Crime fiction is the genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as science fiction or historical fiction, but boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred. It has several sub-genres, including detective fiction (including the whodunnit), legal thriller, courtroom drama and hard-boiled fiction.
Crime fiction began to be considered as a serious genre only around 1900. The earliest known crime novel is "The murder of machine operator Rolfsen" by Norwegian Mauritz Hansen, published in 1839. Yet more known are the earlier dark works of Edgar Allan Poe (e.g., "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842), and "The Purloined Letter" (1844). The evolution of locked room mysteries was one of the landmarks in the history of crime fiction. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries, probably based upon C. Auguste Dupin and Émile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq, are said to have been singularly responsible for the huge popularity in this genre. A precursor was Paul Féval, whose series Les Habits Noirs (1862-67) feature Scotland Yard detectives and criminal conspiracies.
The evolution of the print mass media in the United Kingdom and the United States in the latter half of the 19th century was crucial in popularising crime fiction and related genres. Literary 'variety' magazines like Strand, McClure's, and Harper's quickly became central to the overall structure and function of popular fiction in society, providing a mass-produced medium that offered cheap, illustrated publications that were essentially disposable.
Like the works of many other important fiction writers of his day — e.g. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens — Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared in serial form in the monthly Strand magazine in the United Kingdom. The series quickly attracted a wide and passionate following on both sides of the Atlantic, and when Doyle killed off Holmes in The Final Problem, the public outcry was so great, and the publishing offers for more stories so attractive, that he was reluctantly forced to resurrect him.
Later a set of stereotypic formulae began to appear to cater to various tastes.
For example, William Somerset Maugham's (1874–1966) novella Up at the Villa (1941) could very well be classified as crime fiction. This short novel revolves around a woman having a one-night stand with a total stranger who suddenly and unexpectedly commits suicide in her bedroom, and the woman's attempts at disposing of the body so as not to cause a scandal about herself 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.
A more recent example is Bret Easton Ellis's (born 1964) seminal novel American Psycho (1991) about the double life of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street yuppie and serial killer in the New York of the 1980s. Even though in American Psycho the most heinous crimes are depicted in minute detail, the novel has never been labelled a "crime novel", maybe because 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 Cain's thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), under the heading "Vintage Crime".
When film director Michael Curtiz adapted Mildred Pierce for the big screen in 1945, he lived up to the cinemagoers' and the producers' expectations by adding a murder which is absent from the novel. 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 paperback editions 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.
This often did not correlate with the immense popularity of popular art on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes due to sensationalism. 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.
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 "popular".
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.
For a detailed explication of the history of the relationship between crime fiction and the film industry, see the main article crime film.
Furthermore, only a select few authors have achieved the status of "classics" for their published works. A classic is any text which can be received and accepted universally, because they transcend context. A popular, well known example is Agatha Christie, whose texts, originally published between 1920 and her death in 1976, are available in UK and US editions in all English speaking nations.
Other less successful, contemporary authors who are still writing have seen reprints of their earlier works, due to current overwhelming popularity of Crime Fiction texts among audiences (One only has to look at the amount of crime related television series to observe the astonishing popularity). One example, 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.
Even television adaptations are not enough to save some authors. Gladys Mitchell rivalled Agatha Christie for UK sales in the 1930s and 1940s but only one of her 66 novels remains in print despite a BBC television series of the Mrs. Bradley Mysteries in 1999.
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 Publishing PLC 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.
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