The History of Crime Fiction – Part I

In detective crime fiction, there must be a crime, typically a murder; an investigative process, and a solution to the crime or satisfactory conclusion.

Poe: The Father of the Detective Novel

Poe: The Father of the Detective Novel

We can thank Edgar Allan Poe for what is now the most popular type of fiction. The master of gothic and the macabre introduced Parisian crime solver  Auguste  Dupin in 1841 in the short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” A year later, he continued the adventures of Monsieur Dupin, who solves the murder of a young woman in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and finally “The Purloined Letter,” the last of the Dupin mysteries.

Poe opens “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” with an intellectual discussion of analytical powers:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability . . . so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics, exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural.

Why, that could be Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple or Nancy Drew. But, no, this is one Monsieur Dupin, a young man, born of an illustrious family, who has fallen on hard times. Books are his sole luxury. Poe, writing in first person, becomes his Dr. Watson, so to speak, or Poirot’s Captain Hastings.

Interestingly, Poe was influenced by the early work of Charles Dickens for his elements of mystery and suspense. Dickens died before he could complete his own murder mystery, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, published in 1870 as a monthly series. Wilkie CollinsThe Moonstone, published in 1868, is considered by some to be the first modern detective novel. Poe’s stories were short.

As Poe is credited with authoring the first story of this genre, the Edgar Award, presented every year to the best mystery writers by the Mystery Writers of America, is named for him. However, the earliest known example of a crime story was “The Three Applies, one of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights.  And in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), hundreds of crime stories arose, featuring district magistrates or judges in high courts as the crime solvers, the most famous of which was Judge Bao Zheng.

A Study in ScarletSir Arthur Conan Doyle, however, created the most famous sleuth of them all in 1887. Sherlock Holmes, the man known for his acute detecting abilities and his pipe, first appeared in A Study in Scarlet. Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels about Holmes. He said of his famous character, “Holmes is as inhuman as Babbages’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love.”

Both Poe and Doylewere part of the Early Crime Fiction era. Before World War I, the short story was crime fiction’s predominant literary form, according to British writer Mark Billingham . After the war, shifting domestic patterns gave women more time to read and to write, thus giving rise to the Golden Age of mystery writing.

First Lady of Crime: Agatha Christie

Queen of Crime Fiction: Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, dubbed the queen of crime fiction, belonged to the Golden Age in a sub-genre called the Intuitionists, who wanted their readers to be involved in the mysteries. Christie wrote more than 80 novels, first introducing Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective always using his “little gray cells” to solve crimes, and, later, the spinster Miss Jane Marple, who helped local detectives solve crimes, whether they wanted her help or not.

Dorothy Sayers, whose first mystery was published in 1923, was another Golden Age writer, but in the Realist category. The Realists were as factual as possible and made a careful study of police procedures. Her first book, Whose Body, introduced Lord Peter Wimsey. The Big Sleep

Hard-boiled American crime fiction writing was another genre resulting from World War I. It featured a tough, cynical private eye who worked alone. Samuel Dashiell Hammett is recognized as the first master of this genre. He wrote more than 80 short stories and five novels, including The Maltese Falcon in 1930 and The Thin Man in 1934. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe hit the scene in 1939 in The Big Sleep, famously played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 movie version.

Here’s the opening of The Big Sleep, which is sharply different from Poe’s intellectual opening of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The so-called quirky detective includes Charlie Chan, the Chinese detective famous for saying such witticisms as “Theory like balloon – easy to blow up, quick to explode.” Earl Derr Biggers introduced him in 1925 with his book The House Without a Key.  John Mortimer’s more modern book about London barrister Horace Rumpole, created in 1975, is another quirky character who falls under the category Legal Thrillers, discussed in Part 2.

In Part 2, I will describe modern fiction, including mysteries and spy thrillers, and why they are so popular and prolific.

Who is your favorite crime solver?

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