Crime fiction has always evaded categorisation, continually evolving into new and ever more sophisticated forms. But one things remains true: from the Golden Age of detective fiction in Britain to the mean streets of American (and British) noir, there has always been something for everyone.
In The Murder Room, we’ve tried to make it a little easier for you to find what you’re looking for and discover new delights. Here Barry Forshaw offers a guide to the categories we’ve used.
The Detective Novel
The iron grip on readers’ affections that the detective novel maintains is seemingly unshakeable. In Britain, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were early begetters, inaugurating key facets of the genre – tenacious, strong-willed detective, complex plotting, surprising revelations. Later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – whose Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes, was modelled on the American Edgar Allan Poe’s super-intelligent detective Auguste Dupin – added rich layers of the eccentric characterisation and accoutrements that have made Holmes one of the best-known figures in fiction. And the form flourishes to this day, exploring the geographical possibilities of the British Isles, the vast canvas of the United States and virtually every other point of the compass.
The very parochialism of much British detective fiction is precisely what imbues it with its customary sharpness: when murderous secrets are confined within restricted suburban spaces, the explosive effect, when unleashed, is that much more seismic. The genre is particularly satisfying in that we are invited to relish the chaos wrought by crime and criminals before the status quo is re-established by the detective figure.
In terms of specifically generic fiction, the denizen of 221b Baker Street and his celebrated creator have of course, spawned an army of imitators – notably Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – and Holmes clones continue to surface to this day, dressed in contemporary garb rather than deerstalker and Inverness cape.
The most striking fact about the best detective crime writing is the craftsmanship and invention that inform the work of so many of its practitioners, and whatever the social background of the detective, or his or her predilection – the bottle has long been a staple ingredient – the sudden leap of deductive logic or inspiration is as much part of the sleuth’s armoury as it ever was.
There is, too, the tradition of social commentary that has always been a key element in the genre – though rarely at the expense of sheer storytelling skill – the single attribute of crime-writing that, above all, has seen it occupy its incontrovertible position in the early twenty-first century as the most popular of popular genres.
The Noir Novel
Rainswept streets. Darkened rooms where dark deeds are done. And the darker, unfathomable recesses of the human psyche: all of these are the territory of the noir novel. The menacing universe of shadows and murder through which the characters stagger is a correlative of their benighted, often tragic state. Reading such books is rarely a comfortable experience – but always an utterly compelling one.
The new, shadowy vision of the world that followed the Second World War was peopled by end-of-their-tether, solitary characters, encountering bloodshed and death. British noir received its inspiration from the lurid pulp magazines that first featured American hardboiled fiction and were avidly consumed in the UK. The flawed protagonists who inhabit the dangerous world of these novels – often American, but with a strong British contingent – customarily sport the authors’ jaundiced take on the human race, where people are frequently driven to murder, and overwhelming guilt, by the irresistible demands of sexual passion or greed (or both). In the noir novel, we are given a mesmerising, if uncompromising, vision of the lawless actions of which many of us, in extremis, might be capable.
Noir, both British and American, was the perfect literary expression of the new Age of Anxiety, and it speaks to readers in the twenty-first century with quite as much power and persuasion as it did to its original audience. What’s more, the concentration on the tortured psychology of the characters – as much as on the fatal consequences of their actions – now seems extremely modern. What was once just one offshoot of crime fiction has now become virtually standard, demonstrating readers’ need to make sense of a world where life may be cheap, but a price has to be paid. Of all the varied byways of crime fiction, the noir novel has arguably been the most influential, and its dangerous progeny continue to appear to this day.
The thriller – the novel of suspense – remains one of the most durable of fictional forms, and is in rude commercial health in the early twenty-first century. But the genre would not exist in the form it does today without some remarkable writers who forged – and finessed – its various excitement-generating elements in the past.
Of course, until recently there had been a certain snobbery connected with the thriller; after all, how could something so diverting have any literary gravitas? These days the situation is markedly different. Admittedly, certain thriller writers from the last century achieved great critical acclaim, notably such talents as Eric Ambler. But more and more critics are now showering as much praise on the sheer quality of writing to be found in this tense and kinetic form as on its less pulse-raising crime-fiction bedfellows, in which bloody-minded coppers doggedly solve crimes.
The thriller does not just take one form, however. Essentially, it can be divided into two principal categories: in the first, the adventure thriller, the protagonist is frequently thrown into life-threatening situations; these novels do not fall into the category of straightforward crime, detective, legal or police procedurals, and are lean and muscular shockers (as they used to be called), which sport a picaresque, sometimes international element with an emphasis on action and danger. This genesis of this type of thriller could be said to have begun with John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and continued through Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal, up to such modern-day thriller writers as Gerald Seymour and those novelists who specialise in books featuring special forces operatives and similar hard-as-nails protagonists.
But there is another equally compelling form of thriller: that which trades in more subtle psychological suspense, with a central character (usually female) under a less clearly defined threat, often in mind as much as body. Classic examples include the novels of Joan Fleming and M. M. Kaye‘s Death in . . . series and (perhaps the prime example), Daphne du Maurier’s matchless Rebecca, with its nameless heroine unable to turn to anyone to alleviate her ever-growing fear.
Detractors sometimes take a reductive approach to the form, suggesting that thriller writing is bound by its self-imposed rules. But the best practitioners of the genre know exactly how to ring the changes on the conventions (such as the spy framed and ruthlessly hunted by his own side, or the woman under threat from those closest to her). And, let’s face it, we love these conventions – they satisfyingly lay out the ground rules for us, so we are ready for our wild ride. We may be on the edge of our seats, but, paradoxically, there’s nothing as relaxing as a thriller that grabs us by the throat and won’t let go.