I’ve been outlining the creative writing classes I’ve been attending in which we’ve looked at different genres such as Gothick horror and, more recently, Horror Fiction. The next in line was Thriller and Detective Fiction, a genre with close on two centuries of development. Conan Doyle acknowledged Edgar Allan Poe as the “father of the detective tale”; for Sherlock’s creator Poe “covered its limits so completely I fail to see how his followers can find ground to call their own.” In fact over those two hundred years Poe’s detective tales — beginning with The Murders on the Rue Morgue (1841) — led to a vast range of crossovers, cross-pollinations and sub-genres (many focusing on at least one murder) which did indeed try to find ground to call their own.
Poe introduced many key motifs that come up again and again, including the brilliant amateur detective and the less than brilliant friend. Quite often the armchair detective solves the case by the application of pure reasoning, with a solution that could even be the most obvious if unexpected (maybe reached by devious means). Frequently the wrong person is suspected, with the least likely suspect unmasked. Other features include the sealed room, a code and a trail of false clues laid by the murderer. With a fair few novels the deduction may even have a psychological basis.
Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t the only other writer of 19th-century detective fiction — Dickens’ unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone spring to mind — but he is certainly the most famous. His last collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), appeared slap-bang in the middle of the so-called Golden Age of Crime Fiction of the 1920s and 1930s; Agatha Christie (whose The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920) and Dorothy L Sayers (Whose Body, 1923) are the best known of these writers, many of whom as it happens are women. The parochial nature of the settings were to inspire a later generation with the cozy mysteries of the later 20th century (the American spelling of ‘cosy’ reflecting the origins of this sub-genre’s popularity).
But perhaps in reaction to the rather genteel crimes recounted in these works a much more violent and cynical brand of detective novels appeared, so-called Hardboiled Fiction. Set in North American cities with anti-heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, the novels of Dashiell Hamnett, Raymond Chandler and others began in and reflected the period of the Great Depression (1929 to the late 1930s). Hamnett, a former Pinkerton agent, produced Red Harvest in 1929 and The Glass Key in 1931, Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely in 1939 and 1940. Direct descendants of hardboiled fiction include Tartan Noir, led by Edinburgh author Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses (1987), itself influenced by Stevenson’s Gothick novel Jekyll and Hyde; and television has since popularised other home-grown products such as Nordic Noir, typically the Swedish Wallander novels by Henning Mankell, beginning with Faceless Killer (1991).
Sub-genres now begin to multiply. Crime novels take a psychological twist with Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), P D James’ Cover Her Face (1962) and Ruth Rendell’s From Doon With Death (1964) leading the way. In the early 1980s female private investigators start to take centre stage in novels by US writers Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, at the same time as Britain produced the innovative TV series Juliet Bravo centred on two successive female police inspectors. Meanwhile two other closely allied sub-genres, the police procedural and forensic fiction also make their presence felt, with novels by authors such as Faye Kellerman, Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. Significantly, perhaps, female writers feature prominently in these developments.
And so the cross-pollination goes on. Spy novels by authors such as John Le Carré blur into thrillers, where action blends with psychological games. Caper or heist novels, maybe with a strong dash of humour, have many detective and thriller elements (I’m thinking of John Boland’s 1958 The League of Gentlemen, made into a successful film two years later); Michael Crichton has made forays into techno-thrillers such as Prey or the famous Jurassic Park, borrowing aspects of science fiction; and Val McDermid writes suspense novels characterised by ‘visceral’ crime and graphic violence.
A feature that comes up time and again is the unlikely pairings or unusual partnerships in detective fiction. Holmes and Watson are the prototypes, Morse and Lewis appear on British TV, Montalbano and Augello in Camilleri’s Italian novels: usually one is a foil for the other, with complementary personality and/or skills. Other features include the nemesis — Holmes’ Moriarty, for example — and the incompetent or unimaginative superior who attempts to rein in the maverick investigator — Chief Inspector Dreyfus is just such a one in the Clouseau films.
Over the years I’ve sampled the work of some of these writers — Poe, Conan Doyle, Christie, Highsmith, James, Boland and Crichton for example — but I’ve found that occasionally they’ve left me slightly unsatisfied. Such novels can be like cryptic crosswords, which I personally enjoy but rarely go back to; they stimulate, but all too briefly. The reason for the most part is that I don’t find the characters believable and so I seldom engage with or care about them; they may suffice as holiday reading but not as literature.
Crime writer Michael Connelly puts his finger on this dividing line between run-of-the-mill detective fiction and the best of the genre: “It’s not so much the characters working on the crime as it is the crime working on the characters.” I’ve sensed that in the Italian police inspectors Montalbano and Brunetti of Andrea Camilleri and Donna Leon’s novels, or the retired police officer in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. It’s the crime equivalent of the Mrs Brown of Ursula Le Guin’s SF (in her essay “Science fiction and Mrs Brown”), that recognisably real human individual who is at the centre of any piece of good writing. I’ll leave the last word to Le Guin:
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel — or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel — is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.