From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Crime fiction is the genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as science fiction or historical fiction, but boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred. It has several sub-genres, including detective fiction (including the whodunnit), legal thriller, courtroom drama, and hard-boiled fiction.
"High art" versus "popular art"
The discrepancy between taste and acclaim
Up to the 1960s or so, reading the paperback edition of a crime novel was usually considered a cheap thrill — with the word "cheap" used in both meanings: "inexpensive" and "of minor quality". The educated and civilized world was often interested, or at least pretended to be, in the "high art" categorised by classical music, paintings by renowned artists, in famous literature and plays like those of William Shakespeare. The term "popular art" referred to folk music, jazz, or rock 'n' roll, photography, the design of everyday objects, comics, science fiction, detective stories or erotic fiction (the latter circulating in private prints only to beat the censor) to quote a few examples. The idea of a "main stream" of literary output suggested that any book deviating, in either content or form or both, from the established norm of "high art" was "cheap", and anyone interested in popular culture was uneducated and unsophisticated, and most probably originated in a lower socio-economic division of the contextual society. The universities and the other institutions of higher learning also looked down on artists producing "popular art" and categorically refused to critically assess it.
This often did not correlate with the immense popularity of popular art on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes due to sensationalism. For example, the British had been fascinated by Edgar Wallace's (1875–1932) crime novels ever since the author set up a competition offering a reward to any reader who could figure out and describe just how the murder in his first book, The Four Just Men (1906), was committed.
A re-assessment of critical ideals
In the long run, the vast output of popular fiction could no longer be ignored, and literary critics — gradually, carefully and tentatively — started questioning and assessing the complete notion of the perceived gap between "high art" (or "serious literature") and "popular art" (in America often referred to as "pulp fiction", often verging on "smut and filth"). One of the first scholars to do so was American critic Leslie Fiedler. In his book Cross the Border — Close the Gap (1972), he advocates a thorough re-assessment of science fiction, the western, pornographic literature and all the other subgenres that previously had not been considered as "high art", and their inclusion in the literary canon:
- The notion of one art for the 'cultural,' i.e., the favored few in any given society and of another subart for the 'uncultured,' i.e., an excluded majority as deficient in Gutenberg skills as they are untutored in 'taste,' in fact represents the last survival in mass industrial societies (capitalist, socialist, communist — it makes no difference in this regard) of an invidious distinction proper only to a class-structured community. Precisely because it carries on, as it has carried on ever since the middle of the eighteenth century, a war against that anachronistic survival, Pop Art is, whatever its overt politics, subversive: a threat to all hierarchies insofar as it is hostile to order and ordering in its own realm. What the final intrusion of Pop into the citadels of High Art provides, therefore, for the critic is the exhilarating new possibility of making judgments about the 'goodness' and 'badness' of art quite separated from distinctions between 'high' and 'low' with their concealed class bias.
In other words, it was now up to the literary critics to devise criteria with which they would then be able to assess any new literature along the lines of "good" or "bad" rather than "high" versus "popular".
- A conventionally written and dull novel about, say, a "fallen woman" could be ranked lower than a terrifying vision of the future full of action and suspense.
- A story about industrial relations in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century — a novel about shocking working conditions, trade unionists, strikers and scabs — need not be more acceptable subject-matter per se than a well-crafted and fast-paced thriller about modern life.
But, according to Fiedler, it was also up to the critics to reassess already existing literature. In the case of U.S. crime fiction, writers that so far had been regarded as the authors of nothing but "pulp fiction" — Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and others — were gradually seen in a new light. Today, Chandler's creation, private eye Philip Marlowe — who appears, for example, in his novels The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940) — has achieved cult status and has also been made the topic of literary seminars at universities round the world, whereas on first publication Chandler's novels were seen as little more than cheap entertainment for the uneducated masses.
As far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, it is an astonishing fact that many authors have been reluctant to this very day to publish their crime novels under their real names — as if they were ashamed of doing something "improper". In the late 1930s and 40s, British County Court judge Arthur Alexander Gordon Clark (1900–1958) published a number of detective novels under the alias Cyril Hare in which he made use of his profoundly extensive knowledge of the English legal system, for instance in Tragedy at Law (1942). Scottish journalist Leopold Horace Ognall (1908–1979) authored over ninety novels as Hartley Howard and Harry Carmichael. When he was still young and unknown, award-winning British novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) published some crime novels under the alias Dan Kavanagh. Other authors take delight in cherishing their alter egos: Ruth Rendell (born 1930) writes one sort of crime novels as Ruth Rendell and another type as Barbara Vine; John Dickson Carr also used the pseudonym Carter Dickson. The author Evan Hunter (which itself was a pseudonym) wrote his crime fiction under the name of Ed McBain.
- Crime film
- The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time
- Detective fiction
- Mystery fiction
- Art theft
- Crime comics