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Crime Fiction

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English Literature

Something about the twisted nature of crime seems to draw our curiosity. Perhaps we wish to peek into the psyche of a criminal, or we are driven by the puzzle of solving a crime. Either way, read on to find out more about crime fiction.

Crime fiction genre: overview, meaning and history

Unsurprisingly, crime fiction is about crime, a popular genre among readers, but what does it entail?

Crime fiction refers to a fictional narrative where a crime is committed, followed by an investigation conducted by a professional or amateur sleuth to solve the crime.

An example of a work of crime fiction is The Thursday Murder Club (2020) by Richard Osman.

At the heart of crime fiction is a discussion about crime and criminality. What does it mean to be a criminal? How does society perhaps cause corruption? What is so alluring about stories of crime? Is it the need to play out our hidden transgressive desires or the urge to confirm social order by catching and punishing criminals?

Fictional narratives surrounding crimes and criminals have been around for centuries. Some of the oldest tales of crime fiction include the Arabian anthology One Thousand and One Nights (c. 7th century) and folktales from Southeast Asia.

In England, during the Victorian Age, crime fiction as a genre coincided with the Industrial Revolution's increased urbanisation in the early nineteenth century. As cities grew larger and unemployment became more prevalent, crime increased substantially.

The Victorian Period refers to the cultural epoch during the reign of Queen Victoria I in England. It lasted from 1832 to 1901. During this period, England was in the throes of the industrial revolution due to innovation and progress in technology, especially that of mass production of goods.

As a response, the first policing institution was created. This industrialisation and the focus on science and rationality brought in by the age of enlightenment led to the detective novel as we know it today. The fascination with death, macabre and the human mind only contributed to the immense popularity of crime fiction. This popularity was further enhanced by the increasing presence of police forces and law enforcement to solve crimes.

Macabre is a word used to describe disturbing or horrific occurrences connected to or ending up in death.

The Newgate Calendar offered a fascinating perspective. People could read all the grizzly details of their lives and crimes about criminals who had been put to death. Caleb Williams, or Things As They Are (1794) by William Godwin, is a crime fiction novel written at the time, which the Newgate Calendar heavily influenced.

The Newgate Calendar started in the 1700s as a monthly bulletin that advertised upcoming executions to the public, with details about the crimes committed by those about to be executed.

Napoleon’s establishment of the Sûreté in 1812, and Eugene Vidocq’s formation of the first private detective agency almost thirty years before the creation of Pinkerton’s detective agency in the United States in 1850, were an apparent response to rising crime rates in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This rise in crime, which continued throughout the reprinting lifetime of the Newgate Calendar into the 1830s, coincided with the social and cultural upheavals that were a result of the Industrial Revolution.

Classic detective fiction remained popular until the end of World War 2, the violence and tragedy of which had a significant impact on English literature. Rather than classic works in which the detective was always a figure of unambiguous good, and the criminal was always punished for their crime, the genre began to evolve with the advent of hard-boiled detective fiction and gangster stories that focused on the lives of criminals.

The War also brought in the advent of the spy thriller, whose focus was often on increasingly sophisticated technology and duplicity.

As technology and our understanding of human behaviour progressed, so did the crime fiction genre. Narratives of crime fiction also explored forensic evidence, forensic analysis, profiling, and behavioural examination. The genre then expanded to include several sub-genres, which we will discuss below.

Sub-genres of crime fiction

As already discussed, crime fiction is an umbrella genre that encompasses many types of fictional narratives. These sub-genres include the following:

  1. Detective fiction: this type of narrative typically follows the professional or amateur detective who sets out to solve the crime. Usually, the audience learns more about the crime as the detective continues their investigation. An example of detective fiction includes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) by Arthur Conan Doyle.

  2. Cosy or armchair mysteries: This type of crime fiction is light because it downplays the darker tones of crime, violence, gore or sexuality. This downplaying is usually done through humour and wit. An example of an armchair mystery is The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), featuring the famous detective Miss Marple by Agatha Christie.

  3. Locked room mysteries: as the title suggests, these narratives feature a crime committed inside a locked room and typically centre around the investigator trying to identify how the criminal got into the room and out of the room without breaking any locks or points of entry. An example of a locked room mystery is Strings of Murder (2015) by Oscar de Muriel.

  4. Forensic fiction: A relatively newer sub-genre compared to detective fiction, forensic fiction builds the plot based on forensic evidence and analysis gathered by the investigator, such as fingerprints, DNA analysis, blood spatter analysis etc. An example of forensic fiction includes Thomas Harris’ The Red Dragon (1981), featuring the famous character Hannibal Lecter.

  5. Espionage fiction: These crime fiction narratives feature a central character who is a spy - they could be spying for a private individual, a corporation or a government agency. Examples of espionage fiction include Ian Fleming’s James Bond series (1953-1964).

  6. Hard-boiled fiction: Hard-boiled fiction concentrates on the character of the detective in a plot usually characterised by violence and betrayal. Hard-boiled detective fiction developed as a distinctive American sub-genre in the early twentieth century. It grew out of sources as diverse as the Western and gangster stories like W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1929). Such gangster stories, in which an individual from a disadvantaged background becomes rich and powerful from a life of crime, only to become a victim of the criminal world that created his success, sprang from the reality of the attraction of crime as an understandable career choice in an increasingly aggressive capitalist society.

Here, it is important to note that by no means is the list above exhaustive. There are numerous sub-genres within the umbrella genre of crime fiction as the genre's popularity continues to grow, with writers of crime fiction carving out niches within the genre for their works.

Elements of crime fiction

The four main elements of crime fiction are:

  1. A crime: The commission of a crime is a significant plot element in crime fiction. Many times, this is a murder that must be solved or avenged. There may be more than one crime in some crime fiction, especially those that centre on the criminals themselves as protagonists.

  2. The criminal: At different points in the history of crime fiction, the criminal is a despicable outsider. In others, they are a psychological puzzle. Sometimes the criminal is aspirational or relatable. But always, the criminal, their motivation, and their place in society are always important to crime fiction.

  3. The investigator: Sometimes a lone private detective, other times a police officer, or just a civilian, the investigator or investigators act as a foil to the criminal as they strive to investigate the crime and punish the criminal. In many cases, the investigator has their own transgressive or deviant qualities or otherwise mirrors the criminal.

  4. Criminality as a central theme: It's not enough to have a crime occur in a work of fiction for it to be classified as crime fiction. Crime fiction is about crime. It explores our personal and social relationship with crime.

Common characteristics of crime fiction

Most crime fiction narratives share some standard features across the genre. These features include:

  1. An investigation usually drives a crime fiction narrative to solve the crime. A professional or amateur detective may conduct the investigation.

  2. A work of crime fiction is tailored to a specific sub-genre and will include elements of the sub-genre. For example, a piece of espionage fiction will consist of a character who is a spy and is often put in difficult situations wherein their identity as a spy may be revealed to the antagonists.

  3. Suspense plays an essential role in works of crime fiction. The author may build suspense using various literary techniques and devices such as foreshadowing or multiple points of view, including that of the criminal.

  4. Usually, crime fiction works to resolve the narrative by solving the crime, and the perpetrator is brought to justice.

Crime fiction: authors, books and other examples

This section covers some examples of works of crime fiction and popular authors of the genre.

Crime fiction authors and books

In this section, we will look at some prominent crime fiction authors.

Edgar Allen Poe

The general critical consensus is that the detective story begins with Edgar Allan Poe, the ‘father’ of the detective genre. Poe's fictional detective, a man named C. Auguste Dupin, serves as the model for later writers to fashion their detectives on, including the famous Sherlock Holmes created by Arthur Conan Doyle.

C. Auguste Dupin's first appearance is in the novel The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), widely accepted as the first work of detective fiction in Western literature. Dupin later also appears in the stories, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842) and The Purloined Letter (1844). Poe's works of detective fiction feature certain gothic elements such as a dark atmosphere, premature burial, death and the macabre.

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith is the author of Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)

Strangers on a Train follows two characters, namely Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, both of whom discuss Bruno's idea of exchanging victims for their planned murders, as neither of them could be identified as having a motive to kill the victims. Haines does not take the proposal seriously, but Bruno does and murders Haines' wife when he is away. Haines does not turn Bruno in and continues to be manipulated by Bruno as he, too, is complicit in the murder of his wife by his association with Bruno.

In The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom Ripley, a conman, hatches a plan to murder the man he has been living off and take on the victim's identity, Dickie Greenleaf. Tom Ripley displays ambition, selfish ruthlessness, and a lack of moral baggage to become rich and successful.

Other examples of crime fiction

Let us look at other examples of crime fiction

Biblical and mythological crime fiction

In the mythological story of Hercules and Cacus the thief, Cacus is one of the first criminals to falsify evidence by forging footprints to mislead his pursuer.

Herodotus’s story of King Rhampsinitus and the master thief in ancient Greek literature is often identified as the first ‘locked-room mystery’. In Herodotus’s story, as in Hercules and Cacus, the thief also tampers with the evidence of the crime to evade capture.

In the Biblical story of 'Susanna and the Elders' (Book of Daniel, Chapter 13), in which Susanna is falsely accused of adultery by two corrupt and lecherous judges. In his cross-examination of the two men, Daniel exposes their perjury and exonerates the innocent Susanna. What most accounts of this story fail to include, however, is that under the laws of Moses, the two men are subject to the same penalty that they had plotted to impose on Susanna and are put to death.

The story of 'Bel and the Dragon' (Book of Daniel, Chapter 14), like the story of Rhampsinitus and the thief, is an early prototype of the ‘locked-room mystery.’ In this story, the priests of Bel claim that the statue of the Dragon of Bel eats and drinks the offerings that are made to him. Contrary to the claims of the priests, however, the priests themselves enter the temple by a secret entrance and, along with their wives and children, consume the offerings themselves. Daniel scatters ashes on the floor of the temple before it is locked and sealed, and the footprints left by the priests prove their guilt. As is the case with the story of Susanna and the Elders, accounts of the story of Daniel and the priests of Bel often omit the fact that the priests, their wives, and their children are all put to death as punishment for their crimes.

Crime fiction from the 1800s onwards

In the 1800s, despite extolling the virtues of the police force, and satisfying a public (and private) fascination with crimes in his novels, it is not Charles Dickens, but his close friend Wilkie Collins, who is the author of what is generally identified as the first detective novel written in English: The Moonstone (1868).

As for 20th-century crime fiction, the rapid decay of human relationships due to suspicion and mistrust in the wake of the crime of murder is central to James Cain’s two most famous novels; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936). Both novels are characterised, among other things, by their sense of inevitable doom,

In Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) charts the mental disintegration of the student Raskolnikov in the wake of the double-murder of a pawnbroker and her simple-minded sister during a bungled burglary.

These works are a clear influence on a novel written sixty years after and a world away from the poverty and hopelessness of the Depression: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992). Tartt’s novel examines the growing tension among a group of classics students at Hampden College, Vermont, caused by their complicity in not just one but eventually two murders. The first of these murders is frenzied and brutal, but the second is the coldly rationalised and cruelly considered murder of one of their friends.

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969) sets most of the characteristic features of gangster fiction, a model still evident in the cinema and in television series such as The Sopranos (1999-2007). Family is the central symbol in mafia narratives. The image of the family in mafia fiction is linked with the development of organisational power, rather than its destruction, typical of early gangster stories such as Little Caesar (1929) by William R. Burnett. Central to this tracing of the development of a ‘family’s’ organisation is the figure of the Mafia Don, particularly concerning the presentation of the Mafia organisation as a form of business.

Crime fiction today

Crime fiction continues to be widely read today. The genre has progressively evolved over the years to meet the desires of avid crime fiction readers. Real-life events and true crime often inspire crime fiction authors.

Crime Fiction - Key takeaways

  • Crime fiction is a fictional narrative centred on a crime. Typically, the protagonist investigates and tries to solve the crime.
  • An example of a work of crime fiction is Thomas Harris' The Red Dragon (1981).
  • Sub-genres of crime fiction include cosy or armchair mysteries, detective fiction, hard-boiled mysteries and locked-room mysteries.
  • Key authors of crime fiction include Edgar Allan Poe and Patricia Highsmith.
  • Crime fiction continues to develop as a genre and is widely read across the globe.

Crime Fiction

The four main features of crime fiction include: 

1. A crime

2. The criminal

3. The investigator

4. Criminality as a theme

Sub-genres of crime fiction include cozy or armchair mysteries, detective fiction, hard-boiled mysteries and locked-room mysteries.

Crime fiction refers to a fictional narrative where a crime is committed. This is typically followed by an investigation conducted by a professional or amateur sleuth to solve the crime.

Crime fiction sets the premise with a crime that is committed at the start of the narrative or before the narrative begins. It is then followed by the after-effects of the crime, which usually include an investigation to solve the crime.

To write a work of crime fiction, you must first outline the plot. Determine the crime that is committed, the motive behind it, how it is committed and the personality of the criminal. Then you can begin working on the approach of the investigator to solve the crime. You should ideally identify the evidence and clues they gather that leads them to solve the crime.

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