For a genre to be successful, it’s got to evolve with the times. Readers change, their tastes change and our knowledge changes. A genre that doesn’t take account of that isn’t going to last very long. And it’s interesting to see how crime fiction has changed and continues to do so as times and readers change. One could look at a lot of different ways in which crime fiction has changed and continues to change; here are just a few ideas that I have.
The Sleuth as a Whole Person
In the early days of crime fiction, we didn’t get to learn much about the sleuth other than what we needed to follow the story line. For example, in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, we meet Sergeant Cuff, who’s assigned to investigate the theft of a valuable diamond known as the Moonstone from the Verinder family. The stone was left to Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday, but on the night she receives it, it disappears. Then, second housemaid Roseanna Spearman disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. Cuff follows leads, interviews the family members and eventually traces the whereabouts of the stone and how its disappearance is related to Spearman’s suicide (and no, it’s not the obvious relationship). In this novel, we learn nearly nothing about Cuff. We don’t learn about his background, his family or much of anything else about him.
During the Golden Age, we begin to see just a little more of the sleuth’s family life and background. For instance, in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, we are introduced to his sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell when Tad Rampole visits Fell during a trip to England. The two get involved in a case of murder and murky family history when Martin Starberth dies on the night of his twenty-fifth birthday. Rampole has fallen in love with Martin’s sister Dorothy, and so is interested in the case. For his part, Fell is fascinated by the Starberth family history and by the cryptic instructions each Starberth heir is given when he turns twenty-five – instructions that seem to have led to Starberth’s death. In this novel, we meet Fell’s wife and we learn just a bit about him.
We also get a more complete look at a sleuth in Ellery Queen’s series. In The Roman Hat Mystery, we see plenty of home scenes, so to speak, as Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, get involved in the mystery of the poisoning death of shady attorney Monte Field. There are also domestic scenes in The King is Dead and some other Queen novels, and in the later novels in the series, we see Queen develop romantic interests.
By the 1960’s it was quite common for sleuths to have families and family concerns. For instance, we learn about Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck’s family life in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s groundbreaking series. Golden Age authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh who were still writing in the 1950’s and 1960’s also made their sleuths a little more “fleshed out” as time went on. Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn marries and has a son Ricky as that series goes on, and we see plenty of their lives together. Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford also marry and have children and as the novels featuring them go on we do see domestic scenes and get a little more sense of the whole characters.
Today’s crime fiction often features sleuths with families, home lives, backstories and lots of complications in their lives that have nothing to do with the mystery at hand. For instance, Åsa Larsson’s Anna-Maria Mella investigates mysteries, of course. But she’s married with four children, and we see plenty of her life with them. Helen Tursten’s Irene Huss is the same way; she’s married with twin teenagers, and we’ve gotten to know her backstory, too. There are many, many other examples, too of today’s trend towards a sleuth who is a whole person. Readers want their sleuths to be “real,” so I suspect this trend will continue.
For many years, crime fiction novels would focus on just one case. We see that in just about all of Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance. Poirot, or Miss Marple, or the Beresfords, would have one goal – one case – that was their focus. There might be more than one murder or crime, but all were related to the central mystery. Christie’s standalones tend to be that way, too (although there are exceptions). We also see that focus on one murder or set of murders in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Those stories too, including the novels, are focused on one case, even when there is more than one murder or crime.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, we began to see some series such as Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series and Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series, with a group of people handling more than one case at a time. That kind of multi-tasking, to put it that way, is realistic and as series have gotten more realistic (another trend we’ve seen), we see more of this “several cases at a time” approach, especially in series that feature cops.
And those series don’t even need to feature cops. Donna Malane’s Surrender features missing person’s expert Diane Rowe. Rowe takes a very personal interest in the murder of James Patrick “Snow” Wilson, since he murdered her younger sister Niki. When it becomes clear that he was paid to do so, Rowe wants to know who paid Snow and why. At the same time (and in an unrelated case), she’s trying to find out the identity of headless skeleton found in the Rimutaka State Forest. As the novel goes on, Rowe pursues both cases and we see how both stories evolve.
There’s also a related trend that we see in work such as Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels and Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels. In those novels, we often see cases that seem to be unrelated and that are investigated that way at first. But then, the cases turn out to be tied together. When the sleuth finds the common denominator, she or he finds the solution. This is just my view, so feel free to differ with me if you do, but I see this trend as continuing. Many readers want books that don’t always have linear plots.
Stories and Series With an Agenda
In early and Golden Age crime fiction, and even until the 1960’s, it’s probably fair to say that most crime fiction novels were written to tell a story. Of course, we sometimes see the author’s personal views coming through. For instance, an anti-Communist, pro-“underdog” view is obvious in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories.
It’s still true today that the very best crime fiction is written to tell a story, not to accomplish a socio-political goal. But since Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, we’ve seen an increase in novels and series that also include messages about various social and political messages and goals. The Beck series has a distinctive anti-capitalist flavour. So does Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.
Novels such as Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage, Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series and C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series explore environmental and species-protection issues. Rendell and Michael Connelly have explored issues such as child trafficking and race relations, too. And many authors (there’s no space in this post to list them all) explore issues such as political corruption, racism and social inequities. As authors see how their very skilled colleagues can explore larger social issues without preaching, I see this trend continuing, too. The issues may change as readers’ concerns change. But I don’t think the concept of the “crime-novel-with-an-agenda” will go away soon.
These are just a very few things that I see happening in the world of crime fiction. What do you think? Where do you see the genre heading? What do you think we’ll see more of or less of?
Thanks to Mack Lundy for the inspiration for this post. You’ve given me much food for thought, Mack.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.