When Edgar Allen Poe introduced police officer C. Auguste Dupin in the 1841 novel The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the word “detective” was, as yet, unheard-of. However, the idea of an intelligent and logical amateur detective out-sleuthing the police department was intriguing to many British writers, and within a few decades, a style of writing that would come to be called crime fiction would make its appearance. Nonetheless, in its early days, crime fiction was not accepted as a genre because its setting was considered too common, its plot too predictable and the characterisations of its main actors far too narrow.
But more than 170 years have passed, and crime fiction has evolved and diversified, leading many writers to challenge the claim that it is not a distinct literary genre. A great many writers and members of the academe now support it as a definite style.
For example, prolific British mystery writer Simon Brett noted one development with respect to characterisation—that the police detective is not as infallible and morally flawless as were the early sleuths. He also remarked that the setting in which modern-day crime stories are based is very often a world in which the judicial system makes errors and a crime is no longer seen as black or white. He mentions how detective stories do not always have a neatly solved case at the end as a refutation that detective stories follow a formula . Arguments propounded by other writers on genre, setting and characterisation echo Brett’s sentiments.
One line of reasoning relates to the definition of literature, one of which is “written works that may be classified into fiction and non-fiction”. Crime fiction falls under the first classification. Literature is also grouped according to period, movement and genre. As respects the last, types and styles continue to be added, one of the more recent being the personal essay. For “crime fiction” to be a genre, there must be certain conventions in the style that clearly make it a genre, and these conventions do exist.
Mystery novel writer Nicholas Blincoe believes that the traditions and canon present in virtually any genre also exist in crime fiction; it has a plot—a crime and its solution (or non-solution), a central character or characters—a primary character in the amateur sleuth or an exceptionally sharp minion in the police department and a secondary character in the assistant, and a setting—a community or town where the crime was committed.
It is interesting, however, that those who reject crime fiction as literature say that these familiar elements are clichés. But these clichés are necessary, for without them, how can the genre exist and be identified? If, on the other hand, it must be considered that the hallmark of literature is “to eschew the trite and the obvious”, Blincoe says that in this aspect, crime fiction has succeeded in that it “has produced the widest variety of archetypes and the most inventive improvisations in plot or character”. Rather than being tied to a formula, crime fiction writers feel free to improvise and go beyond the traditions of the detective story. Blincoe goes as far as to say that crime fiction is the foundation of literature, having both convention and inventiveness.
Many writers are known to have a broad repertoire of writing styles. In fact, some writers who don’t normally pen crime fiction have added the style to their repertoire. The detective novel writer Phyllis Dorothy James points to the use of the elements of crime fiction by well-respected mainstream writers; essentially, they incorporate a detective story plot into a much broader plot within their novels. She cites two examples, the first being John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The novel is an espionage tale with a hired detective who must work against time to identify who the traitor is. The other writer is even more surprising—Jane Austen and her beautifully written Emma. In this novel, the reader must play detective, for the relationships between the characters are so complex that it becomes necessary for the reader to use his powers of perception to unravel the tangle and determine what relationships exist and who is deceiving who.
Another characteristic that cements crime fiction’s place in literature is how setting is used by its writers. In the past century, the social or historical milieu in which a crime is committed is not only depicted in great detail and with utter clarity, but the background’s impact on the case and how it may have even contributed to the committing of the crime is also made evident.
George Demko, a professor of geography at Dartmouth and a crime fiction aficionado, discusses this in an essay, mentioning the exposure of inequities and iniquities of Mexican society in the crime novels that began to appear in the 1940s. The corruption in the post-Soviet era is captured in such timeless novels as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Chekhov’s The Brother Karamazov, novels in which the thread of a psychological mystery is found. In Argentina, crime fiction stories emphasize the why of a crime rather than its perpetrator.
Perhaps the most interesting point about detective novels was made by a reader who observed that when a genre sells more copies than other types of fiction, it does not make this genre a non-genre. Literature is often read only as a requirement at universities, but crime fiction is read by people from all walks of life. That it has such great mass market appeal does not put its place in literature into question. If anything, it points to its success as a genre.