The Evolution of the Crime Genre

The Independent has a nice article about how crime fiction has moved on from the days of the classic “whodunnit” mystery. The article begins by listing Ronald Knox‘s* ten rules for detective fiction from 1929. Now those rules were already horribly outdated when I first came across them in a university class on crime fiction some ten years ago, though one must compliment Knox for telling writers not to go for the racist solution a.k.a. the evil foreigner did it, especially since the racist solution is still alive and well in the 21st century. I just came across an example on NCIS tonight.

On a more general note, the article also explores how crime fiction has moved away from the pure puzzle aspects of the late 19th and early 20th century to a more psychological approach. Indeed, Kathryn Johnson, a British curator at the British Library quoted in the Independent article, says it best:

[…]the whodunit has evolved. It’s became a whydunit or a howdunit.

There is another dimension to the evolution of the crime genre that the Independent article only touches on very briefly, namely that the crime genre and its sister genre the thriller has not just evolved, it has splintered into several, culturally distinct strands to the point that the terms “crime fiction”, “mystery” and “thriller” don’t necessarily mean the same thing in different parts of the world.

This was brought home sharply to me, when I was asked to recommend some German crime fiction, preferably cozies or country house murder mysteries. My reply was, “Uhm, we don’t really have those subgenres in Germany, but I’ll see if I can come up with recommendations that are quirky and not too violent.”

It’s true, too, because traditional cozy mysteries in the US/UK mold (since most cozies are actually written and published in the US these days) don’t really exist in Germany these days. Meanwhile, the hardboiled and noir mode of crime fiction, while still very much en vogue in the US, is considered largely passé in Europe and only used for parodies and deliberately retro pieces. Of course, the whole corpus of Scandinavian crime fiction is often called “Nordic noir” in the English speaking world. But Scandinavian crime novels are not really noir in the US-sense of the word. Neither do they conform to the Anglo-American definition of thriller (which seems to be non-stop action), which explains the regular confused reactions of American readers to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (“But it starts so slow.” “There’s so much unnecessary detail.”).

These national and cultural differences in defining genres and subgenres also regularly cause me problems in how to classify my own attempts at writing crime fiction and thrillers. As I state in the introduction to my crime fiction collection Murder in the Family, I’m obviously very much influenced by the German crime fiction – particularly the crime shorts published in the backpages of magazines – which poses a problem, because what Germans call “Krimi” (a sort of blanket term encompassing mysteries, crime fiction, suspense and thrillers) does not necessarily match Anglo-American definitions. None of the stories in Murder in the Family are mysteries in the traditional sense of the word nor are they detective fiction, though three of them do feature detectives. However, one detective has been dead for years and is only a memory by the time the story begins, another commits the murder himself and the third fails to solve the case. I can only imagine what Ronald Knox would think about that.

*Ronald Knox seems to have been a very interesting person BTW, a Catholic priest and theologian, who also wrote crime fiction and radio plays for the BBC, including a pre-War of the Worlds hoax play about Britain is the grasp of a revolution.

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8 Responses to The Evolution of the Crime Genre

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  2. Estara says:

    off-topic, but will you eventually write an Oscar post? I like reading your impressions on events like that ^^

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