th century to the present: A short survey of the ramifications the crime novel has seen

Over the decades, the detective story metamorphosed into the crime novel (see also the title of Julian Symons[?]'s history of the genre). Starting with writers like Francis Iles[?], who has been described as "the father of the psychological suspense novel[?] as we know it today", more and more authors laid the emphasis on character rather than plot. Up to the present, lots of authors have tried their hand at writing novels where the identity of the criminal is known to the reader right from the start. The suspense is created by the author having the reader share the prepetrator's thoughts -- up to a point, that is -- and having them guess what is going to happen next (for example, another murder, or a potential victim making a fatal mistake), and if the criminal will be brought to justice in the end. To name two randomly chosen examples, Simon Brett's A Shock to the System (1984) and Stephen Dobyns[?]'s Boy in the Water[?] (1999) both are thrilling to read although they reveal the murderer's identity quite early in the narrative. A Shock to the System is about a hitherto law-abiding business manager's revenge which is triggered by his being passed over for promotion, and the intricate plan he thinks up to get back at his rivals. Boy in the Water is the psychological study of a man who, severely abused as a child, is trying to get back at the world at large now that he has the physical and mental abilities to do so. As a consequence of his childhood trauma, the killer randomly picks out his victims, first scaring the shit out of them and eventually murdering them. But Boy in the Water also traces the mental states of a group of people who happen to get in touch with the lunatic, and their reactions to him.

Apart from the emergence of the psychological thriller and the continuation of older traditions such as the whodunnit and the private eye novel, several new trends can be recognised. One of the first masters of the spy novel was Eric Ambler[?], whose unsuspecting and innocent protagonists are often caught in a network of espionage, betrayal and violence and whose only wish is to get home safely as soon as possible. Spy thrillers have continued fascinating the readers even if the Cold War period is over now. Another development is the courtroom novel which, as opposed to courtroom drama, also includes many scenes which are not set in the courtroom itself but which basically revolves around the trial of the protagonist, who claims to be innocent but cannot (yet) prove it. Quite a number of U.S. lawyers have given up their jobs and started writing novels full-time, among them Scott Turow, who began his career with the publication of Presumed Innocent[?] (1987) (the phrase in the title having been taken from the age-old legal principle that any defendant must be considered as not guilty until they are finally convicted). But there are also authors who specialise in historical mysteries -- novels which are set in the days of the Roman Empire, in medieval England, the U.S.A. of the 1930s and 40s, or whenever (see historical whodunnit) -- and even in mysteries set in the future. A remarkable example of the latter is U.S. writer James L. Halperin[?]'s science fiction thriller The Truth Machine[?] (1996), in which the construction of a 100 per cent accurate, easy-to-handle lie detector changes the face of the world, making crime -- but, alas, not all crime -- a thing of the past.

Feminism has also left its mark on the genre of crime fiction. Numerous private eyes -- professionals as well as amateurs -- are now women, many of them lesbians. Tally McGinnis, for example, is the young gay heroine of a series of novels by U.S. author Nancy Sanra[?] (born 1944). Sanra's Tally McGinnis mysteries such as No Escape[?] (1998), which is set in San Francisco, are quite traditional in other respects. Other female novelists include Sara Paretsky[?] (born 1947), whose private detective V.I. Warshawski roams the streets of Chicago looking for crimes to solve (and meeting trouble instead). In Britain, Scottish-born Val McDermid created lesbian journalist-cum-sleuth Lindsay Gordon, and Joan Smith[?] (born 1953) has gained popularity as the author of a series of Loretta Lawson novels. Lawson is a university teacher and a real amateur as far as crime is concerned, but there is nothing she can do when, as it happens ever so often, she stumbles across a corpse, is there? In Full Stop[?] (1995), she stops over at New York and is quickly devoured by the anonymous big city. And of course there are many more feminist authors who have succumbed to the temptation of writing crime fiction and, by doing so, infiltrate society and advocate their feminist ideas.

By far the richest field of activity though has been the police novel. By general consent, U.S. (male) writer Hillary Waugh[?]'s (born 1920) police procedural[?] Last Seen Wearing ...[?] (1952) is the best early example of this type of crime fiction. As opposed to hard-boiled crime writing, which is set in the mean streets of a big city, Last Seen Wearing ... carefully and minutely chronicles the work of the police, including all the boring but necessary legwork, in a small American college town where, in the dead of winter, an attractive student goes missing. In contrast to armchair detectives such as Dr. Gideon Fell or Hercule Poirot, Chief of Police Frank W. Ford and his men never hold back information from the reader. By way of elimination, they exclude all the suspects who could not possibly have committed the crime and eventually arrive at the correct conclusion, a solution which comes as a surprise to most of them but which, due to their painstaking research, is infallible. The novel certainly is a whodunnit, but all the conventions of the cosy British variety are abandoned. A lot of reasoning has to be done by the police though, including the careful examination and re-examination of all the evidence available. Waugh's police novel lacks "action" in the form of dangerous situations from which the characters can only make a narrow escape, but the book is nonetheless a page-turner of a novel, with all the suspense for the reader created through their being able to witness each and every step the police take in order to solve the crime.

The enormous output of police novels today makes it exceedingly difficult to pick out a couple of more recent examples, let alone recommend a good read. Any mention of a contemporary author of police novels can only be a random choice, and such a random choice would be Donna Leon[?]'s novels featuring a Venetian police detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti. Leon, an American who has been living in Venice, Italy for quite some time, is particularly good at capturing the atmosphere of that decadent city. Her plots, however, for example that of her eighth Brunetti novel, Fatal Remedies[?] (1999), are seen by many as contrived, her solutions far-fetched, and the overall impression therefore unconvincing. Fatal Remedies is neither a whodunnit nor a police procedural (as one might think, with Commissario Brunetti as the hero); there are no twists and turns anywhere; Brunetti is not even once in danger. The language is simple; there is nothing really thought-provoking about the book. Nevertheless Donna Leon is enormously popular, especially in German-speaking countries.

A more interesting choice than Leon might be American writer Faye Kellerman (born 1952), who has written a series of novels featuring Peter Decker and his daughter by his first marriage, Cindy, who both work for the Los Angeles Police Department. A lot of local colour is provided by the author, especially through Peter Decker's Jewish background. In Stalker[?] (2000), 25 year-old Cindy herself becomes the victim of an unidentified baddy -- a stalker -- , repeatedly frightening her and also trying to do her bodily harm. Apart from her personal predicament, Cindy is assigned to clear up a series of murders that have been committed in the Los Angeles area. Again, the work of the police is chronicled in detail, but it would not be fiction if outrageous things did not intervene.

Up to the present, some of the problems inherent in crime fiction have remained unsolved (and possibly also insoluble). Some of them can be dismissed with a shrug: Why bother at all, even if it is obvious to everyone that an ordinary person is not likely to keep stumbling across corpses? After all, this is just part of the game of crime fiction. Still the fact that an old spinster like Miss Marple meets with an estimated two bodies per year does raise a few doubts as to the plausibility of the Miss Marple mysteries. De Andrea has described the quiet little village of St Mary Mead as having "put on a pageant of human depravity rivaled only by that of Sodom and Gomorrah". Similarly, TV heroine Jessica Fletcher is confronted with bodies wherever she goes, but over the years people who have met violent deaths have also piled up in the streets of Cabot Cove, Maine, the cosy little village where she lives. Generally, therefore, it is much more convincing if a policeman, private eye, forensic expert or similar professional is made the hero or heroine of a series of crime novels. On the other hand, who cares for authenticity?

Also, the role and legitimacy of coincidence has frequently been the topic of heated arguments ever since Knox categorically stated that "no accident must ever help the detective" (Commandment No.6). Yet time and again authors resort to that deus ex machina-sort of device. Is it just because they have to meet their publisher's deadline and cannot think of any other ending to their latest novel? Or is it because they are mediocre writers in the first place? Or is one coincidence per novel acceptable now? A special case of illogical plotting seems to be the murderers' reluctance to kill off the hero or heroine of the story: Even serial killers, who normally do not hesitate for a second to kill an innocent bystander if they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, show a lot of scruples when it comes to ridding themselves of their most dangerous -- and ultimate -- enemy, even if he or she is already in their power. Instead of killing him or her right on the spot -- in the manner in which they bumped off all their previous victims -- , they keep putting off the execution until it is too late and they are outsmarted by their rival. In many cases, instead of just pulling the trigger, they embark on a lengthy discussion of their criminal record, detailing all their crimes -- no doubt mainly for the reader's benefit, but shouldn't a good author be able to think of other narrative devices that help the reader catch up on what they have missed so far?

Finally, it must be said that technological progress has rendered many of the plots implausible and antiquated. For example, the use of mobile phones by practically everyone these days, including the hoi polloi, has significantly altered the dangerous situations investigators have found themselves in lately. A snowbound mansion somewhere in the country, with a murderer at large? A deserted street in a slum area in the middle of the night, with dark figures looming in the distance? So what?! Get out your mobile and phone for help, for Christ's sake! Some authors have not really succeeded in adapting to the changes brought about by modern technology; others, among them Carl Hiaasen (born 1953), have. In Sick Puppy (1999), one of the characters is stuck on a desert island because, after his tongue has been shot off, a bulldozer[?] has been parked on his legs. He desperately tries to phone for help using his mobile, and the following scene unfolds:

CALLER: Hep meh! Peezh!
DISPATCHER: Do you have an emergency?
CALLER: Yeah, I gah a emoozhezhee! I gah a fugghy boo-gozer oh meh azzhhh!
DISPATCHER: 'Boo-gozer'? Sir, I'm sorry, but you'll have to speak more clearly. This is Levy County Fire Rescue, do you have an emergency to report?
CALLER: Yeah! Hep! Mah baggh is boge! Ah bing zzhaa eng mah fay! I ngee hep!
DISPATCHER: Sir, do you speak English?
CALLER: Eh izzh Engizh! Mah ung gaw zzha off! Whif ah gung!
DISPATCHER: Hang on, Mr. Boogozer, I'm transferring you to someone who can take the information. ...
CALLER: Ngooohh! Hep! Peezh!
DISPATCHER TWO: Diga. ¿Dónde estás?
CALLER: Aaaaaagghh!!!
DISPATCHER TWO: ¿Tienes un emergencia?
CALLER: Oh fugghh. I gaw die.
DISPATCHER TWO: Señor, por favor, no entiendo nada que estás diciendo.
CALLER: Hep! ... Hep!

A piece of practical advice to the reader

Reading anything about a piece of crime fiction (such as a blurb or an Introduction) before reading the text itself should generally be avoided. Even if they do not mean to, advertisers, reviewers, scholars and aficionados always spoil the fun by giving away details or parts of the plot, and sometimes -- for example in the case of Mickey Spillane's novel I, the Jury -- even the solution. (After the credits of Billy Wilder's film Witness for the Prosecution, the cinemagoers are asked not to talk to anyone about the plot so that future viewers will also be able to fully enjoy the unravelling of the mystery.)


First it has to be said that there is no correlation whatsoever between quality and availability. Some of the finest crime novels, 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.

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.

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 (http://houseofstratus.com) 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.

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 (http://www.canongate.net) 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 (http://www.bloomsbury.com) 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

  • Binyon, T J: "Murder Will Out". The Detective in Fiction (Oxford, 1990).
  • The Crown Crime Companion. The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time Selected by the Mystery Writers of America, annotated by Otto Penzler, compiled by Mickey Friedman (New York, 1995).
  • De Andrea, William L: Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television (New York, 1994).
  • Duncan, Paul: Film Noir. Films of Trust and Betrayal (Harpenden, 2000).
  • The Hatchards Crime Companion. 100 Top Crime Novels Selected by the Crime Writers' Association, ed. Susan Moody (London, 1990).
  • Hitt, Jim: Words and Shadows. Literature on the Screen (New York, 1992).
  • McLeish, Kenneth and McLeish, Valerie: Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Murder. Crime Fiction and Thrillers (London, 1990).
  • Ousby, Ian: The Crime and Mystery Book. A Reader's Companion (London, 1997).
  • Symons, Julian: Bloody Murder. From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History (Harmondsworth, 1974).
  • Waterstone's Guide to Crime Fiction, ed. Nick Rennison and Richard Shephard (Brentford, 1997).
  • Willett, Ralph: The Naked City. Urban Crime Fiction in the USA (Manchester, 1996).

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
Monty Woolley

... Wooley in New York City, Woolley was a professor and lecturer at Yale University (one of his students was Thornton Wilder) who began acting on Broadway in 1936. He ...

This page was created in 54.8 ms