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What Is Crime Fiction?

By Marco Sumayao
Updated May 23, 2024
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Crime fiction is a literary genre covering criminal activity, its motivations and methods, and its eventual resolution. Some works go beyond the crime and deal with the interpersonal dynamics between criminal and fellow criminal, criminal and lawful personage, and other significant people in the same sphere of influence. Several recurring tropes and sub-genres exist within crime fiction, including detective stories, political thrillers, and heist tales. The genre is flexible enough to bleed into other fiction genres, such as science fiction and classical horror.

Many experts acknowledge Steen Steensen Blicher's 1829 work "The Rector of Veilbye" as the first crime novel, although stories of crime have been dated as early as "One Thousand and One Nights," which has evidence of being written as early as the 10th century. Crime fiction was only considered to have solidified as a distinct literary genre, however, by the early 1900s. During this time, literary magazines and pulp fiction publications noted that tales of criminal activity sold well among the public, and subsequently printed large amounts of the stories in response to the demand One notable series developed at the time was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" stories, which helped catapult crime fiction to new heights of popularity.

The defining sub-genre of crime fiction is the whodunit, which takes its name from the phrase "Who done it?" As the label would suggest, these stories often dealt with a crime and its mysterious perpetrator. Readers followed the protagonist — most often a detective — as he attempted to identify the culprit based on a series of clues. Most whodunits dealt with either murders or theft, a trend that continues with modern fiction.

In some cases, crime fiction mysteries involved the method of the crime, rather than the culprit. This sub-genre is often called the "locked-room" mystery, in which the protagonist attempts to discover how an otherwise impossible crime was committed. The sub-genre takes its name for the recurring theme in which the perpetrator of the crime was able to commit it, with no clear way on how he was able to enter or exit the scene of the crime. Protagonists of these tales often uncover a secret passage that allowed the crime, and the revelation can be interspersed with whodunit elements.

Modern crime fiction has extended well beyond victim, crime, and detective mysteries, including genres such as espionage thrillers such as Ian Fleming's "James Bond" series and criminal-life dramas like Mario Puzo's "The Godfather." Some stories, such as John Grisham's "The Firm," deal with the legal ramifications of criminal activity. Authors often mix other popular genres such as high fantasy with crime fiction elements, further broadening the genre's spectrum.

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Discussion Comments
By anon996182 — On Jul 20, 2016

I like Sherlock Holmes a lot better than most boring TV shows.

By clintflint — On Feb 08, 2014

@MrsPramm - Some people like predictable and some people like a formula. Personally, I don't really like gimmicks in general. Crime fiction novels as a genre isn't really my thing. What I do like is an exploration of humanity and books that deal with crime can do that really well.

I guess I like literary crime fiction, which isn't usually going to have a formula at all, because it's going to be much more centered on the characters, rather than the plot. If you are trying to make the characters as realistic as possible, you aren't going to be pushing them to make huge leaps of logic in order to solve the problem in the book. They might never solve the problem.

By MrsPramm — On Feb 07, 2014

@pleonasm - I suspect that most good crime fiction books have to do something to change the formula or they wouldn't be considered good. No one wants to read something that is too predictable. You want something that is just predictable enough that you can feel like you are staying one step ahead of the detective, without being so obvious that you end up knowing the whole story after two chapters.

Considering how many crime novels there are out there it must be difficult to do something new by now. My stepfather goes through a couple a week and never seems to run out of new titles to try.

By pleonasm — On Feb 07, 2014

I quite like crime fiction that has a twist on the normal formula. An example of this might be the Dexter books, which basically follow a criminal as the protagonist, although he often faces off against a criminal antagonist as well. It's been very cleverly arranged so that you identify with a murderer, which is not an easy thing to achieve.

They are very different from the TV series though, so if you are a big fan of that I wouldn't get my hopes up of more insight into TV Dexter's character by reading the books.

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