Creative writing genres are numerous, and there are many that have died out over the years. One of those which has maintained a steady popularity in the last two centuries is crime fiction, which continues to appeal to readers’ imaginations. These books are generally centred around crimes, those that commit them and the investigators involved in bringing the guilty to justice (or not). Even though there were stories about mystery and murder recorded as early as the hieroglyphic societies, the genre did not become notably recognised until the 19th century. The turning point came when Edgar Allan Poe released The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in 1841.
Like many other genres, crime fiction became a part of the series which were written for dime novels, and later pulp magazines. They were first published in the pulps as ‘weird menace,’ and involved an impossible-to-solve story which included supernatural events. These were normally explained scientifically in the grand finale. These writers would also solve the mystery, without the genre’s signature protagonist, the ‘private-eye.’ After pulp magazines began to lose their popularity, crime fiction was adapted for comic books, and strips, such as the popular Secret Agent X9.
The mysterious element and gripping plots of many early crime fiction novels, made them exceedingly popular with readers. Many authors were still reluctant to have their stories published using their real names, however, and wrote under catchy pseudonyms instead. There was the misconception that writing for the cheap pulp magazines, meant that the quality of the work was also poor, as well as the fact that many of the writers were also using their given names in other genres. Authors who did not have a good reputation from writing previous novels, would be inclined to use pseudonyms to restart their careers.
The use of pseudonyms continues today as writers who have other professions may choose to keep their identities separate. They transfer their knowledge from the other areas of work to their stories, which allows them anonymity while being recognised for their creative writing skills. A popular example of this is British judge, Arthur Alexander Gordon Clark, who used his extensive knowledge of the legal system to write crime novels under the name Cyril Hare.
Sub-Genres of Crime Fiction
In these stories, ascertaining the truth about who committed the crime (normally murder) takes the reader on a complicated journey. They follow the detective as he/she uses a combination of intuition, logic and observation to identify the criminal.
Wilkie Collins has been referred to as ‘the grandfather of English detective fiction.’ His novel The Moonstone as ‘the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels…’ set the precedence for most detective fiction. Aspects for a good story in the genre normally included:
- A crime committed in an English country house, with a close associate of the victim either committing the crime themselves or assisting the perpetrator.
- An intelligent, well-known investigator & a clueless local constabulary, which often causes more harm than good during the investigation.
- A wide range of suspects, with the one who is least likely to have committed the crime doing it.
- The reader being taken through the process of reconstructing and investigating the crime, with an expected twist in the plot, normally near the end of the novel.
The Cozy Mystery (Cozies)
The storylines behind these mysteries are like detective crime novels, except for the fact that profanity, sex and violence are downplayed (or approached in a humorous manner). The community in which the investigation takes place tends to be very small, and the detective is an amateur (normally female). They are well-known within the community because of the position that they are in, and have a high level of education.
The detective has a police force insider, normally a close friend or family member, that provides them with intimate details of the investigation. They can openly pursue their questioning, as authorities normally dismiss them as gossips. The person who committed the crime is normally another member of the community, and doesn’t resist arrest when caught and explains in detail their methods and motive.
Locked Room Mystery
In this type of crime fiction, the crime is almost always murder and takes place under ‘impossible’ circumstances. An example of this is a dead body being found in a room, which appears to have been locked from the inside, leaving the murderer no way to get out. The protagonist, along with an assistant, goes through a process of collecting clues and solves the mystery using ingenuity and outstanding sleuth work. The author tries to provide enough evidence that the reader may be able to solve the mystery themselves, before the plot is revealed at the end of the story.
Even though Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most prolific detectives of the locked room genre, John Dickinson Carr’s novel The Hollow Man, has been described as one of the best stories ever. The book not only takes the reader through a winding journey on the road to discovering the truth, but also dedicates an entire chapter to giving writers tips for producing their own crime fiction novel. The story’s detective answers questions which explain how the murderer could possibly have deceived investigators. Another reason for the inclusion of this chapter, however, is for the author to lead his audience away from how this crime was committed so that the twist at the end is even more unexpected.
Many children stories are based on the locked room, with a less gruesome crime than murder. Enid Blyton used this genre to help create a generation of crime-solving youngsters. There have also been many locked room genre series written for TV for both children, and adults, as well as novels that have been converted to films.
Hardboiled American Crime Fiction
This American version of the classic British crime fiction novel, was also known as noir fiction. Authors presented a new, more sinister side of an old character, the well-mannered gentile detective, by creating the tough-guy, private eye. The hardboiled detective almost always worked alone, and was normally between the ages of 35 and 45. His lifestyle matched his personality and was a mixture of excessive smoking and drinking, both caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. His heavy intoxication levels never affected his awareness of his surroundings, however, and his methods of solving crimes were often violent.
In many stories the hardboiled private investigator is a military veteran, or ex-cop, who always carries a gun. Regardless of the amount he gets paid for each case, he tends to remain poor. This might be because many of these detectives were prone to gambling and being involved in other shady activities. In the hardboiled genre, the protagonist’s feelings about the police varies, with some of them working alongside the authorities and others resenting their existence.
An overlap between the crime fiction and thriller genres, in addition to the regular plot of crime novels, these stories emphasize the criminal’s mental instability and the morbid pleasure that they may experience whenever they have committed a murder. Psychological thrillers became more popular as the genre developed and many writers began placing the focus on their characters instead of the plot, in the 1950s.
In the novels, the reader knows the criminal’s identity from the beginning of the story and would observe the relationship between prey and predator, with both detective and murderer in each role throughout the course of the novel. In many of these stories, the killer manages to evade capture and the detective spends the rest of their life tracking him.
Notable Crime Fiction Authors
Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849)
Instrumental in establishing crime fiction as a popular genre, Poe began his gruesome tales with The Murders in the Rue Morgue. His ability to manipulate the genre into widely read books meant that other writers followed.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
The creator of Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson, Doyle began to long for the freedom of exploring other genres when his character became so loved that there was a constant demand for his stories. To free himself from Holmes, Doyle wrote a story in which the detective died. Public outcry became so great, however, that he had to resurrect the protagonist and Sherlock Holmes has become immortal among crime fiction readers everywhere.
Agatha Christie (1920 – 1975)
Known fondly as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie began writing in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920s-1930s) and many of her novels have been published worldwide. She could adapt to the changes of the genre, and continued writing up until the time of her death. Her stories made a profound impact on readers, and both old and new fans continue to enjoy her books today.