English 115: 1
30 November 2010
These Dead Hands: A Study of Crime Fiction
Since the form has never been perfected, it has never become fixed. The academians have never got their dead hands on it. It is still fluid, still too various for easy classification.(Horsley 1)
While Raymond Chandler, the author of those words, would surely be against the classification attempted here, these “dead hands” of mine will attempt to share a study of what has been described as the most widely read type of literature: crime fiction. Crime fiction is the genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives. Crime fiction is a very broad, open genre and has many subgenres including classical detective fiction, hard-boiled (tough guy) fiction, psychopathological crimes (e.g., serial killers), non-investigative crime stories, and courtroom drama. While some might say that solving crimes can be traced back to the Bible, crime fiction is generally agreed to be considered as a serious genre around 1900. The American author Edgar Allen Poe is widely considered to be “the father of the detective story” and the first in this genre with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published from 1887 to 1914 Emerson 2
are said to have been singularly responsible for the huge popularity in this genre. The genre originated in the US and the British refined the features. Classic crime fiction or as we call it today, detective fiction, began around 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. As this story predated the word “detective”, Edgar Allen Poe created the word “ratiocination” a word meant to describe the type of rational, deductive reasoning used to solve the crime. While the genre may have begun in America, the British are the ones who defined its features. These early stories were written as entertainment and were meant to be treated almost like a parlor game. Readers were challenged to try and solve the mysteries themselves. There are rules to be followed when writing this kind of crime fiction. For example: the correct answer must be clearly hidden, but still accessible to the reader or solver of the mystery, the solution must not be discovered by the detective by intuition or accident, there is a reassurance and security at the conclusion and a satisfying return to the status quo. The controlled disclosure of information follows the British style of “fair play.” These stories typically include a brilliant detective, facing a baffling crime that requires superior intelligence to solve. The detective is helped by a colleague who writes down details of the case as the story unfolds. The police do not believe the mystery can be solved by the detective, but are later amazed when it is. Another star in the classical crime fiction subgenre is Agatha Christie who has been dubbed the “Queen of Crime Literature.” Her first story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920. She has sold over four billion copies of her 80 crime novels, all of which are still in print. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Christie is the best-selling Emerson 3
writer of books of all time. Her famous (and brilliant) detective Hercule Poirot was featured in 42 of her books. Her female detective creation, Miss Marple is also considered a classic in crime fiction. Hard-boiled crime fiction is dramatically different from classic crime fiction. It is in a sense the American style of crime fiction. Its beginnings were stimulated by traumatic events of the early 20th century and the social and economic corruption in American cities. A few examples of issues that helped shape hard-boiled crime fiction are: the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, Prohibition and organized crime. Hard-boiled crime fiction explicitly addresses social and...