Crime Fiction is essentially about the solving of a crime, usually a mystery of murder. Crime Fiction texts question what it is to be human and raise questions about identity. The main feature of crime fiction is the plot and the story always reflects the culture and social values of when it was written. The texts are often part of a series featuring the same detective. The plot can also reflect the social changes of the time. Crime fiction is not static, nor is any genre, and there are many hybrid texts. Each sub-genre holds its own conventions that reflect their differing contexts.
The face remains that murder and law breaking are present in other genres aside from crime fiction. The features, therefor, do not categorize a genre; rather, genres are created through the rules for reading the members of a community share. However this doesn’t mean that crime fiction doesn’t have its own specific template. It is this template that has created the rules for reading and therefor the rules of crime fiction enable us to read into a text. This can also limit the way meaning is constructed for the writers and readers alike by confining to the conventions of the genre.
Crime fiction can be divided into six main stages or sub-genres. These sub-genres are categorized by their time periods and also their writing styles and conventions. As time and contexts changed crime fiction grew and developed as a genre. The six main sub-genres are Early Crime Fiction (sensation novels), The Golden Age, The Intuitionists, The Realists, Hard-boiled and Contemporary Crime Fiction. Edgar Allen Poe created the first notable detective of Crime Fiction in 1840.
Early Crime Fiction (Sensation Novels)
Edgar Allen Poe was the Godfather of Early Crime Fiction. Poe was an American who wrote a character who had great intelligence, a poor view of police, rigorous observation and was excellently analytical. C Auguste Dupin credentials were perfect for solving crime. Before Poe, the early crime stories did not revolve around the individual detective. ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’ (1841) was the first of Poe’s three stories that were based on Dupin and they laid the basic foundation for the Crime Fiction genre to begin.
The conventions that Poe created through his stories of Dupin were the first of Crime Fiction. Firstly, he used a Sleuth bearing great intelligence. The intelligence of Dupin was different because it was based on analytical power. The anonymous narrator says in ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’ explains this by saying “...For while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis.”
It is no surprise that the detective thinks little of the police when he solves the mysteries as an ‘armchair detective’. One such detective doesn’t even visit crime scene. The detective sees the police looking into insignificant things to deeply. They don’t know what to observe. In ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’, Dupin steps back to reconstruct the crime using basic reasoning and points out the red herring the police have been following. Dupin says “He impaired his vision by holding the object too close.” He goes further to say that there is such a thing as to be too profound. Dupin shows the obvious solution that everyone else missed.
Dupin solves murders that occurred in sealed rooms that are seen to be a puzzle to everyone but himself. This convention has been carried on through Crime Fiction, especially in the Intuitionists sub-genre. One of the audience’s roles is to try to solve the mystery in unison with the detective, but this was not fully developed in early crime fiction texts.
The audience was caught by surprise when Poe’s stories always ended with the least likely suspect. ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’ has been criticized for its conclusion by people saying that its downfall is the fact that a monkey was the lawbreaker and that it could have never been discovered by the audience. The tight construction and clues all point towards the monkey and so the solution is perfectly believable. As Crime Fiction developed the role of the suspect changed and the suspect often shone a negative light upon society.
From Dupin spawned the internationally recognized Sherlock Holmes who lived in many of the conventions laid down by Sir Edgar Allen Poe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyal created his detective in 1887 while he was living in London. The Scottish author sent two stories to a magazine called The Strand that was a magazine focused on middle class literature and the editor captioned ‘The work of the best short story writer since Poe’.
Before Holmes there had been ‘sensation novels’ written in Britain through the 1850s and 60s but these focused less on the detective than on the shocking subject matter. They set a convention that was carried on particularly through the ‘cozy’ school of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. The setting was in typical middle-class domestic areas that created a strong contrast with the subject matter that occurs in the text. In the Victorian era the contrast was to show that sensational things were not separated from middle-class life and in the Intuitionists ‘cozy’ sub-genre the contrast was to reveal the true character of one of the suspects who seemed like every other middle class suspect.
The Early Crime Fictions of the late 1800s had conventions of their own and conventions derived from Poe and Sensation novel writers. Unlike Dupin who was an armchair detective, Holmes was a hands on detective. An essential part of the plot in the late 1800s was disguise. This is most probably because police were not allowed to question suspects or interview witnesses unwillingly. To gather information a detective had to wear a disguise and linger around the crime scene and subtly manipulate information out of people present.
Reconstructing the crime was another typical convention of the Early Crime Fiction texts. This procedure became an important step in solving the crime in late nineteenth century texts.
Crime Fiction in the time of Holmes gained great popularity and was the start of a snowball that gained momentum and recognition as a genre. Doyle’s stories were popular because they showed the values of his late nineteenth century Victorian audience. The successful link between society’s values and the values and methods of it’s detectives set a followed precedent that has been encrypted into Crime Fiction from that point on.
Upholding the status quo was now apart of the Early Crime Fiction genre. The late nineteenth century used the current scientific advances of that time in their Crime Fiction texts. They contained blood and graphic crimes that showed characters with dark secrets and skeletons in their closets. The detective was still a gentleman and all the characters had their own character types that were repeated. This was the same for plot. The police were becoming exponentially sophisticated in their techniques and the majority of these texts were set near London.
The Golden Age
Popularity of the Crime Fiction genre had begun at the turn of the century where a Crime Fiction boom was experienced. When world war one finished Crime Fiction entered The Golden Age. The era ended in the 1930s, although some extend it to around 1945, but two thirds to three quarters of composers still use The Golden Age template that has been perfected over the years. This style of writing in Britain was split into two sub-genres: The Intuitionists and The Realists. The fact that this period was so popular meant that people had different approaches to writing in the genre and hence caused sub-genres to emerge.
The Golden Age: The Intuitionists
Also being called ‘Classical’ mystery texts, The Intuitionists did not want their audience to be a spectator. They wanted their reader to be involved in solving the mystery. The key component of The Intuitionists genre is the reader being in a position where he/she is as able as the detective to solve the crime through logic, intelligence and intuition.
Another Intuitionists convention was the focus on the detective and the crafty plot. This sub-genre holds little danger towards the detective as he relies on logic and his wits to solve the crime. The stories are about the puzzle and mystery. In this way they are set apart from Realism because they do not aim to portray reality.
The language of The Intuitionists texts is quite polite and formal. Some of The texts have been termed ‘country-house whodunits’ or the ‘cozy’ school because they are often set in a conservative English world in a small village or country house. Atmosphere is an essential part of The Intuitionists texts and one way this is established is with the violent crime contrasting with the conservative English dignity. The Focus on the ordinary increases the horror of the crime. This was a convention derived from the Sensation Novels that are explained above.
The queen of crime fiction was born of The Intuitionists sub-genre. Agatha Christie was a female writer of Crime Fiction as The Golden Age saw an increasing number of female writers. It also saw the first female detectives, one of which was Christie’s Miss Jane Maple.
Christie was a very popular writer of the 1920s and 1930s. One of the conventions she followed was of The Intuitionists but derived from Early Crime Fiction and that is to use the same character types that could be categorized. This is because Christie’s focus was the puzzle and putting the pieces together and not with the realism within a text. This convention is parallel to the board game ‘Cludo’, where there are set stereotypical characters with set weapons and a set room. There are many solutions to the game.
Well it certainly was never a job for the retired detective Hercule Poirot. ‘Murder On the Orient Express’ holds the Intuitionists convention of the crime having occurred in a classical closed circle. This meant that no external forces could interfere with the crime and it also meant that each suspect is known. This text like many others of the sub-genre holds the convention that each suspect in the circle had a reason to kill the victim.
In ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ all the suspects with reason are guilty for each stabbed the victim once and worked as a ‘family’. This shows a negative view on society but in a way justice was served. Although it is suggested Poirot wouldn’t have participated in such a justified murder, he understands their motives and exemplifies the notion of natural justice. Only the incredibly stupid could have reached the conclusion before the book’s end, but the clues were all there that prompted the reader along with Poirot.
As well as with the clues was the red herring, that is, a false trail that moves the detective and reader away from the truth. In this text there were many including a few alibis containing tails of a small black conductor with a woman’s voice present on the night of the murder. The red Herring is not bound to The Intuitionists. It is present in most Crime Fiction Texts as small or as large as necessary.
In Poe’s Early Crime Fiction ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’ the red herring was the falsities of the police and the witnesses in the accents and dialects they said they heard through the locked door. The red herring in this case was not deliberate, but it was there to cause the reader to think.
The Golden Age: The Realists
The Realists were the flip side of The Intuitionists in the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. This sub-genre unlike the Intuitionists presented texts as realistic as possible and they revolved around strict and careful detective work. Though this is a British school, Americans wrote in the sub-genre as well. One such writer was Dorothy L. Sayers who wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. She was one of the most popular of the American writers in this sub-genre writing 11 novels and two sets of short stories featuring English aristocrat and amateur detective.
Other British writers of this school include R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts. Richard Austin Freeman created a convention that was apart of The Realist school but not all the writers of the school followed it. He created the Inverted detective story. This is where the story shows the reader the crime and usually the identity of the perpetrator at the beginning of the story. The story then follows the detective in solving the mystery. The focus on reality and The Intuitionists’s puzzle unraveling along with the reader seem to oppose each other greatly.
The Realists had believable settings that were carefully constructed and reflected society at the time, often focusing on the seedy sites of society for the crime to take place. They were far from unbelievable and were simply opposed to setting the story in the A-class society. It was unrealistic for a horrific crime to occur in the rich art or theatre world of educated Britain. The Intuitionists view was the opposite saying that the intelligentsia of society is more interesting to the reader. Clearly each branch of The Golden Age had their opposing conventions.
Detective work was one of The Realists main focuses and the sleuth was usually a policeman or private detective. They both, however, used police procedure. A private detective may be used in a Realist text so that he doesn’t have to be bound by police procedure. The Intuitionists argued that police procedure and scientific methods put the reader at a disadvantage because the average reader didn’t know these aspects and so were kept out of the loop. The Realists being Realists want to portray reality and say that their method would solve any Intuitionists crime much more efficiently.
Unlike The Intuitionists texts, where the detective work was based allot on the exercise of the mind, The Realist’s detective focused allot on physical evidence. They paid close attention to these physical evidences such as footprints, moved furniture, bullet holes and other forensic or measurable evidences in order to reconstruct the crime accurately.
The solution often lies on the detective’s ability to reconstruct the crime and knowing where suspects are at particular times. This meant that The Realist sleuth had to hear alibis and expose the lies of false alibis. The criminal often set up red herrings for the sleuth to follow or leave a trail to frame another. The criminal, therefor, had to be ingenious.
‘Hard-Boiled’ Crime Fiction
American ‘hard-boiled’ Crime Fiction was influenced by The Realist Crime Fiction sub-genre and holds many of its conventions as well as its own. Also termed ‘Black mask’ fiction, hard-boiled detective novels were born in the 1920s after world war one and there are still, like many other sub-genres of Crime Fiction, texts written in the same formula today. The most recognized characteristic of hard-boiled fiction is the tough-talking, streetwise, risk taking, cynical detective who lives societies edges and solved crafty murder cases.
The sleuth lived by a strict code of honor and was isolated from society. The sleuth was often an ex police officer whom had had a divorce or some other profound loss. The sleuth was unique to hard-boiled texts and was in constant danger.
Rapid action replaced the Golden Age and Early Crime Fiction conventions of elaborate puzzles and deductions of pure genius. The hard-boiled school has much more violence present in the texts and the detective is sometimes subject to this violence. The detective therefor needs to have a degree of self-defense in the form of either a gun or even martial arts. He needs this to show the reason why he could survive in the hostile world. The sleuth uses risk taking techniques to discover who the murder is but a risk is a risk and hence they don’t always turn out to well.
In ‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler (as directed by Howard Hawks in 1946) the quick witted detective Marlowe tires to use a Sherlock Holmes technique in trying to appear to be a normal citizen in the hope of gaining information. He gives his car a flat tire and goes to Art Huck’s Auto Repairs and Painting Garage tossing coins in one hand. He is found out instantly and knocked out.
Like Marlowe, the sleuths of hard-boiled crime fiction are usually sexually attractive. Marlowe has fem fatals trying to tempt him, when Carmen had tried to sit on his lap while he was standing up, or being tempted by him, when the rain begins to fall outside and Marlowe remarks suggestively to the female book store owner “I’d rather get wet in here”.
The detectives had these characteristics because of the setting they were in. The Hard-boiled detective novels reflected the reality of crime in America at that time. They presented a tough world and a tough detective. The detective often drinks and smokes heavily to show the realism of their character and their circumstances.
The sleuth does not live by their society but by their moral code. They are upright in this field and care not for society’s games and their bomb-of-a-car, long term relationship absence and run down house is metaphorical for this conflicting relationship. The sleuth’s moral code means they will never give up in the face of danger and never give up on his/her client. Never will you see in a Hard-boiled text a detective give up on account of OH and S.
Hard-boiled texts are usually the most violent apart from some contemporary texts. In the hostile world weapons are often present and Hard-boiled texts love gunplay and gun in general. Marlowe states in ‘The Big Sleep’ that there are “Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.” He then goes on to say that it was the second instance in the one day where someone pointed a gun in his direction.
The victims in hard-boiled texts are usually linked to the criminal underground in some way. The victim is usually the first in a series of murders. Sometimes the detective takes on a case before a murder has occurred; this is much like in ‘The Big Sleep’. Marlowe is first assigned a job to discover the blackmailer but ends up following many leads that often run in circles as murder after murder occur.
Police are almost a burden to the Private investigator of Hard-boiled fiction and is much like the police in Early Crime Fiction who were unable to achieve justice. The sleuth usually breaks the law in searching for the truth whilst still being a ‘good-guy’. Police are either stupid or bound by system they are in and hence need the assistance of the PI. The detective often followed leads on a ‘hunch’ however a detective never goes off a leap of faith in any Crime Fiction text. The hunch is based on the knowledge gained from their detective work.
The sleuth is like a dark knight that fights for justice and saves society from evil. This idea is parallel to ‘Batman: ‘Dark Knight’’. Although this branch of Batman is not Hard-boiled Crime Fiction, it holds a particular convention that is very important to the hard-boiled sub-genre.
The noir style is typical of any Hard-boiled text. It is the darkness of setting and is a technique that creates a suffocating atmosphere and a mood of tragedy. ‘The big Sleep’ has consistent gris noir and darkness.
Most of the film takes place at night where we see unnatural shades of light doused in fog to give fearful silhouettes. It was Schrader who once said, “Style determines the theme in every film,” and what better way than to use film or gris noir to represent a book that took crime fiction and brought it to the dark alleyways where it should, and has always been.
Contemporary Crime Fiction
The atmosphere of Contemporary Crime Fiction can also be quite dark, but may not be set in the mean streets of New York City. Instead the Contemporary Crime Fiction composer sets his or her text in places such as hospitals, schools and even laboratories. They can describe these places with great detail and each place isn’t foreign to the reader. They are not set in a closed setting such as in Golden Age texts.
Contemporary Crime Fiction is reflective of the recent, remembered world and reflective of today. We live in an increasingly desensitized nation. Each night as we watch out television sets we see images of war and hear stories of dead soldiers. Action and violence are a commonality within all Contemporary Crime Fiction works. Often the violence is very graphic and includes the killing of an innocent. Another convention commonly used in Contemporary works is the alluding to past crimes or injustices to heighten the horrors of the crime and of the atmosphere itself. The atmosphere can never be ‘cozy’ or slow paced in today’s society.
We change the channel. We watch a snapshot of news followed by an add break. We change the channel yet again to see more images of war or advertisement. Our lives are fast paced and so to is our mindset. Contemporary Crime Fiction relies on the use of suspense more than any other sub-genre before it. It is much faster paced and, for the first time ever, female writers dominate Crime fiction. Since the 1970s the amount of women readers of Crime Fiction started to climb along with the writers. It is now at the point where the pendulum has swung and is due for a turn back to reach equilibrium.
Agatha Christie, like most of the Intuitionist writers of her time, used the same set of stereotyped characters time and time again. She did this to show that human nature was the same wherever one went and that it was just calibrated differently within different personalities. Today is different. Contemporary composers strive to present believable non-stereotyped characters. The police, therefor, make mistakes, as they are only human. Unrealistic settings of the Golden Age are also frowned upon today and the detective has a new part to play.
No longer is the detective a lone ranger who fights injustice to balance society. The crime stopper of today’s fictional universe is part of a team. Their lack of power to use force and other techniques prevent the detectives from solving the crime effectively. To use what they have they use technology and scientific advances that are very effective.
The motives for murder further reflect the social change and status. P. D. James in ‘The Skull beneath the Skin’ presents a murderer with a motive to avoid tax. Not like the Intuitionists texts where the murderer has a motive to kill for a right reason, the Contemporary texts rarely justify murder. It is dark and so to is their text.
Crime Fiction is not static. Each sub-genre that holds its basic established conventions saves communication time. We read left to right. Rules are set out by these genres to involve, inform, shock or relate to the reader in the best and most appropriate way possible. As society changes, so to must the conventions of the remaining parent genres. The Genre is the key to the meaning of a text.