Crime Fiction: How it all Started

Barry Forshaw is a writer and journalist who lives and breathes crime fiction. He writes for various newspapers, edits the Crime Time site and broadcasts for ITV and BBC TV documentaries. He has also been Vice Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association.

We asked him to share with us his view on how crime fiction as we know it today came into being.


Who were the progenitors of the mystery novel? Few would argue that, in the UK, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were crucial to the genre, forging many of its key elements. Later practitioners finessed these innovations, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who borrowed some of the characteristics of Sherlock Holmes from the American Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘ratiocinator’ Auguste Dupin, while folding in the quirky characterisation that made the unlovable Holmes the best-loved protagonist in all fiction – and spawned an army of imitators.


Of course, when Dickens and Collins introduced several of the key tropes of crime fiction – in such classics as Bleak House and The Moonstone – neither author had any thoughts of creating a genre, although it is instructive to remember that their books, while massively popular, lacked the literary gravitas in their day that later scholarship dressed them with; this was the popular fare of the day, dealing in the suspense and delayed revelation that was later to become the essential ingredient of the genre.

Crime fiction published in Britain between the First and Second World Wars enjoyed considerable success, but the fact that these books constituted a Golden Age in British crime fiction was not immediately apparent – something that may seem surprising today, given the iconic status of Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and the doyenne of the field, Agatha Christie.

Interestingly, all of these writers are still consumed avidly, but their male counterparts – including that doyen of the fair play game of detection Ronald Knox, Frances Iles and honorary Brit John Dickson Carr – have largely  slipped from public consciousness, though many of these highly regarded male writers are now beginning to find a new audience.


This Golden Age was followed by a similar explosion of creativity in the American hardboiled era of the 1930s and 1940s. While the innovations of the day, both in the UK and the US, ultimately became clichés (an inevitable process in any field in which subtly varied repetition is a key strategy), the most striking fact about British and American crime writing from the 1920s to the 1960s is the sheer craftsmanship and invention that informs the work of all the best writers. If today the tropes of these writers appear familiar from overuse, such devices as the cloistered setting (or ‘locked room’ scenario), for example, the isolated island in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (also published and filmed as Ten Little Indians), were new to readers of the day. Not only do the Golden Age novels afford a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction even now, their themes and strategies have been highly durable – a fact highlighted by their continuing use by modern writers such as P. D. James.

Elements of social criticism were to be found in early British and American crime writing, but these were less important than the construction of a narrative with the precision of the Swiss watch – although writers such as Josephine Tey, in The Franchise Affair, incorporated more sophisticated material, addressing contemporary mores with their crippling moral strictures. And while true evil remained almost a metaphysical concept, often divorced from reality (embodied in such characters as Holmes’s arch nemesis Professor Moriarty), writers such as Margery Allingham (in The Tiger in the Smoke, with its psychopathic protagonist) introduced dark psychopathology into the genteel world of the British crime thriller and transformed it into something far more disturbing. This drew the attentions of the moral guardians of the day, who were concentrated on the corrupting effects of these crime ‘shockers’.

All of which gives the lie to Dulwich-educated Raymond Chandler’s dismissal of the classic British mystery in The Simple Art of Murder as always etiolated and divorced from reality. Then as now, crime fiction has always, more than any other genre, reflected society’s wider concerns.

And for the voracious crime reader (and which of us isn’t?) a massive host of utterly irresistible novels from the past clamours for our attention. Ah, had we but world enough and time . . . but we can at least try to read them all.


Barry Forshaw’s latest books are Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction andBritish Crime Film. His other work includes The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, and the first biography of Stieg Larsson.