Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises 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 (such as the whodunit), legal thriller, courtroom drama and hard-boiled fiction.
The earliest known crime novel is “The Rector of Veilbye” by the Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher, published in 1829. Better known are the earlier dark works of Edgar Allan Poe (e.g., “The Murders in the Rue Morgue ” (1841), ” The Mystery of Marie Roget ” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844)). Wilkie Collins’ epistolary novel The Woman in White was published in 1860, while The Moonstone (1868) is often thought to be his masterpiece. French author Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (1868) laid the groundwork for the methodical, scientifically minded detective. The evolution of locked room mysteries was one of the landmarks in the history of crime fiction. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle are said to have been singularly responsible for the huge popularity in this genre. A precursor was Paul Féval, whose series Les Habits Noirs (1862–67) features Scotland Yard detectives and criminal conspiracies.
The evolution of the print mass media in the United Kingdom and the United States in the latter half of the 19th century was crucial in popularising crime fiction and related genres. Literary ‘variety’ magazines like Strand, McClure’s, and Harper’s quickly became central to the overall structure and function of popular fiction in society, providing a mass-produced medium that offered cheap, illustrated publications that were essentially disposable.
Like the works of many other important fiction writers of his day—e.g. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens—Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared in serial form in the monthly Strand magazine in the United Kingdom. The series quickly attracted a wide and passionate following on both sides of the Atlantic, and when Doyle killed off Holmes in The Final Problem, the public outcry was so great, and the publishing offers for more stories so attractive, that he was reluctantly forced to resurrect him.
Later a set of stereotypic formulae began to appear to cater to various tastes
Seen from a practical point of view, one could argue that a crime novel is simply a novel that can be found in a bookshop on the shelf or shelves labelled “Crime”. (This suggestion has actually been made about science fiction, but it can be applied here as well.) Penguin Books have had a long-standing tradition of publishing crime novels in paperback editions with green covers and spines (as opposed to the orange spines of mainstream literature), thus attracting the eyes of potential buyers already when they enter the shop. But again, this clever marketing strategy does not tell casual browsers what they are really in for when they buy a particular book.
As far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, some authors have been reluctant to publish their crime novels under their real names. More currently, some publish pseudonymously because of the belief that since the large booksellers are aware of their historical sales figures, and command a certain degree of influence over publishers, the only way to “break out” of their current advance numbers is to publish as someone with no track record.
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. 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.