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Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises 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 (such as the whodunit), legal thriller, courtroom drama, and hard-boiled fiction.
In Italy people commonly call a story about detectives or crimes "giallo"(en: yellow), because books of crime fiction have usually had a yellow cover since the thirties.
The earliest known crime novel is "The Rector of Veilbye" by the Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher, published in 1829. Better 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)). Wilkie Collins' epistolary novel The Woman in White was published in 1860, while The Moonstone (1868) is often thought to be his masterpiece. French author Émile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq (1868) laid the groundwork for the methodical, scientifically minded detective. The evolution of locked room mysteries was one of the landmarks in the history of crime fiction. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle 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) features Scotland Yard detectives and criminal conspiracies. The best-selling crime novel of the nineteenth century was Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), set in Melbourne, Australia.
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.
Crime fiction can be divided into the following branches:
When trying to pigeon-hole fiction, it is extraordinarily difficult to tell where crime fiction starts and where it ends. This is largely attributed to the fact that love, danger and death are central motifs in fiction. A less obvious reason is that the classification of a work may very well be related to the author's reputation.
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 New York City in 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 it is never explicitly mentioned whether Bateman actually commits the crimes or rather just fantasizes about them.
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 that is not in 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 casual browsers what they are really in for when they buy a particular book.
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Up to the 1960s or so, reading the paperback edition of a crime novel was usually considered a cheap thrill — with the word "cheap" used in both meanings: "inexpensive" and "of minor quality". The educated and civilized world was often interested, at least ostensibly, in the "high art" categorised by classical music, paintings by renowned artists, famous literature and plays like those of William Shakespeare. The term "popular art" referred to folk music, jazz, or rock 'n' roll, photography, the design of everyday objects, comics, science fiction, detective stories or erotic fiction (the latter circulating in private prints only to beat the censor), to quote a few examples. The idea of a "main stream" of literary output suggested that any book deviating, in either content or form or both, from the established norm of "high art" was "cheap", and anyone interested in popular culture was uneducated and unsophisticated and most probably originated in a lower socio-economic division of the contextual society. The universities and the other institutions of higher learning also looked down on artists producing "popular art" and categorically refused to critically assess it.
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 the long run, the vast output of popular fiction could no longer be ignored, and literary critics — gradually, carefully and tentatively — started questioning and assessing the complete notion of the perceived gap between "high art" (or "serious literature") and "popular art" (in America often referred to as "pulp fiction", often verging on "smut and filth"). One of the first scholars to do so was American critic Leslie Fiedler. In his book Cross the Border — Close the Gap (1972), he advocates a thorough re-assessment of science fiction, the western, pornographic literature and all the other subgenres that previously had not been considered as "high art", and their inclusion in the literary canon:
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.
As far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, some authors have been reluctant to publish their crime novels under their real names. More currently, some publish pseudonymously because of the belief that since the large booksellers are aware of their historical sales figures, and command a certain degree of influence over publishers, the only way to "break out" of their current advance numbers is to publish as someone with no track record.
In the late 1930s and 40s, British County Court judge Arthur Alexander Gordon Clark (1900–1958) published a number of detective novels under the alias Cyril Hare in which he made use of his profoundly extensive knowledge of the English legal system. In Tragedy at Law (1942). Scottish journalist Leopold Horace Ognall (1908–1979) authored over ninety novels as Hartley Howard and Harry Carmichael. When he was still young and unknown, award-winning British novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) published some crime novels under the alias Dan Kavanagh. Other authors take delight in cherishing their alter egos: Ruth Rendell (born 1930) writes one sort of crime novels as Ruth Rendell and another type as Barbara Vine; John Dickson Carr also used the pseudonym Carter Dickson. The author Evan Hunter (which itself was a pseudonym) wrote his crime fiction under the name of Ed McBain.
Crime fiction and the motion picture industry have complemented each other well over the years. Both cater to the need of the average audience to escape into an idealist world, where the good reaps the rewards, and the bad incur their punishment. Adaptations of crime fiction into films have been hugely successful.
Crime fiction has also expanded to the world of videogames, an example being the Rockstar Games title L.A. Noire, in which player assumes the role of Los Angeles Police Department Officer, and later Detective, Cole Phelps. The player resolves murders and crimes through investigation and interrogation of suspects and witnesses, and finally the capture of culprits.
As with any other entity, quality of a crime fiction book is not in any meaningful proportion to its availability. Some of the crime novels generally regarded as the finest, including those regularly chosen by experts as belonging to the best 100 crime novels ever written (see bibliography), have been out of print ever since their first publication, which often dates back to the 1920s or 30s. The bulk of books that can be found today on the shelves labelled "Crime" consists of recent first publications usually no older than a few years.
Furthermore, only a select few authors have achieved the status of "classics" for their published works. A classic is any text that 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. Christie's works, particularly featuring detectives Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple, have given her the title the 'Queen of Crime' and made her one of the most important and innovative writers in the development of the genre. Her most famous novels include Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and the world's best-selling mystery And Then There Were None (1939).
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 is 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.
On the other hand, English crime writer Edgar Wallace, who was immensely popular with the English readership during the early decades of the 20th century (and who achieved fame in German-speaking countries due to the many B movies made in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that were based on his novels), had almost been forgotten in his home country until House of Stratus eventually started republishing many of his 170 books around the turn of the millennium. Similarly, the books by the equally successful American author Erle Stanley Gardner (1889–1970), creator of the lawyer Perry Mason, which have frequently been adapted for film, radio, and TV, were only recently republished in the United Kingdom — books such as The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937), The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister (1953), etc.
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 The Mrs Bradley Mysteries in 1999.
From time to time publishing houses decide, for commercial purposes, to revive long-forgotten authors and reprint one or two of their more commercially successful novels. Apart from Penguin Books, who for this purpose have resorted to their old green cover and dug out some of their vintage authors, Pan started a series in 1999 entitled "Pan Classic Crime," which includes a handful of novels by Eric Ambler, but also American Hillary Waugh's Last Seen Wearing .... In 2000, Edinburgh-based Canongate Books started a series called "Canongate Crime Classics," in which they published John Franklin Bardin's The Deadly Percheron (1946) — both a whodunnit and a roman noir about amnesia and insanity — and other novels. However, books brought out by smaller publishers like Canongate Books are usually not stocked by the larger bookshops and overseas booksellers.
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.