Why are we so fascinated by crime? Ever since Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), which is claimed to be the first genuine crime story, the genre has been immensely popular with the reading audience.
Do we enjoy crime because we have a secret desire for the dark and disturbing nature of man, or is it because we want to confirm our belief in the good forces in society that fight the evil? We feel safe when law and order are restored. Let us look a bit at the different sub-categories of crime stories (and films) and speculate a bit on our morbid fascination for criminal activity.
These words appear in the article, check that you know them all.
predictable, mandatory, delinquent, violation, protagonist, antagonism, narrative, to deploy, intricacy, deduction, counterpart, to obstruct, to complement, to enhance, hassle, unsettling
The Rules of the Genre
It is an interesting fact that crime literature never achieved any due respect or acclaim by literary scholars and critics. It is considered a simple and trivial genre without much literary merit. One reason may be that the universe of a traditional crime story is displayed within a fairly predictable framework. When you pick up a crime story you to some extent know what you will get. Certain elements are mandatory ingredients of the genre; number one is evident – there has to be a crime committed. Number two - there must be a criminal, and number three - there must be someone who goes after him. Within this basic framework there are a number of different approaches for a crime writer to create suspense and make the story a good read. The challenge is to include the expected elements and avoid too many structural clichés. The creative bit is the nature of the crime and how the police or the detective goes about to solve the case, the rest is more or less familiar elements. But it is hard to come up with an original and intricate plot and a credible story within the required cliché-like basics. One original twist could for example be to start with the crime and reveal the murderer; then the plot could focus on how the police or detective tries to figure out what we already know. But for a devoted crime-fan such an approach most likely would not work, since it would be a violation of the traditional rules of the genre. So the critics may have a point, the crime genre is a fairly fixed sort of literary universe, and, as we shall see – there are more recurring elements than just the basic narrative frame.
The Police Story
There are roughly two main categories of crime stories: The police story and the detective story. In the first category we usually follow an inspector and his partner in their investigation. Examples are the British Inspector Morse, the German Derrick, the French Maigrèt, and the Swedish inspectors, Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander. In real life this is not how it works. Solving a case takes team work often from an entire department. But even if a book or a film takes that into account, and present a team of investigators, there is usually some leading character that is in charge of the case, and who will be the protagonist of the narrative. Another usual element in the police story is the antagonism the investigating officer has to face from his boss, who wants results, both for the press and for his superiors. His boss will also in many cases disapprove of the methods deployed by the inspector, but he knows he has to trust him, since he has a good record. We will also in most cases be informed about the inspector’s more or less sad private life; a broken marriage, alcohol, loneliness and so on.
The Detective Story
The detective story will to some extent follow the same lines, but the private detective is in most cases a loner, maybe a former police officer with a dodgy past. His private life is also usually a bit in the grey-zone with drinking, woman trouble, and kids from a broken marriage. In some cases he will cooperate with the police, but mostly he is a pain in the neck because he is in their way and also because he usually is smarter and solves the case before the police do. There are numbers of famous private detectives in crime fiction, from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow via Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Most of the private investigators work alone on a mission from some client who often will be unable to pay his fee in time. Poirot and Holmes are eccentric and highly intelligent detectives who are able to figure out the intricacy of the plot by deduction and intuition. They both have been filmed, and some film versions of Sherlock Holmes show a detective with abnormal tendencies and with a drug addiction.
Both the police and the detective relentlessly fight the criminals time after time. There is always a new case, which is why these stories always appear in series. And as long as there are bad guys out there the crime writers will never run out of material.
Traditionally the police inspectors work with a partner. These partners are not there only to assist the inspector in solving the case; they have a literary and narrative effect on the plot. In most cases the partner works as a counterpart and contrast to his boss, and the difference between them will cause communication problems and obstruct their cooperation. This is a good drive for the narrative because their different approaches eventually will complement each other in order to crack the case. If the inspector has a female partner, like for example in “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries”, there will often be romantic or sexual undertones in the relationship between them, which is an element that also will add to the narrative drive. But the partners also have another important role; they are there to ask “stupid” questions which, in turn, gives the inspector the opportunity to display his intelligence. Sherlock Holmes’s standard reply to these questions says it all: “Elementary, my dear Watson”, after which he in a somewhat patronising manner explains his deduction to an impressed Dr Watson. The same goes for the way Inspector Morse communicates with Sergeant Lewis. However, both Lewis and Watson contribute to the investigation brilliantly exactly because they think more simply and are more down-to-earth than their bosses.
Basically there are three theories that may explain the popularity of this kind of literature. One is that the crime story is a relaxing pastime and will put your mind off your everyday hassles. It provides action-filled and delightful entertainment. It will probably give you a thrill and a surprise ending, but in a way that you feel at home in the familiar universe of a crime story. Secondly, many like to read such stories to challenge their own intellect; they find it amusing to try and figure out “whodunit” before the detective or the inspector can come up with a solution. Some readers are so eager that they have to check the last page before they have read the whole story. The last theory is a bit unsettling, as it will claim that our attraction to stories about violence and crime rises from our secret affinity for the dark instincts and urges within ourselves. If so, it is a good thing that most of us can compensate by reading about violence and watching films about crime instead of practising it. In any case, it is good for our mental health to see and read about clever detectives and police inspectors who catch the bad guys and bring them to justice, which is actually what happens in the real world.
Comprehension and Discussion
- What do you think is meant by "structural clichès"? (As opposed to verbal clichès.)
- Can you come up with more examples of police or detective stories / films that are drawn along the same lines as in the article?
- What is the narrative function of the police inspector's partner?
- What is in your opinion the reason why crime is such a popular genre?
- The article mentions two main genres of crime fiction, but there may be more (organised crime, mafia, poliitical thrillers, spy stories, corrupt police, investigating journalists) Can you think of typical elements of such genres?
- Choose one of the detectives and find out more about the character and his/her creator. (Most authors have their own website.) Make a short presentation. Include the following points:
- setting of novel(s) (place, time)
- background of main character
- personality of main character
- does he/she have a partner
- titles of some of novels
- author's background
- One of the most famous detectives is Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. What was special about Sherlock Holmes and his method of detection?
A new BBC series, Sherlock, based on Conan Doyle's character, was first shown in 2010. Compare the new Sherlock with the original story (setting, characters, style, etc.) and make a short presentation. You can find more information about Sherlock Holmes and the novels at this link: