Tradition plays a very important role in our lives. Whether it’s family tradition, religious tradition, sport tradition or something else, our traditions give us a sense of continuity and stability. And that can be comforting and very helpful in a world that sometimes seems upside-down.
There are traditions in crime fiction too. For example, one tradition in crime fiction is that there is an obvious crime, usually murder, which is then investigated. That tradition began with the earliest crime fiction and has continued even to recent releases. For instance, Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime, released just a few years ago, features the poisoning murder of Lídia Font. Her wealthy and politically powerful husband Lluís Font is a likely suspect. He believed that his wife was having an affair, and even hired Barcelona private investigators Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez to follow her and find out if she was being unfaithful. But Font claims that he’s innocent, and he wants his name cleared. So he asks the Martínez brothers to continue working on his behalf and find out who the real killer is.
Another tradition in crime fiction is that the sleuth pursues leads, makes sense of evidence and finds out who committed the crime. Again, we see that tradition in a lot of modern crime fiction. For instance, Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs begins with the gruesome discovery of a left foot that has washed up on shore near the Norwegian town of Savern. Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team begin the process of looking for clues, following leads and so on. Then another left foot is discovered. And another. It turns out that these discoveries are linked to the disappearance of a group of residents that have gone missing from the same old-age care home. Wisting and his team also discover that the missing people had another connection, this one going back to the years during and just after World War II. The tradition of narrowing down the list of suspects and finding out whodunit and whydunit is an important part of this novel.
And then there’s the tradition that crime fiction stories are told from the perspective of the sleuth and/or a sidekick/assistant. Although readers may get a look at what other characters do and say, the real focus of the novel is the sleuth. Of course not every early crime novel was written this way (for instance Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone wasn’t). But from the beginning, it’s been customary for crime stories to be told from the sleuth or sidekick’s point of view. And many modern novels follow this tradition. For instance, Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series is told from the perspective of Galloway, who is a forensic archaeology expert at the University of North Norfolk, and the perspective of DCI Harry Nelson, the official investigator of these cases and also the father of Galloway’s daughter Kate.
These and other crime fiction traditions are a critical part of the genre. They are at its roots and they give readers and authors both a structure and a set of important parameters. But here’s the thing. Times change. Ideas change. People change. And if the genre didn’t evolve too, it would become stale and outworn. It wouldn’t meet the needs and interests of today’s readers and it would limit today’s authors. So traditions are perhaps most helpful if they are integrated with adaptation and innovation.
For instance, for many years, the crime fiction tradition was that PI sleuths were male (I know there were a few early female PI sleuths; I’m talking in generalities here). But authors such as Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky changed the PI tradition. The genre is better because it includes stories that feature Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski. Not only has that innovation welcomed many new readers and authors, it’s also breathed new life into the PI sub-genre. Yes of course there are still traditional male PI fictional sleuths and some of them are terrific characters. But adapting the sub-genre to meet new needs has improved it.
When Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published, she got quite a lot of criticism for it because she broke with one of the important traditions in crime fiction. She had kept with the custom of the sleuth (in this case Hercule Poirot) who investigates a murder (here, the stabbing death of retired magnate Roger Ackrody). But she did part with tradition in a fundamental way and plenty of people didn’t like that. There was a feeling she hadn’t ‘played fair.’ And yet, if you read through that novel, there are several clues as to whodunit. This novel was an innovation and helped to change and develop the genre. In hindsight, it’s often regarded as one of Christie’s best and has one of the most famous dénouements in crime fiction history.
We also see a break with tradition in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. The story is told from the perspective of Central City, Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford and concerns the investigation of a brutal beating and later, a murder. So far, so traditional. But Lou Ford is not at all a ‘typical’ lawman. He has a hidden dark side – he calls it, ‘the sickness’ – that affects much about him and plays a critical role in the novel. Thompson’s creation added an innovation to the genre and opened it to all sorts of different kinds of plot twists and protagonists as well as new ways to build tension.
And then there’s the crime fiction tradition that a crime novel involves an obvious crime and the ensuing investigation. That tradition is one of the founding principles of the genre. And yet, opening up the genre to include novels where there isn’t an obvious murder or other crime has allowed for memorable novels. For instance, Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost tells the story of Kate Meaney, a ten-year-old would-be private investigator. She’s even got her own agency Falcon Investigations. Kate is content with her life until her grandmother Ivy decides she would be better off going away to school. She insists that Kate sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School and Kate reluctantly agrees after her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her to go. Palmer even goes with Kate to the school to keep her company. Then, Kate disappears. Despite an intensive police search, no trace of her is found, not even a body. Palmer is blamed for her disappearance, although he claims he’s innocent. In fact, his life is made so difficult that he leaves town. We learn the truth about Kate when twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa and a friend of hers Kurt return to the mystery and piece together what happened. Without spoiling the story I can say that this isn’t at all a typical crime-followed-by-investigation kind of novel. And yet it’s powerful.
Traditions link us with the past. They give us a safe structure and they are important in helping us order our lives. But without innovation and change, traditions become limiting. They seem to be most helpful to us when they are seasoned with evolution. What do you think? When you read, what sort of balance between tradition and innovation do you like? If you’re a writer, how does tradition fit into what you write? Or doesn’t it?
This post is dedicated to the memory of Jackie Robinson. On 15 April 1947, he became the first African-American to play in a major-league U.S. baseball game. Baseball has always been a sport rich with tradition. It still is. But then-Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey saw that in order to attract new fans and make the game more popular, baseball would need to evolve and change the tradition of fielding only White players. Rickey had the idea and Robinson had the courage, the class and the baseball talent to make that idea a reality. And baseball is far better for it. So are we as a people.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the prologue to Jerry Brock and Sheldon Harnick’s Tradition (Book by Jospeh Stein).