Pioneers That Time Will Not Allow Us to Forget*

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?



In Memoriam…


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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Edgar Allan Poe, Edward John Bruce, Lawrence Treat, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maj Sjöwall

22 responses to “Pioneers That Time Will Not Allow Us to Forget*

  1. Patti Abbott

    The ones I like most are Nicholas Freeling, Sjowal and Wahloo, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, James Cain, Margaret Millar, Ross MacDonald, Dorothy Hughes, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald and Ruth Rendell.

    • Patti – You’ve certainly mentioned some real innovators! I’m so glad you mentioned Nicholas Freeling, too; such a talented writer whose work doesn’t get the attention it deserves I think. The rest of your suggestions are excellent, too. See, that’s the thing about crime fiction; it’s such a beautifully varied and rich genre that’s been “home” to so much innovation…

  2. kathy d.

    Good post. I’ll salute Sjowall and Wahloo any time for writing strong police procedurals, tight, to the point, usually focusing on one case — except for The Locked Room, where two cases end up overlapping, with just the right amount of character development, plot, teamwork, sense of place, i.e., gems. They should be shown as examples of how to write mysteries in college courses.
    E.A. Poe, of course, still the first locked room mystery in the Rue Morgue; A.C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes contributed so much on how to investigate scientifically and use deductive reasoning and clues, etc. Very important. I wish politicians today were as logical and scientific, but, sadly, many are not.
    Dashiell Hammet’s writing style and focus on private eyes make his work stand out. The Maltese Falcon is also a noted book.
    There’s also Wilkie Collins with his firsts in The Woman in White and The Moonstone. I think he wrote of the first detective.
    I wonder who wrote the first legal mysteries. I had my fill of Perry Mason while I was a teen-ager. There must have been others before him.

    • Kathy – Thank you :-). Interesting question about the first legal mystery. From what I’ve read, a lot of people credit Wilkie Collins with that. Both The Woman and White and his short story The Dead Alive have been mentioned as the first legal mystery. Collins also created, as you say, one of the first, if not the first, police detective. I’m glad you brought up his work.
      You also make such well-taken points about the work of Poe ,Conan Doyle, Hammett and Sjöwall and Wahlöö. They really were innovators, weren’t they? That’s one reason for which I always think it’s good to read and understand the classics. These were the people who forged the genre.

  3. I’d say Georges Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner were two early favorites. My mom read a lot of mysteries and I usually enjoyed whatever she was reading.

    • Pat – Oh, you’ve mentioned some truly talented authors :-). It’s interesting, too, that you picked up at least some of your reading taste from your mother. I think a lot of us do that. I know that some of the novels I remember best were stories my parents really liked. I suppose that interest “rubbed off,” so to speak.

  4. As you so aptly put it – wonderful to discover new authors but also wonderful to pay tribute to those who were the pioneers. A wonderful post – thank you!

    • H.L. – How kind of you – Thank you :-). That’s just the balance I think. It’s good – important, even – to discover new authors and allow for new books and new ways of doing things. But at the same time, the genre owes much to its pioneers, and it’s worth the effort to know their work, too.

  5. Margot, who wrote the first female detective story as opposed to the likes of Miss Marple who was just a very smart old lady 🙂

    By the way, I was poking around on Goodreads today and I found your videos. You seem like such a nice, innocent woman 🙂

    • Sarah – LOL – of course I’m innocent! I’m only dangerous when I write ;-).
      Now… to your question. From what I know, the first professional female detective starred in Edward Ellis 1863 Ruth the Betrayer, or, The Female Spy. I haven’t read this one, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good for very much about it. There were other “lady detectives,” too, but they were mostly amateur sleuths as opposed to people who were paid to detect, such as cops and private investigators. And then there was Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1939 The Bigger They Come, which stars Bertha Louise Cool, a very tough (especially for the times) private detective. It wasn’t until later decades that we began to see more fictional female private investigators and then female cops. Interesting question…

  6. Great post Margot (do I always write that? It’s true!). So glad you included Dasheill Hammett. I do so agree with your analysis of Sjowall/Wahloo – in some ways to be considered simultaneously with Ed McBain for the ensemble/city aspects, but S/W, as you write, had a strong political/social agenda which is woven into their books, both implicitly by the stories they tell and explicitly by the polemic of the authorial voice speaking to the reader.

    I wonder if Ruth Rendell could be considered a pioneer? She was not the first to write a series based on one police character whose colleague and their families become as central to the stories as the crimes, but she must be one of the longest-running (1965 was the first Wexford and 2011 the most recent!). She also writes other novels as Rendell and as Barbara Vine of course.

    First legal crime drama – I don’t know if it is first, but Bleak House must be a contender, with its murder mystery (Inspector Bucket etc) at the heat of the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case.

    Perhaps a modern pioneer is Stieg Larsson? He’s perhaps crime fiction’s equivalent of the Beatles 😉 But his mix of thriller, politics, journalism and feminist revenge is perhaps a first?

    In another genre, the wonderful J K Rowling is a pioneer, I’d say, with her innovative Harry Potter books – conceived as a story of seven novels, a parallel human and witch world with their own rules and logic, coming of age, power of love vs evil, et al. (And re your tribute to Steve Jobs, I was very moved by reading his Stanford commencement address, which reminded me strongly of J K Rowling’s equally moving Harvard address a couple of years ago – both about the importance of individualism and following your own path).

    • Maxine – You really are too kind… :-). Thank you. You make a really well-taken point about Ed McBain and his use of the “ensemble cast.” I actually toyed with including him in this post on that score as well as the “city series” score – you’re spot-on about that, I think.
      And about Ruth Rendell.. You make a good argument there. No, she didn’t create the first “cop series,” but she’s added so many innovations in so many ways to the genre. And the fact that she’s been so successful at innovations to the psychological thriller sub-genre as Barbara Vine has helped to shape the genre, too. And you’re right; few authors have the kind of longevity of popularity that Rendell does.
      Interesting that you mention Stieg Larsson. He did do an interesting mix of themes in his novels, and I would say the books are pioneering in the extraordinary way in which they have caught on throughout the world and drawn so many people to crime fiction. I think the Beatles is an apt analogy ;-).
      Thanks also for mentioning the first legal novels. Yes, Bleak House would have to be one of the contenders for that distinction, and it’s spawned so many fine legal thrillers (Turow, Margolin, etc..).
      And I’m so glad that you mentioned J.K. Rowling. She pioneered an entire class of novel, and quite honestly, I believe she revolutionised the way a lot of young people (and not-so-young people, too 😉 ) conceive of reading. A person who can draw that many people to reading – especially that many young people – deserves whatever accolades she gets!
      Finally… yes, Jobs’ speech was so moving and memorable as was Rowling’s. I’m glad they are available online. Those are words that people should remember…

  7. A very interesting post and equally interesting comments on pioneering crime fiction authors and novels. Some of the authors mentioned in both segments are new to me and I look forward to reading their books. I don’t know if you can call them “pioneering” but I have enjoyed reading P.D. James and her creation Adam Dalgliesh, Colin Dexter and his Inspector Morse, Sue Grafton and her alphabet series involving private eye Kinsey Millhone, and Mickey Spillane and his famous detective Mike Hammer.

    Alistair MacLean also wrote detective-type stories, a little-known fact. There were elements of detective fiction in James Hadley Chase novels too. Edgar Rice Burroughs, now there’s an innovator in crime fiction.

    Do Ian Fleming, Nick Carter, Don Pendleton and such other spy-thriller writers fall in this category? They did pioneer “shoot first, ask questions later” kind of crime fighters, didn’t they?

    My own favourites are, predictably, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner.

    • Prashant – Thank you for the kind words :-). And I agree about the interesting responses from people like yourself who’ve been kind enough to comment. Such a fascinating discussion about what we think of as “pioneering” work in crime fiction. For instance, you mention P.D. James, Colin Dexter and Sue Graften as well as Mickey Spillane. Technically speaking, perhaps they weren’t pioneers in the sense of writing, say, the first female private eye, or the first police detective. But they have contributed immensely to the genre. They’ve influenced it heavily and in that sense, you could certainly call them pioneers.
      And thanks for that mention of MacLean; I didn’t know that he wrote detective-style stories. That’s one thing I enjoy so much about people being kind enough to comment; I always learn so much! And yes, Chase’s work does have elements of the crime fiction novel in them; thanks for bring that up, as well as the work of Burroughs. Right you are that he was an innovator.
      It’s an interesting question whether spy thrillers count as crime fiction. I don’t see why they can’t, although I agree with those put them in a separate sub-genre. A spy thriller isn’t the same as, say, a police procedural.
      Oh, and I must say I like your choices for favourite pioneers :-).

  8. So much to read when one has been absent from your blog for a week … I was here and enjoyed it, and that will have to do for today 🙂

    • Dorte – I’m so glad you paid me a visit and even more so that you enjoyed your visit. I know what you mean, too, about missing things. When I miss one of my favourite blogs for more than a day or two I always feel so behind-hand!

  9. Pioneering authors for me include Charles Dickens (Inspector Bucket in Bleak House), your original working class detective investigating the shenanigans of the wealthy with a little help from his wife. Also as Kathy D says, Wilkie Collins who in The Woman in White made me put the book down in shock when the narrative voice changes. Modern pioneers I would consider to be Patricia Cornwell and Henning Mankell. I know PC is no longer writing her best stuff but I remember how innovative her books were when they first came out. Mankell opened the door for the whole Scandinavian noir genre through the quality of his writing.

    • Sarah – Bleak House is certainly a groundbreaking novel in the sense of having a working-class detective. Actually, Dickens’ other work, too, really opened up the world of the working class, so to speak. And yes, Wilkie Collins’ use of narrative change in both The Woman in White and The Moonstone was innovative. And I can certainly see why you consider Mankell a pioneer. His use of the characteristics of noirfiction together with the police procedural structure certainly did pave the way for modern Scandinavian noir. And many people think Patricia Cornwell played a major role in shaping today’s forensics procedural.

      • I agree that Cornwell’s first one or two were innovative, but would one say that Thomas Harris was the pioneer in that particular genre with Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs (if they came out before Cornwell, which I suspect they may have done but have not checked)?

        • Maxine – Interesting point about Thomas Harris; in fact, I thought of mentioning him in this post, but there just wasn’t space for all the authors whose names occurred to me. So I’m very glad you mentioned him. And right you are that Red Dragon (1981) and Silence of the Lambs (1988) predate Cornwell’s first novel (1990).

  10. I’m glad to see two of my favorites mentioned here – Earle Stanley Gardner and Lilian Jackson Braun. I enjoy The Cat Who series for it’s side stories as much as for the murder mystery.

    Thoughts in Progress
    Freelance Editing By Mason

    • Mason – I thought you’d be pleased with the mention of Erle Stanley Gardner :-). And yes, Braun did an effective job didn’t she of telling side stories and stories-across-stories. Many of her fans felt that they were among real friends whose stories interested them when they read one of her books.

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