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The development of crime fiction

Hausarbeit 2009 15 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Mystery and detective fiction
2.1 The origins of detective fiction
2.2 The appearance of the detective
2.3. Characteristics of the detective novel
2.4 Classic detective fiction – Sherlock Holmes

3. The Golden Age of detective fiction
3.1 The ‘Queen of Crime’
3.2 Characteristics of Golden Age fiction
3.3 Rules in Golden Age fiction – Fair Play

4. American hard-boiled crime fiction
4.1 Hammett and Chandler
4.2 Characteristics of hard-boiled crime fiction

5. The Police Procedural
5.1 Origins of the Police Procedural
5.2 Characteristics of the Police Procedural

6. The Thriller
6.1 Origins of the Thriller
6.2 Characteristics of the Thriller

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Crime fiction belongs to the top selling literature long ago. But not at all times the same type of crime fiction has been favored. Already the bible contains narrations about crime, like the story of Cain and Abel, the most famous fratricide all over the world. The motive of crime draws through literature continuing and develops in various directions. Focusing on the main genres which emerged: detective fiction, Golden Age crime fiction, American hard-boiled crime fiction, the police procedural, and the thriller; this paper will concentrate on the development of crime fiction from the early beginnings up to now. Origins and characteristics will be analyzed and differences as well as similarities between the different genres will be represented.

2. Mystery and detective fiction

2.1 The origins of detective fiction

The early ancestors of detective fiction emerged through the 18th and 19th century. The Newgate Calendar was a collection of crime stories but without a detective figure. Many versions of the Newgate Calendar developed, very popular were stories in the form of the “cony-catching pamphlet”, which dealt with theft and cheating. The major edition of the Calendar, published in 1773, mostly dealt with the topic of murder, and this interest continued through the 19th century crime fiction until today. The stories were not the common mysteries, searching for a solution, as we know; they were rather “parables of shocking aberration” (Knight 2004:4). Punishment is the most important fact and the climax of the stories often is the execution and not the investigation. Furthermore this stories can be seen as ideological stories because Christian and human values are demonstrated in the actions. They show that human troubles or social constraints can cause crimes. A huge problem of the Newgate Calendar stories is the absence of certainty about who committed the crime which leads to a clearly investigating detective in future crime fiction ( Knight 2004:5).

The background of the stories about criminals in Newgate prison in London is the prisoner’s confession and devout death. The stories seem to be moral warnings and have a religious context (Knight 2004:5).

Early Calendar stories form upon a pattern. They start with a crime, followed by observations by local people; the criminal gets arrested, finishing with trial and execution. This leads to this times conception of justice that a commune is protecting itself with the help of some specialists. According to Knight this shows “the strain of believing in communal detection and Christian guilt in an age, that is, socially and economically, a long way from the religious rural feudalism were those views originated” (8).

Struan Sinclair analyzed Knapp and Baldwin’s Calendars (1809-1826) and came to the conclusion that there are more investigations, more clues, more emphasizes on trials and more doubts, than in the earlier stories. This is a large step towards our modern crime fiction.

Fictitious texts also belong in this direction of development, by way of example Daniel Defoe’s novel about the thief and prostitute Moll Flanders (1722), or Henry Fielding’s Life of Jonathan Wild (1752). Both stories are full of crime and show the everyday misdeeds of the world.

2.2 The appearance of the detective

A lot of people assume that Edgar Allan Poe, the famous American author, is the origin of detective fiction. But other, former stories have to be reckoned, to get a complete overview of the evolutionary history of detective fiction.

In cause of the changing society in the late 18th century a new anxiety about crime developed. The growth of cities and its result, that thousands of people had to live in close neighborhood, led to the establishment of Metropolitan police in 1828, which created the figure of the police detective (Pittard).

One of the first stories, showing up a detective, was William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). With this story Godwin probed the possibilities of social and criminal inquiry (Knight 2004:11). And the inquiry had not much success, because Caleb who represents the detective turns out to be an inefficient inquirer and the story ends with Caleb as a victim of the criminal, who never exposes the crime successfully. Nevertheless one step in the direction towards detective fiction has been done.

Parallel to this development the Gothic novel emerged, which offered the changing attitudes concerning crime (Scaggs 2005:15). The Gothic novel combines horror and romanticism and seems to be a sympathetic portrayal of criminals. This supports Christopher Pittard’s statement that the criminal had been seen as a hero in the crime literature before 1800.

This sympathy could not sustain very long. And the focus shifted from the criminal to the detective. Eugene-Francois Vidocq’s Memoires (1828-1829) has been a cofounder of this change. Memoires are stories about the forger and prison breaker Vidocq, who became a detective. Vidocq is an ingenious man who mostly investigates with the help of his mind and intelligence. He is able to put himself in the criminal’s shoes, to understand and comprehend their activities. In conclusion Vidocq’s Memoires are a symptom of the growing interest in detection (Knight 2004:24).

After this development Edgar Allan Poe presented the model of an ingenious, eccentric, and maverick detective who uses investigation to solve crimes. This model was essential for the following construction of a detective figure, because other authors picked it up and improved it. Three of Poe’s stories, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget (1843), and The Purloined Letter (1845), belong to this model. All three are stories about the Parisian detective Dupin who is opposed to the police being represented incompetently. The major difference of Poe’s stories in comparison to foregone stories is the narrative structure in which the denouement determines from the beginning “the order and causality of the events narrated” (Scaggs 2005:34).

2.3 Characteristics of the detective novel

Based on Poe’s model an unofficial formula of the detective story emerged. Starting point of nearly every classical detective novel is a mysterious situation, a crime, and the explanation of the clues needed for solving the crime. This is generally followed by the introduction of the eccentric and ingenious detective using his knowledge of the human nature and his intuition to solve the crime. The plot is constructed by multiple merged strands and mostly is set in a rural region. At the end of the story the solution is announced and explained and ultimately the denouement gives the novel its finale.

The detective story does not need a lot of characters. Always the same group, consisting of the victim, the detective, the criminal, and some people who are also affected by the crime, appears.

Another important and typical feature is the ‘locked room’. The locked room is a central mystery in a story, the crime has occurred in this room that seems to be impossible for the criminal to entrance or exit.

2.4 Classic detective fiction - Sherlock Holmes

All these developments led to the most popular form of crime fiction which can be called classic detective fiction. The stories give constant entertainment to the reader; they are stirring and seem realistic so that the recipient get’s involved in the action as much as possible. Central focus of the stories is crime, mostly murder, solved by the hero - the intelligent detective.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the leading writers of detective fiction and with his character Sherlock Holmes, he created the most significant and important figure in the development of crime fiction. Holmes can be seen as the “classic detective in the classic detective novel” (Haycock). Just as Doyle himself orientated on Poe’s detective Dupin, other writers like Agatha Christie orientated on Doyle’s Holmes and borrowed lots of Holmes’ characteristics to their own detectives which got very famous and popular.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Universität Bayreuth
crime fiction detective stories whodunnit



Titel: The development of crime fiction