It’s always a pleasure to discover new crime fiction authors and novels. Catching up with the latest release by a favourite author can be a real treat, too. So can finding out what other crime fiction fans think of what they’ve been reading. But the crime fiction we read now owes much to some pioneering authors who’ve taken the genre in new directions over the years and added to it. So it’s also good to pay tribute to those authors, too. Without their innovations and willingness to “boldly go,” crime fiction wouldn’t be the rich and varied genre that it is. Here are my suggestions for just a few of the crime fiction pioneers who’ve helped shape the genre.
When many people think of the first fictional detective, they think of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, and with good reason, too. Poe is widely regarded as the father of the modern detective story. In stories such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter, we are introduced to the concept of a story in which there is a mystery, someone solves the mystery, and that someone catches the culprit. More than that, these stories introduce the concept of the detective – someone who uses what Poe called ratiocination, or reasoning and logic – to solve a mystery. There’ve been myriad detectives since Dupin, but they all owe quite a lot to him. It’s not too far of a stretch to say that there really wouldn’t be a crime fiction genre as we know it without Poe.
And then there was Arthur Conan Doyle (who himself paid tribute to Poe and to Dupin). In creating Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle added a critical piece to the detective story. Holmes didn’t just use reasoning to solve cases (although he certainly did use logic and deduction). Holmes also used scientific principles, observation and laboratory work. His deductions were grounded in science and concrete evidence. This innovation made the fictional detective more realistic. You could also argue that it laid the groundwork for later police procedurals and forensics-based crime fiction, which often have physical evidence as essential elements in the solution of the mystery. Conan Doyle also popularised the genre. In fact, Holmes became so well-loved that fans of his adventures refused to accept his death in The Adventure of the Final Problem. Conan Doyle eventually bowed to the pressure and brought his sleuth back.
Agatha Christie brought so much innovation to the genre that she still remains one of the best-known and most admired of all mystery authors. She pioneered a number of elements – so many that there’s an Agatha Christie example for just about every blog topic I post. Here are a few things that occur to me. She turned the plot twist and the unexpected dénouement into a fine art. All one needs to do is read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express to get a sense of her groundbreaking work with mystery novel plot elements. Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has posted a terrific review of Five Little Pigs, which was arguably one of the first “cold case” crime fiction novels. There are several Christie novels (no spoilers here!) in which the “someone with a secret identity” plot element plays an important role. And the list goes on….
Another crime fiction pioneer was Dashiell Hammett, whose Red Harvest is sometimes thought to be the first “hard boiled” detective story (although many people credit Carroll John Daly with the first “hard boiled” story). Hammett’s novels opened up the genre to include gritty themes and settings and “down and out” characters. This innovation took the genre to the streets, so to speak. “Hard boiled” detective fiction included unflinching looks at sex and violence and a toughness about the characters that hadn’t been present before. With the advent of the “hard boiled” novel, we also saw the beginnings of noir crime fiction in work by Jim Thompson and other early noir authors.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö didn’t write the first police procedural; that distinction is usually given to Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim. But Sjöwall and Wahlöö refined the police procedural and added innovative dimensions to it with their Martin Beck series. For example, this series integrates the “ensemble cast” approach to police procedurals. Sjöwall and Wahlöö also reconceptualised the police procedural series to include major characters’ development over time and to integrate stories-across-stories. Their series was limited to ten novels, but later authors who’ve written many more than ten novels owe much to this concept of a focus on characters’ home lives and personal development as well as the mysteries at hand in each novel. You could also argue that the reflective police detective that we’ve seen in so many excellent police procedural series in recent decades was a Sjöwall and Wahlöö innovation. Finally, there’s the weaving in of social commentary that we see in the Martin Beck series. Sjöwall and Wahlöö had strong political views and used their series as a vehicle for social criticism. They didn’t write the first police procedural. They didn’t create the first fictional team to work together. They didn’t write the first novel that made social criticism. But they did pioneer the way all of these elements come together in the modern police procedural.
The modern cosy mystery owes a great deal to the pioneering work of Lilian Jackson Braun. Her Cat Who… series, which debuted in 1966, contains many of the elements that characterise today’s cosies. For example, the Cat Who… series features an amateur detective who never becomes a cop or a private investigator. There’s also an eccentric cast of characters and minimal use of violence, gore, explicitness and strong language. In the Cat Who… novels published after 1985, we also see the small-town setting that’s so prevalent in today’s cosies. Not all cosy series feature animal companions, but most of them have integrated many of the other elements that Braun pioneered.
And then there are Edward John Bruce and Arthur Upfield. These authors introduced the concept of the non-white sleuth. Bruce’s Sadipe Okukenu and Upfield’s Detective Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte paved the way for a wide variety of modern sleuths from all sorts of different backgrounds.
There are, of course, other authors who’ve been crime fiction pioneers; I’ve only had room for a few in this one blog post. We owe much to them and if you look at modern crime fiction, you can see how much of it can be traced back to innovators such as these. Which pioneers do you see as having a profound effect on the genre? If you’re a writer, which pioneers have influenced you?
This post is dedicated to the memory of Steve Jobs, a true pioneer in so many different arenas. He will be missed.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a bit from Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke.