As this is posted, it’s 158 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As you know, it was a groundbreaking book that still has implications. It contributed to major changes in our thinking about our species, our history, and a lot more.
It was a risky gamble for Darwin, and for the John Murray Company, the book’s publisher. Darwin is, of course, not the only author to take risks with his writing. Plenty of crime fiction authors have, too. Whenever an author breaks new ground with a book, she or her runs the risk of a complete failure, both critically and commercially. But sometimes, those gambles pay off.
Consider, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle. His Sherlock Holmes was arguably the first fictional detective who used the scientific method and scientific processes to solve mysteries. It was a major shift in detection, and there was no guarantee that it would pay off. But it did. Holmes remains one of the most popular characters in fiction history. In fact, fans loved Holmes so much that there was a major public outcry when Doyle tried to end the Holmes stories with The Final Problem. He was more or less forced by public opinion (and the publisher) to bring Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House.
Agatha Christie also took major risks with her writing. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, we are introduced to retired magnate Roger Ackroyd and his household. When he is stabbed one night in his study, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes that he is innocent; so, she asks for help from Hercule Poirot, who’s recently retired (or so he thinks) to the same village. Poirot looks closely at other possibilities for the murderer, and finds that virtually every other character is hiding something. In the end, he finds out who the killer is. The solution to this mystery turned many of the detective story conventions on their heads, so to speak. In fact, Christie got quite a lot of criticism for not ‘playing fair.’ And yet, this novel remains one of her most popular releases. And, if you read the story carefully, you see that all of the clues are there.
Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me was also quite risky. In it, we are introduced to Lou Ford, Deputy Sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s well-enough liked in town, if considered a little dull. Certainly, he’s not the kind of person who draws a lot of attention. Then, a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. After that, there’s a murder. Now, everything’s changed, and we learn that Ford is hiding something – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ This is arguably one of the first novels in which we really get to know a serial killer, and get ‘inside that person’s head.’ It was a major gamble for Thompson; in fact, Stephen King has commented on Thompson’s bravery in letting himself see everything and write it down. The novel may not be for everyone, but it broke crime-fictional ground, and changed many people’s thinking about what a crime story could be.
Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was also a gamble. It’s often (‘though not always) regarded as the first ‘hardboiled’ PI novel. Even today, people often associate Hammett with that sub-genre. Until that time, most crime novels avoided a lot of violence, and didn’t really look at the seamy side of life. Hammett introduced a different sort of protagonist, and a different sort of perspective, and there was resistance to it. There was also no guarantee that people would take to this sort of story. But, of course, they did. Today, the ‘hardboiled’ story is among the more popular of sub-genres.
Many people argue that Robert B. Parker also changed our thinking about the private-detective story. His Spenser series doesn’t just focus on clues, whodunit, and ‘red herrings.’ Rather, it explores relationships and character development, too, in a way that innovated that sub-genre. And plenty of more recent PIs have been inspired by that innovation to create a new kind of protagonist.
These are by no means the only authors who have taken risks by changing our thinking about what a crime novel could be. I’m sure that you could think of many more than I could. And, if you think about, every author takes a risk. What if people don’t like the direction the novel takes? What if an author who’s had success with one series tries something completely different – and it fails? Fiction writing, like scientific writing, takes a certain amount of courage no matter what one’s topic. And writing that takes our thinking in new directions requires even more courage. Just consider what we might have missed had Darwin not taken the risks he took.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money.