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 historical fiction or
science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct.
Crime fiction has
multiple subgenres, including detective fiction (such as the
whodunit), courtroom drama, hard-boiled fiction and legal thrillers.
Most crime drama focus on crime investigation and does not feature the
Suspense and mystery are key elements that are nearly
ubiquitous to the genre.
1 History of crime fiction
2 Psychology of crime fiction
3.1 Pseudonymous authors
4 Availability of crime novels
4.1 Quality and availability
4.2 Classics and bestsellers
4.3 Revival of past classics
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
History of crime fiction
Main article: History of crime fiction
One of the earliest stories in which solving a crime is central to the
story is Oedipus Rex, in which the search for the murderer of the
previous king, leads to the downfall of the current one. Another early
example of crime fiction is gong’ an fiction in China, which
involved government magistrates who solved criminal court cases and
first appeared in colloquial stories of the Song dynasty.
The earliest known modern crime fiction is Thomas Skinner Sturr's
anonymous Richmond, or stories in the life of a Bow Street Officer
(1827); the earliest full-length short-story in the genre 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. His
brilliant and eccentric detective C. Auguste Dupin, a forerunner to
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, appeared in works such as "The
Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Roget"
(1842), and "The Purloined Letter" (1844). With his Dupin stories, Poe
provided the framework for the classic detective story. The
detective’s unnamed companion is the narrator of the stories and a
prototype for the character of
Dr. Watson in later Sherlock Holmes
Wilkie Collins' epistolary novel The Woman in White was published in
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
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
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), set in
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
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.
In Italy, local authors began to produce crime mysteries in the 1850s.
Early translations of English and American stories and local works
were published in cheap yellow covers and thus the genre was baptized
with the term "
Giallo Libri" or yellow books. The genre was outlawed
by the Fascists during WWII but exploded in popularity after the war,
especially influenced by the American hard-boiled school of crime
fiction. There emerged a group of mainstream Italian writers who used
the detective format to create an anti-detective or postmodern novel
in which the detectives are imperfect, the crimes usually unsolved and
clues left for the reader to decipher. Famous writers include Leonardo
Sciascia, Umberto Eco, and Carlo Emilio Gadda.
In Spain, The Nail and other Tales of Mystery and
Crime was published
Pedro Antonio de Alarcón
Pedro Antonio de Alarcón in 1853.
Crime fiction in Spain (also
curtailed during the Franco Dictatorship) took on some very special
characteristics that reflected the culture of the country. The Spanish
writers emphasized the corruption and ineptitude of the police and
depicted the authorities and the wealthy in very negative terms.
In China, modern crime fiction was first developed from translations
of foreign works from the 1890s. Cheng Xiaoqing, considered "The
Grand Master" of twentieth-century Chinese detective fiction,
Sherlock Holmes into classical and vernacular Chinese. In
the late 1910s, Cheng began writing his own detective fiction series,
Sherlock in Shanghai, mimicking Conan Doyle’s style but
reappropriating to a Chinese audience. During the Mao era, crime
fiction was suppressed and mainly Soviet-styled and anti-capitalist.
In the post-Mao era, crime fiction in China focused on corruption and
harsh living conditions during the
Mao era (such as the Cultural
Psychology of crime fiction
Crime fiction provides unique psychological impacts and enables
readers to become mediated witnesses through identifying with
eyewitnesses to a crime. Reader speak of crime fiction as a mode of
escapism to cope with other aspects of their life.
provides distraction from readers’ personal lives through a strong
narrative at a comfortable distance.
Forensic crime novels have
been referred to as ‘distraction therapy’, proposing that crime
fiction can improve mental health and be considered as a form of
treatment to prevent depression.
The cozy mystery: a subgenre of detective fiction in which profanity,
sex, and violence are downplayed or treated humorously.
The whodunit: the most common form of detective fiction. It features a
complex, plot-driven story in which the reader is provided with clues
from which the identity of the perpetrator of the crime may be deduced
before the solution is revealed at the end of the book.
The historical whodunnit: also a subgenre of historical fiction. The
setting of the story and the crime has some historical significance.
The locked room mystery: a specialized kind of a whodunit in which the
crime is committed under apparently impossible circumstances, such as
a locked room which no intruder could have entered or left.
The American hardboiled school: distinguished by the unsentimental
portrayal of sex and violence; the sleuth usually also confronts
danger and engages in violence.
The police procedural: the detective is a member of the police, and
thus the activities of a police force are usually convincingly
Forensic crime fiction; similar to the police procedural. The
investigator the reader follows is usually a medical examiner or
pathologist—they must use the forensic evidence left on the body and
at the crime scene to catch the killer. This subgenre was first
introduced by Patricia Cornwell.
The legal thriller: the major characters are lawyers and their
employees, and they become involved in proving their cases.
The spy novel: the major characters are spies, usually working for an
The caper story and the criminal novel: the stories are told from the
point of view of the criminals.
The psychological thriller or psychological suspense: this specific
subgenre of the thriller genre also incorporates elements from
detective fiction, as the protagonist must solve the mystery of the
psychological conflict presented in these types of stories.
The parody or spoof.
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. 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
(1930-2015) writes one sort of crime novels as
Ruth Rendell and
another type as Barbara Vine;
John Dickson Carr
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.
Availability of crime novels
Quality and availability
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
Classics and bestsellers
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
Death on the Nile
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 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.
Revival of past classics
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,
Canongate Books started a series called "Canongate
Crime Classics," —both a whodunnit and a roman noir about amnesia
and insanity—and other novels. However, books brought out by smaller
Canongate Books are usually not stocked by the larger
bookshops and overseas booksellers. The British Library has also
(since 2012) starting republishing "lost" crime classics, with the
collection referred to on their website as "British Library Crime
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
The Talented Mr. Ripley
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
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
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
Older novels can often be retrieved from the ever-growing Project
The Top 100
Crime Novels of All Time
Murder mystery game
List of crime writers
List of female detective characters
Crime Writers' Association
^ Franks, Rachel (2011). "May I Suggest Murder?: An Overview of Crime
Fiction for Readers' Advisory Services Staff". Australian Library
Journal. 60 (2). Retrieved 18 January 2016.
^ Binyon, T.J (1990). Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction.
Oxford: Faber Finds. ISBN 0-19-282730-8.
^ Bailey, Frankie Y. (Jul 2017). "
Crime Fiction". The Oxford Research
Encyclopedia of Criminology & Criminal Justice.
^ a b c Demko, George J. "The International Diffusion and Adaptation
Crime Fiction Genre". www.dartmouth.edu. Retrieved
^ Hung, Eva (1998). Giving Texts a Context: Chinese Translations of
Classical English Detective Stories, 1896-1916. Amsterdam ;
Philadelphia: David Pollard, ed.,Translation and Creation.
pp. 151–176. ISBN 9027216282.
^ Cheng, Xiaoqing (2007). Sherlock in Shanghai: Stories of
Detection. Translated by Wong, Timothy. Honolulu: University of
Hawai'i Press. ISBN 9780824830991.
^ a b c Brewster, Liz (2017-03-01). "Murder by the book: using crime
fiction as a bibliotherapeutic resource". Medical Humanities. 43 (1):
62–67. doi:10.1136/medhum-2016-011069. ISSN 1468-215X.
^ Davies, Helen; Marjorie Dorfman; Mary Fons; Deborah Hawkins; Martin
Hintz; Linnea Lundgren; David Priess; Julia Clark Robinson; Paul
Seaburn; Heidi Stevens; Steve Theunissen (14 September 2007). "21
Best-Selling Books of All Time". Editors of Publications
International, Ltd. Retrieved 2009-03-25.
Crime Companion. The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time
Selected by the Mystery Writers of America, annotated by Otto Penzler,
compiled by Mickey Friedman (New York, 1995, ISBN 0-517-88115-2)
De Andrea, William L: Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. A Comprehensive Guide
to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television (New
York, 1994, ISBN 0-02-861678-2)
Duncan, Paul: Film Noir. Films of Trust and Betrayal (Harpenden, 2000,
Crime Companion. 100 Top
Crime Novels Selected by the
Crime Writers' Association, ed. Susan Moody (London, 1990,
Hitt, Jim: Words and Shadows. Literature on the Screen (New York,
1992, ISBN 0-8065-1340-3)
Mann, Jessica: Deadlier Than the Male (David & Charles, 1981.
McLeish, Kenneth and McLeish, Valerie: Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide
Crime Fiction and Thrillers (London, 1990,
Ousby, Ian: The
Crime and Mystery Book. A Reader's Companion (London,
Symons, Julian: Bloody Murder. From the Detective Story to the Crime
Novel: A History (Harmondsworth, 1974).
Waterstone's Guide to
Crime Fiction, ed. Nick Rennison and Richard
Shephard (Brentford, 1997).
Willett, Ralph: The Naked City. Urban
Crime Fiction in the USA
World's Best Detective, Crime, and Murder Mystery Books
Short reviews of the 400 best crime fiction books
Crime Fiction at the British Library
Deus ex machina
In medias res
Figure of speech
Suspension of disbelief
Types of fiction with multiple endings
List of writing genres
Stream of consciousness
Stream of unconsciousness
Detective, mystery, and crime fiction
History of crime fiction
Inverted detective story
Film and television
science fiction and fantasy