What is Crime Fiction?

I wrote the following blog for ShortbreadStories ShortbreadMorgue crime fiction competition.

I love a good murder mystery, especially the old fashioned English detective fictions. Not a lot of blood but a mental workout to see if you can piece together the clues to figure out ‘who done it’. This doesn’t mean to say that I don’t like other types of crime fiction: the mid twentieth century Sam Spade novels, those verging on spy thriller, the modern CSI fictions, or even what has come to be branded as ‘Tartan Noir’. And, this is only a small list of the type of crime fiction that exists.

In fact, this is the problem with genres. It places a myriad of styles, themes and voices into one category, when actually those forced into the genre are not necessarily similar. In fact, recently a comment was placed on the Competition Forum in which one Shortbreader asked for clarification on the boundaries of crime fiction? Must the murder be solved? In response to this comment, another astute Shortbreader asked if stories that tackle crimes to humanity are crime fiction?

The answers to these questions are not easy. A few years back I was asked to teach an adult education course with the title ‘Women and Crime Fiction’. Despite the inclusion of two genres in the course title (‘women’ and ‘crime fiction’), I had little hint as to the topic of the module. Was I to talk about representations of women in crime fiction? Female authors in crime fiction? And, what time period or nation was I to focus on?

In the end, I decided to organise the lessons historically and focus the genre on UK detective fiction.  Starting with Arthur Conan Doyle’sSherlock Holmes’ and the only antagonist to thwart the famous fictional detective – a woman.  I then moved onto the Golden Age of detective fiction in which we read Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Ellingham. We then began looking at contemporary crime fiction by writers such as Val McDermid and Denise Mina. We ended with a discussion of television murder mysteries: Midsomer Murders (based on the novel by Caroline Graham) episode ‘Days of Misrule’ written by Elizabeth-Anne Wheal, as well as Inspector Morse’s ‘The Death of the Self’ written by Alma Cullen.

But even with this basic series of lesson plans, it was easy for the class to veer off topic.  Discussions arose about the differences between a story that leads you to find the murderer, or the story where the reader knows who the murderer is, yet the excitement lies in how the detective will catch the criminal. We also had an impromptu discussion of American private eye fiction, and the wave of Scandinavian fiction coming into Britain. We also talked about how many Icelandic novelists have won a Golden Dagger Award. We rarely stayed with the topic at hand, but never left the confines of crime fiction.

So, as you can see, there is no easy answer to ‘What is crime fiction?’

However, I did not say ‘there was no answer’. It’s just not easy.

Being a huge fan of crime fiction, and spending quite a lot of time researching the genre to teach the afore mentioned class, I stumbled across something that ties all these different types of stories together. Some thing that is, actually, quite elementary.

Crime stories are about someone committing an immoral or illegal act (plenty of Agatha Christie’s short stories were about theft, not murder), and someone else attempting to bring them to justice. I think it is the second aspect, ‘someone else attempting to bring them to justice’ that is essential, because plenty of literature has characters committing immoral acts, yet they are not classified as crime fiction.

However, it can then be argued that ‘someone committing an immoral or illegal act, and someone else attempting to bring them to justice’ is simply a ‘good versus evil’ plot. The most basic and oldest story in the world. Cain killed Able. Able’s father found out and banished him. It’s basic crime fiction.

And maybe this is why humanity enjoys a good murder so very much. It appeals to our basic sense of right and wrong. It’s a story we’ve heard since a child, and it’s a narrative for which we’re all familiar.

Today we’ve uploaded all the entries to the ShortbreadMorgue competition, and I can’t wait to get stuck in. I can’t wait to read each one, just to discover the different definitions of ‘crime fiction’. How each Shortbreader twists the facts, and leaves us clues. I can’t wait to see if I can guess who the murderer is, or if I already know ‘who done it’ but not how they’ll get caught. This is the brilliance of crime fiction. Each story is so different but registers with something so basic within us.

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