7 minute read

Crime: Michael Dibdin

The other day, I read a report in the local newspaper of the American city where I live. A 19-year-old youth who had just split up with his girlfriend went home and took his father's revolver, returned to the girl's house, and murdered her and a friend she had called over to talk about the break-up.

No, actually I made that up (never trust a crime writer), but if you read a headline like that, what would interest you most about the story? The drama, the violence, the blood and gore? Or would you be more intrigued by the killer's state of mind, his perceived motives and deranged attempts at self-justification? Or … Or, suppose the person under arrest was actually innocent. Suppose that a jealous rival or psychopathic sibling, knowing about the break-up with the accused's girlfriend, had set up the killing to frame him.

One way of looking at crime fiction is as a mixture consisting, in varying proportions, of these three areas of interest, which we might label the Sensational, the Psychological, and the Cerebral. The invention of this powerful cocktail can be dated and attributed as precisely as that of the steam engine. The time was the 1840s, and the inventor the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is now more usually thought of in connection with the horror or Gothic genres, but two of his tales featuring Auguste Dupin—‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’—reveal to the highest extent the power of the sensational and cerebral aspects of the genre, while another, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, is a chilling psychological study of a murderer's mind.

The only aspect of the genre which Poe did not touch, except to mock it, was the one centred on the official investigations of a police detective. These form the basis of The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, a contemporary of Dickens, which is the earliest and perhaps supreme example of crime fiction aspiring to the level of ‘mainstream’ literature. But it was only much later that the police procedural came into its own, perhaps as a result of the success of the television series based on the books by Georges Simenon featuring the Parisian detective Maigret. Later writers who have exploited this sub-genre with success include Reginald Hill, Ed McBain, James McClure, Ian Rankin, and Ruth Rendell in her Inspector Wexford series. The stylized hyper-violence of James Ellroy's work appeals to many, although not to me.

But until the First World War, the gifted amateur had the field almost entirely to himself, most notably in the personage of Sherlock Holmes and his plodding sidekick and amanuensis Dr Watson. Conan Doyle's creation owed much to Poe's Dupin, but soon surpassed his model to establish himself as the most famous fictional detective ever. He appears in four volumes of stories, of which the first two are generally considered to be the best, but to my mind it is a late novel which is probably Doyle's supreme achievement. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) is a gripping, atmospheric story in which Holmes is off-stage for much of the time, reappearing just in time to reveal the nature and origin of the spectral hound which has been terrorizing the Baskerville family.

Up to this point, the central contest in crime fiction had been between the criminal and the detective. It was sometimes fairly clear who the guilty party was; the question was how he was to be prevented or brought to justice. All this changed in the work of Agatha Christie, where the struggle between criminal and detective becomes subordinate to the true contest, which takes place between author and reader. Christie and her contemporaries in the so-called Golden Age of English crime writing (roughly 1920–40) in effect said to the reader: ‘I'm going to tell you about a murder in such a way that you won't be able to guess who did it or how until I reveal it, and you'll then wonder why on earth you didn't see it all along.’

This form of literary conjuring trick had a successful career which is now effectively over, there being only so many plot devices which can be used to flummox the increasingly sophisticated reader. Perhaps the most famous example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926); among my other favourites are The ABC Murders (1936) and the devilishly cunning And Then There Were None (1941). After Dame Agatha, reading most of the other practitioners of the ‘whodunnit’ strikes me as like drinking champagne that has gone flat, but the work of Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and Marjorie Allingham has many admirers, as do the elaborately facetious concoctions of Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin. The best modern exemplars of the form are perhaps Colin Dexter and P. D. James.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were setting about an utterly different conception of crime fiction. The essential point is, as Chandler finely said of Hammett, they ‘gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse’. We might add that by virtue of their often imitated but never equalled style, they made crime writing once and for all a question of writing.

People will argue for ever about which is Chandler's greatest novel, with most favouring Farewell, My Lovely (1940) or The Big Sleep (1939). My own vote would go to the relatively late The Long Goodbye (1953), but all Chandler's work, including the short stories he wrote for the so-called ‘pulp magazines’, is well worth investigating. Hammett's entire output is of the same high quality; my personal favourite is the perennially popular The Maltese Falcon (1930). If you like these, try James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, 1936; The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934) and Cornell Woolrich, a.k.a. William Irish (Phantom Lady, 1942). Interestingly, these titles are among the very few novels which have inspired an equally successful film.

For a modern take on Chandler's Los Angeles, you could try Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series (e.g. A Red Death, 1991), but the authors who can best sustain stylistic comparison with these giants are George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1972) and the prolific Elmore Leonard, who combines elements of the police procedural and the John Wayne western with meticulously-researched settings and spare, punchy dialogue. One of his best books is Freaky Deaky (1988), which displays all the above in the context of a fiendishly tortuous plot.

The work of Chandler and Hammett has spawned a massive sub-genre with the professional private detective as hero(ine), and all tastes are catered for. There are male and female private investigators, gay and lesbian private investigators, black and Asian private investigators. For some reason, most of the best writers seem to be women (perhaps goaded on by Chandler and Hammett's perceived misogyny). In its native America, this category is represented by such names as Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Patricia Cornwell, with Carl Hiaasen providing a welcome touch of humour. In Britain, the work of Liza Cody and Val McDermid stands out. The field has also inspired numerous parodies.

At the same time, in Britain, a contemporary of Chandler and Hammett was renewing the genre in his own way. Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles starts with the startling sentence: ‘It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.’ This is one of the earliest and best examples of the ‘inverted’ crime story, where the identity of the murderer is known from the beginning, and the interest lies in why he did it and how—or whether—he will be caught.

In the traditional whodunnit, character rarely amounted to more than a set of Cluedo cards; if everyone has to be a potential suspect, we cannot be allowed to get to know them in any depth. In the inverted form, personality is the key to crime, as evidenced in the work of Patricia Highsmith. The opening chapters of Strangers on a Train (1950) have never been surpassed in this regard: no spray-on blood or cheap thrills, just a sense of dread and of converging destinies. Equally remarkable is The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), in which Highsmith not only reveals the murderer's identity, motives, and intentions, but has the reader cheering him on in horrified collusion. Highsmith's ability to make the darkest forms of behaviour seem natural, even seductive, has been immensely influential, notably in the work of Barbara Vine, Minette Walters, and John Harvey.

This article is about crime fiction—as opposed to non-fiction, or ‘true crime’—but an exception must be made for Truman Capote's self-styled ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood (1966). Capote had read Patricia Highsmith, and there are many echoes of her eerily affectless, detached style in this dramatized re-creation of the brutal and pointless murders of an entire family on a Kansas farm in 1959. Although based strictly on fact, Capote's book employs many of the conventions of crime fiction, and provides fascinating insights into the workings of this ever-popular genre.



Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction