Crime Fiction - Mystery - Detective

The Development and History

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This is a brief guide and overview on the history and development of crime and mystery fiction.

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Ever since man has told stories to man there has been crime fiction. A crime story The History of Bel is to be found in the Apocrypha of the Bible; there is another among the tales of the Greek demi-god Herakles or Hercules. As soon as there were societies of any sort there had to be rules, but rules restrict and so inevitably are resented.
Crime writing is the literature of that resentment and the subsequent acknowledgement that, despite it, the rules must be upheld. So there have always been books and stories appealing to that fascination with crime that lurks in all of us. A convenient label for this sort of writing is "Sensational Literature", a category which came to life with the advent of cheap printing.
In Britain there were the Annals of Newgate from 1776 onwards and the broadsheets of James Catnach (The Red Barn Murder is said to have sold a million in 182,8); in America there was among much else the legend of Jesse James. But crime writing is not only sensational storytelling: it is also an art. And that art can confidently be said to have begun with one man, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). In just three short stories, published in the early 18405, Poe laid down most of the canons -the role of the Great Detective, the importance of his common-man friend, the use of ratiocination (Poe invented the word), the locked-room puzzle, the hiding-by-showing principle, the theme of imprisonment and escape, the linking of detective and criminal. But, though the stories were widely read and admired, they did not immediately start a cult. That was to happen only after a gap of more than forty years. It was then that a struggling young doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), created the greatest Great Detective of them all, Sherlock Holmes. Though his first appearance in the novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) was by no means an instant success, with the publication of the short stories in the Strand Magazine from 1891 on the puzzling crime story seized the public imagination on both sides of the Atlantic.
The time was just ripe for mystery stories with an atmosphere of scientific method. Holmes was so popular that scores of imitators and anti-imitators sprang up. Arthur Morrison (1863-1945), the low-life novelist, produced his Martin Hewitt, Holmesean in method, un-Holmesean of face and figure. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) created Father Brown, dumpy and prosaic yet all-conquering thanks to spiritual, unscientific methods.

 In America later there was the heavily scientific sleuth Craig Kennedy created by Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) and Uncle Abner the backwoodsman imbued with religious conviction by Melville Davisson Post (1871-1930). The chain continues to this day. Because of Holmes' extraordinary success, a pattern for the crime tale, or detective story as it became generally called, rapidly formed to harden almost absolutely over the first third of the twentieth century. The process culminated in the founding of the rule-pledged Detection Club in 1932, with its notion of fair play as between author and reader in books that were more puzzle contests than novels. With the Belgian Simenon the only noteworthy exception, crime fiction was then, and almost remains still, an Anglo-American preserve.

In America S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr regularly foxed their large publics, while in Britain Agatha Christie established perhaps a yet greater supremacy. Her name was coupled with that of Dorothy L. Sayers, but this latter began to add new ingredients to the genre. She set her books against interesting backgrounds and, more important, she made her characters increasingly like the figures-in-depth to be found in the pure novel, a development soon well taken up. However, in America reaction against the restrictions of the Detection Club school was altogether more explosive.
Taking strength from the line of Sensational Literature (which, of course, had never died and had even produced from writers like Mary Roberts Rinehart books of lasting merit) a group of writers associated with the pulp magazine Black Mask brought murder back, in the words of one of them, Raymond Chandler, to the people it belonged to, the people of the mean streets. In both countries m the years after the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction, crime-writing increasingly brought real people back to its pages. It rejoined to a great extent the mainstream of literature, if in its more turbid, bloodstained current. In the course of this movement it swept up a small sub-section of literature that had long existed, though somewhat obscurely: the spy story.

Again, this can be found in the earliest times with such works as the fourteenth-century Chinese San Kuo. But it needed another wide popular success to cause it to flourish again, and this it got with the James Bond novels of lan Fleming from 1953 onwards. Rapidly, reactions against this super-smooth hero sprang up with the acerbities of Len Deighton and the sadnesses of John Le Carre and later in America Charles McCarry. Yet, although crime-writing has now taken on many of the qualities of the novel proper, it still remains a thing apart. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment has never been classed with the genre. Why? Because crime-fiction is essentially entertainment: it puts the reader's needs above those of the writer. There are, of course, many borderline cases where it might appear that the writer's desire to tell us something has smothered our demand simply to enjoy (Patricia Highsmith is a case in point), but in principle this test would seem to be the separating factor. And it is likely so to remain.

Crime-writing in the years to come can scarcely go back to the purer artificial form which flourished during the inter-war years. It will be concerned with almost every aspect of human activity (none more so perhaps than the subject it almost cut out at the height of the Golden Age, sex). Whatever is new it will seize upon, and one thing that is old in us, that ineradicable lurch towards the rule-forbidden, will as always be its mainspring.

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