There is no genre of fiction that contains so many sub-categoroies as crime novels. There is the locked-room mystery, like Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, the courtroom drama and the police procedural, now joined by its own sub-genre of the forensic pathologist. There are country-house murders, murders on trains, on ships and on aeroplanes, murders by knife, by poison, by gunshots and explosives. There are also thefts and frauds, crooked lawyers and false wills, crimes of passion and of long and exquisitely slow revenge. The private eye stories have their own sub-genres, from the lone but brilliant civilian like Sherlock Holmes or the war-damaged aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey, to the classic but honourable tough guy of Philip Marlowe.
The genre is very old. The earliest, fragmentary collection of the Tales of Scheherezade, or the 1001 Nights, dates back to the 9th century, and The Three Apples is classic murder mystery of the butchered body of a young woman in a locked box. Certainly Scheherezade gives us the first courtroom drama, with The Hunchback’s Tale, in which twelve different people find themselves in court, accused of killing the Hunchback, the Emperor’s favourite jester. In the end, of course, no-one is responsible. He died accidentally by choking at a dinner party, and each of the people in court subsequently finds the body and believes they were responsible for the death.
The genre is also international, As well as the Persian-Arabian tales of Scheheredzade, we have the long Chinese tradition of the Gong’an, of court reports, starting with the 14th century Yuan dynasty, and continuing through the Bao Gong’an of the Ming dynasty and the well-known Judge Dee stories of the 18th century, which spawned their own western versions.
Crime fiction is certainly popular, but analysts have trouble in defining it. A survey by the US-based creative search group Mediaworks found that 11 percent of all the 2.6 billion books published in the English language were categorized as mysteries. But a report on sales in the US book market by Simba Information gave (for 2014) sales of $80 million for horror; $590 million for Fantasy-SF; $720 million for religious and inspiration books; while crime and mystery books outdid them all with sales of $728.2. (But the runaway market leader was romantic and erotica, with $1.44 billion.)
This popularity should come as no surprise. Crime stories have a number of built-in advantages. First, they trace a logical and coherent sequence of events, rather like a successful search. There is a crime, somebody investigates and the guilty person is eventually found. Such stories follow the classical dictates of unity of time and place. They end, if not happily, then at least with the satisfying prospect of truth being unearthed, and of justice being done. They usually contain elements of a puzzle, which the reader has to try to solve alongside the detective. There are different clues to be analysed and different potential criminals and their motives to be investigated, their opportunities and abilities to commit the crime to be assessed.
Crime stories are moreover splendid vehicles for social observation and comment, for delving into different lives and locations, different social classes and ethnic groups. A good crime story usually includes a satisfying sense of place, like Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles in the 1930s, or Sherlock Holmes’s London of the Victorian era, or Arkady Renko’s Soviet-era Moscow or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh of our own time. A crime story blends happily with historical fiction. Lindsey Davis’s detective Falco plunges a hard-boiled private eye into the Rome of Emperor Vespasian. C J Samson’s hunchbacked lawyer Mathew Shardrake brings to life the 16th century London of King Henry VIII.
Above all, there is the searcher, the truth-finder, the detective. Crime writers have extraordinary freedom in this regard to create any form of crime-solver. They can be heroes or anti-heroes or villains. They can be male or female, very young or very old, armed with official status as police detectives or civilian busybodies like Miss Marples or journalists like Stieg Larson’s Mikael Blomkvist or lone wolves like his Lisbeth Salander. They can be monks, like Chesterton’s Father Brown, or alcoholics, like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, or happily married like Donna Leon’s Brunetti. They can be eccentric, like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, or crippled like Perry Mason, or even stuck in a hospital bed like Josephine Tey’s Scotland Yard detective who sets out to discover whether King Richard III was as bad as Shakespeare depicted him and really murdered the two princes in the Tower. They can be gourmet cooks, like my own Bruno Courreges, or live on beer and canteen sandwiches like Inspector Morse.
A good crime story can make us feel at home anywhere, can make us feel we recognize something familiar in the strangest of places, amid the most monstrous of crimes, in the company of the most engaging or unpleasant of detectives. Here lies much of the charm of the crime story, the infinite variety of criminal, of crime, of place and of the personality of the character who solves it. But the real charm lies in us, the readers, who understand instinctively that every crime story is about us: about our passions and our weaknesses, about our temptations and our decencies, our sense of right and wrong and of justice. All human life is there – along with the death that must come to us all.