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?