Thursday, October 22, 2009

You've Come A Long Way, Baby!

Crime and mystery fiction doesn’t have the long history that some other fiction genres have. In a way, that makes it an especially exciting genre, since it’s still evolving. Even in its relatively short history, though, there have been some major changes in crime and mystery fiction that have arguably revolutionized it. Here are just a few of them.

The New Sleuth

One of the most important developments in crime fiction has been the person who investigates crime. In the days of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and other early mystery fiction writers, the sleuth was nearly always a man who used keen powers of observation and deduction to find clues and solve mysteries. Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin wasn’t a professional detective, but he had in common with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that he solved cases by using logic and deduction. Holmes, of course, also often used physical clues like footprints, ashes and mud.

As the genre developed, so did the sleuth. By the time of the Golden Age of crime fiction, the private detective had emerged as one of the most common kinds of sleuths. Some were what’s often called “gentleman detectives.” Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey are two examples of this kind of sleuth. Wimsey, of course, might best be called an amateur detective, since he’s not a paid private investigator. However, much about Wimsey is similar enough to other “gentleman” detectives that I include mention of him here. There was also the more “hard boiled” detective, like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The police detective also began to emerge during this time as a type of sleuth; Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn falls into this category, and so does Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen.

Today’s sleuth, though, doesn’t fit neatly into any category. There are many different kinds of sleuths, now, and they’re from all kinds of backgrounds. There are still private detectives, such as Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. There are also a wide variety of police and law enforcement detectives of both sexes and different nationalities. Just to give a few examples, there’s Michael Robotham’s Vincent Ruiz, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, Martin Edwards’ Hannah Scarlett, and Colin Dexter’s Sergeant Lewis. All of these sleuths have different personalities and backgrounds, different ways of finding clues and different approaches to solving cases.

One of the biggest changes in the crime fiction sleuth has been the evolution of the amateur sleuth. Many of today’s sleuths aren’t in law enforcement and they aren’t paid to detect. They get drawn into crime, very often at first because it touches someone they know or because they’re on or near the scene of a crime. That’s how Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swenson, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and my own Joel Williams get drawn into investigating.

A Dose of Reality

Today’s crime fiction reader is savvy and knowledgeable and wants a mystery story that’s realistic and believable. In real life, detection doesn’t happen by magic, all kinds of people from all social classes and ethnic backgrounds get involved in crime, and sometimes, crime is ugly and brutal. Of course, a crime story doesn’t have to be gratuitously gruesome to be engaging. Too much gore, like too much of anything, takes away from the center of the story – the mystery. But today’s crime fiction reflects much more of what really goes on in society.

Most criminals these days don’t leave fingerprints behind, and most mystery readers are no longer interested in unrealistic evidence like the footprint of an oddly-shaped shoe, or a too-conveniently forgotten piece of clothing, so many of today’s police procedurals (Kevin Hughes’ work is an example) let the reader in on what real police officers to do investigate crime. While a good mystery novel doesn’t require lengthy descriptions of DNA testing, hard drive searches or arrest procedures, today’s mystery reader does want to believe the story. So crime fiction novelists have to be realistic in the way they depict crime detection. Agatha Christie’s fictional sleuth, Ariadne Oliver refers to this in a few novels in which she appears. One of her ongoing challenges is that knowledgeable readers write to her, correcting her on details that she gets wrong. Oliver makes us laugh as she discusses her frustration, but underneath that laughter is a core of truth: today’s’ crime fiction readers expect their stories to be believable.

Modern crime fiction has also become more realistic in another way: it reflects real people. By this I don’t just mean realistic characters (that’s always been an important part of good crime fiction); I mean characters from all kinds of backgrounds, in all kinds of professions and with all kinds of personal histories. There’s a great deal more diversity in characters now than in classic crime fiction. For instance, many (though by no means all) of the major characters in Agatha Christie’s and Dorothy Sayers’ work come from higher socioeconomic classes and are members of the dominant culture. They’re either “well-born” or have made a lot of money. That’s not always true of today’s crime fiction. As an example, Colin Dexter’s work shares the stories of many characters from the middle, working and lower classes. So does Ian Rankin’s work.

Real people face real issues, and that’s also reflected much more in today’s crime fiction than it was in the past. Today’s crime fiction addresses issues like computer and “white collar” crime, homophobia, women’s issues, class differences, incest, ecology, medical ethics, gangs and drugs. The list of authors whose work addresses these issues is far too long for me to discuss in one post. A simple contrast between the work of authors like Conan Doyle and authors like Michael Robotham should be enough to remind us of how many real (and formerly taboo) issues today’s crime fiction discusses.


It goes without saying that technological advances have revolutionized our society. They’ve also revolutionized the way fictional sleuths investigate, and the way fictional criminals commit crime. Even in Agatha Christie’s day, sleuths made use of the telephone (including international calls), photocopies, and telegrams/telegraphs. But today, there’s an almost bewildering array of technology available to sleuths and criminals. Computers and software, the Internet, medical testing (e.g. DNA tests), sophisticated communication devices (e.g. “smart” phones) and easy global travel are all an integral part of many well-written crime novels.

So why do we still read crime fiction classics?

Crime fiction has evolved into a much more realistic, diverse, and deeper genre through the years. So why do so many mystery lovers still read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ellery Queen? Because the elements of a well-written crime novel haven’t changed. Well-written mysteries are still based on an engrossing and believable plot that centers on a mystery, well-written characters with whom readers can identify and a sleuth that readers can like, or at least respect. Those aspects are the keys to a good mystery, whether it was written decades ago or hasn’t gone to press yet.

I’ve only touched on a few major changes in crime fiction here. What do you see as some of the major changes in the crime fiction you read? Where do you think crime fiction is going in the next decades?


  1. You're absolutely right, Margot--it's so much more gory and violent now, depending on the genre of course. And sophisticated--forensics, etc.

    I love the classic tales because my interest lies more in the puzzle. I think there will always be room for the classic mysteries in our bookshelves.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. I enjoy the increased use of technology and forensics in modern mysteries, but I could do without the increase in violence, gore, and what I like to think of as the "psycho factor." I can't read the really dark and twisted serial killer type crime fiction.

    My favorites in the genre are cleverly crafted mysteries with amateur sleuths. If there's a cat or dog in the mix, so much the better.

    It's one of the many things that makes the genre so appealing - there's something for everyone. And I think there will always be a place for the classics.

  3. Elizabeth - I love the intellectual puzzle of the classic mysteries, too! I think that's part of their appeal for me. The modern crime novels that I like also have that kind of puzzle in them. For me, that's one of the most important elements of a good crime novel... Without a good puzzle, the rest can fall completely flat.

    Ingrid - You're right; modern forensics and other technology can be very exciting and they make detection interesting. One of the things I like about those developments is that I learn when I read, and that appeals to me.

    I have to admit that I get my fill of gore, too. I know that not everyone shares my taste, but as you say, that's the beauty of the genre as it's evolved. There are enough sub-genres so that just about any mystery fiction fan is likely to find something s/he likes.

  4. Not to be picky, Margot, but "Colin Dexter's Inspector Lewis" never was. In Dexter's novels, Lewis was always the sergeant teamed with CI Morse. His promotion came only after Morse died, the novels ended with him, and Lewis became the central character of a television series (entitled, with awesome imagination, 'Lewis') written by one Russell Lewis. The Lewis of the series is rather oddly different from the Lewis of the novels and certainly interesting, superbly played by Kevin Whateley, but the series is currently being wrecked by the producers and writers, who obviously think the appalling and ludicrous Sergeant Hathaway/Laurence Fox character should be nudged into stage centre, probably to see if they can hook the younger female demographic profile. A shame, and I suspect it won't work anyway.

  5. Philip - You're not being picky - you're being accurate, for which I thank you. You are, of course, absolutely right that Lewis was Sergeant Lewis in the Morse series, and I always think of him that way, actually. I appreciate your mentioning that. I'll dedicate my next meal of eggs and chips to you ; ).

    Your comment about what producers and writers do to characteres is also a very well-taken point. Very often, what is shown on television is only for the purpose of getting more viewers, not because it's really well-written. Thanks for your comments : ).

  6. I've gone back in and changed "Inspector Lewis" to "Sergeant Lewis" just to clarify that I'm referring to Colin Dexter's original Morse novels...

  7. Give me a good puzzle and little or no gore. I'd far rather meet a cast of interesting characters than read about violent acts in chilling detail. I tend to stay away from books that promise that kind of read.

    I have to disagree with Philip; I like the "Lewis" television series. I find the plots interesting with a nice touch of humour. Also, any show that gives me so many beautiful shots of Oxford is going to get a vote from me!


  8. Elspeth - You're absolutely right - interesting characters and a solid puzzle are at the core of a good mystery. Without them, none of the modern "trimmings" will save the story. With them, there are endless possibilities.

  9. I like a variety of crime fiction sub-genres and will give almost anything a go depending on my mood (although I've yet to find a hard-boiled book that I actually like and so haven't picked one up in ages). In general I'm more interested in the people first and then the puzzle or story and I don't mind which sub genre gives me those. I've got favourite 'cosy' mysteries as well as favourite classics, police procedurals, psychological thrillers, forensic experts...Although I've read my share of them I have grown tired of the books in which knife-wielding psychopaths torture then kill women (and it is nearly always women) in increasingly horrific ways because in those it is usually the violence and gore that takes pride of place rather than characters and stories.

    Oh and I'm with Elspeth...I like Lewis the TV show and I even like James Hathaway...I don't think I fit the 'younger female demographic' that Philip thinks they're aiming for (I'm about to turn 42) but I think he's interesting and, in a way, an homage to the original Dexter books and Morse series as Hathaway is a more intellectual and internally conflicted character than Lewis - he's much more like Morse in fact.

  10. Bernadette - I agree with you 100%. I'm fairly eclectic about my taste in mysteries, too, and today's mysteries are so diverse that it gives people like us even more sub-genres to choose from. So long as the characters are interesting, the plot strong and the mystery intriguing, I'll try nearly anything in mystery fiction (although as readers of this blog have no doubt figured out, I have a special fondness for the classics). But when it comes to psycho/sociopaths whose sole purpose is torture, I have to say that's where I lose interest. I can respect a taut plot line and solid suspense, but like you, I think that too often, those novels lose the solid mystery and characters. They trade those for the sensationalism of gore.

    As far as the TV show goes... I'm enjoying the discussion about it. I've decided to stay neutral and see what the rest of you folks think : ) You are right, though, that Morse's character in the novels is definitely conflicted, deep, and reflective. Interesting point...

  11. I think I did make an error there, Bernadette: I shouldn't have put in 'younger'. Now, tell the truth, it is not unlikely that the fancy of a lady of forty-two summers might turn to a man of a dozen less, hmmmm? Tell the truth now, Bernadette.

    But I did have to monitor myself on this matter. Laurence Fox irritates me -- particularly his diction, which I suspect is, like Sean Connery's and a few others, impaired by oversized caps and veneers -- as much as his appalling Uncle Edward does. And his father, James, to a lesser extent. And his atrocious grandmother. Not sure about his grandfather, but probably him, too. And I'm not at all happy about the events that resulted in Laurence's expulsion from Harrow. Ghastly bloody family all round, if you ask me. So I have to allow for this, get my initial prejudices tamed and put aside, but that done, I find the idea of Hathaway being a Cambridge graduate (and such a complete prat I think he must be a King's man, or maybe Peterhouse) a rather cheap contrivance. Yes, Morse went to Oxford, one of Frost's sergeants is a Cambridge graduate, and I've noticed other specimens of the P.C. Plod, M.A. (Oxon./Cantab./Heidelberg...) sort, but that in itself doesn't bother me overly, though I think it's trite. However, the last episode I watched (on DVD, I don't watch television as such) focused so much on Hathaway that it got a trifle ludicrous: Hathaway translating a clue written in Classical Greek -- which he said he picked up while taking a theology course, God help us -- Hathaway giving Lewis two lectures on Greek mythology, Hathaway discoursing on T.S. Eliot...And then there was a scene which started with a shot of Hathaway sitting in the car reading a book on Greek myths as Lewis comes along, gets in, and hands Hathaway the lunch he's gone to get for him! And a little later the scene in which Hathaway sits at the table and grills the rapscallion opposite while Lewis stands by the door looking like a spare...well, never mind. I mean, really, who the hell is in charge here? Who is this series about? Lewis hoed a hard row to get where he is, and not only is he plagued by Superintendent Jean 'Locusts and Boils' Innocent, but he's practically playing bagman for his useless plonker of a sergeant. And what is more, at the end of this episode, we have to endure what seemed like three hours of Hathaway in a club playing guitar in a group that plays jazz and world music fused with madrigals! Madrigals!! There was no bloody vocalist, so how the hell the madrigals came into it, God knows. Well, God and Hathaway.

    No, I am not happy with this. Kevin Whateley is superb, by the by, when he manages to get front and centre. The series is produced by a committee of four (which is a recipe for disaster from the outset), they are responsible for this, and I do think the idea is to nudge Hathaway into the spot front and centre in order to rake in the female demographic -- and not, as Bernadette rightly tells me, just the younger one, though I must think her at 41 to be but a winsome lass herself. Anyway, I gather Hathaway is a touch confused re 1. his sexuality and 2. the existence of God, so I think he should go on a very long retreat to a monastery run by an abbot who's a trained psychotherapist, then Kevin Whateley could have his show back.

    As you can tell, I've tried to be gentle in my comments here, for I am a kindly soul. And I have to save the all-out vituperative conniptions for A Touch of Frost, et al.

  12. Philip - You're among friends, here. There's no need for you to hold back on how you feel about Hathaway. You can feel free to tell us your thoughts ;). Seriously, though, you bring up the really important point that very often, a television show is the product of producers, marketers, etc., and not of people who really want to capture the essence of a book or series.