The Art of the Crime Novel: The enduring legacy of a gripping genre
As prolific as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are, sometimes the crime they’re tasked with solving appears to be too much. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859 - 1930) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) it certainly seems that way until, of course, Holmes re-evaluates the crime scene and… No spoilers, you guys. But, what is it about crime fiction and detective plots like Doyle’s that captivate us?
Our attraction to the genre and its writers may be just as macabre as the very stories we enjoy. Growing up, most kids pretend to be an all-star detective at one point or another. It seems like solving mysteries is a natural human desire; we want to be the first to discover the hidden truths around us and be the best at doing so. Perhaps it is this very desire that motivates us to consume crime stories in our adulthood.
According to Mo Harber-Lamond, crime fiction is enticing for three key reasons. First, the stories are relatable. Detectives and lead protagonists in crime novels are hardly ever depicted as perfect beings. In most cases they have the foibles that many of us suffer from, such as anxiety, or proneness to addiction. Furthermore, while crime fiction is by definition not real, it is often inspired by real-world events. And this, very likely, is what attracts our attention.
Second, crime novels are geographically flexible and feed in to our sense of danger without any real risk; whether the crime happens in a German dive bar or in the middle of Washington Square Park, we got to come along for the ride. “While guns, drug cartels and taking the law into one’s own hands might not be things we want to get involved with ourselves, it’s always entertaining to see someone else do it — for better or for worse.”
Finally, that brings us to the third element of crime fiction’s allure: we enjoy it. Generally, people crave the satisfaction of a “good resolution,” writes Harber-Lamond. This includes reading crime and mystery works where we’re encouraged to organize the disparate pieces of the puzzle into one coherent result. Of course, great crime fiction doesn’t rely on just a solid plot and charismatic protagonist.
In a genre that piles its victims, dead or alive, in a carnival of gratuitous and grotesque imagery of violence, really good crime writing also calls for measured restraint. It’s easy to illustrate hyper-aggression and violence by writing about a chainsaw eating into a victim’s meaty thigh, but for a longer-lasting effect a more delicate touch can be just as effective. Simply put, when it comes to a good plot, sometimes less really is significantly more.
For example, the lady of the house, smiling curtly, approaches her guest. In a swift and elegant sweep of the arms, she embraces a young woman and plunges a chef’s knife into her soft and youthful flesh. There’s more to this scene than the act of murder. It’s about the relationship between the characters, the psychology of the lady that drove her to kill her young guest, and the imminent shock of the victim as the killer pulls away with a smirk. We don’t have all the information, but we know enough to be immediately enticed.
The time between the two world wars was considered the Golden Age of Crime. According to P.D. James, the proliferation of the novels can be attributed to the number of people who were able to put together a coherent narrative and get published. Academics at Oxford, and those with lucrative careers as economists and musicians, to name a few, wrote crime fiction as a way of amusing themselves.
The structure of the novels was relatively straightforward and easy to follow, but as James notes, the writing was more complicated. Of course, that hasn't stopped writers, such as Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888 - 1957), from trying to establish rules for crime stories, such as: “The detective himself must not commit the crime.” These became the standing guidelines for the Detection Club, a secret society for early crime writers, like Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 - 1957) and G. K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936).
Then came the queen of crime Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976), who famously broke Rule #1 in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), which states that the “criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.” Her story was told in first person, from the point of view of the killer. But, this didn’t seem to hurt the novel in anyway as it was voted Best Crime Novel of All Time in 2013.
And yet, there is a noticeably different kind of crime fiction being written by contemporary writers in the last few decades. Earlier writers had to be clever in a world of limited forensic science and police procedures, writes P.D. James. Despite this, the classics by Sayers, Doyle, and Raymond Chandler (1888 - 1959) were still understood and resonated with its readers.
The challenges facing today’s writers are more complex. They have to go beyond storytelling and drawing from realistic practices found in modern crime labs and investigative practices. Now, they must also contend with the contemporary intricacies of a culturally diverse society. When thinking about human behavior, writers have to consider cause and effect embroiled in emotion and psychology.
According to Terrence Rafferty, authors like Tana French and Alex Marwood write about death as a quiet, persistent part of everyday life that ultimately takes its victim from the inside out, setting many female crime authors apart from their counterparts. The motivations of Christie’s or Sayers’ characters appear to be more plausible, if not nastier, than those of Chandler’s or Rex Stout (1886 - 1975).
“Female writers... don't much believe in heroes," writes Rafferty, “which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times." With little gunplay and more emotional and psychological manipulations, crime novels written by women continue to live up to the genre’s long-established formula, and although dead bodies appear in these thrillers, “the body count typically stays on the lower end.”
Ed Siegl believes that women make great crime novelists and short story writers, “partly because they don't feel the need to insert themselves into the story.” He also posits that women may be better listeners. "They're listening to their characters' desires and predilections more closely than their male counterparts." This may be one of many reasons why Christie is considered the best in the genre.
In an interview with The Independent, Christie's great-grandson and custodian of her legacy, James Prichard, recalled his father's characterization of the great writer as a ‘good listener... [and] keen observer of human life.’ While Christie may continue to hold the top spot in crime fiction for years to come, there are more than enough contenders making their way to the top, so long as the genre’s writers continue to invite their readers to play the detective.