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A brief history of crime fiction

Jesper introduces the genre of crime fiction by highlighting a number of key traits that stand out in its evolution.
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Hi, everyone. In this video step, I’m going to give you a brief overview of the history of crime fiction from its alleged beginnings in the early 19th century up until the present day. I say alleged because this standard narrative of the history of crime fiction that you find in introductions and handbooks, etc. probably needs to be complicated in various ways. It’s not as simple as that but for the present purposes and in interest of giving you an overview of the genre, it might and still be the right way to go. So let’s begin with the first of six formats that I want to highlight for you. It’s what you could call The Classic or
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sort of 19th Century Victorian Crime Fiction. It starts with Edgar Allan Poe and it continues with Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. It’s a type of detective fiction that’s focused very much on the character of the superhuman detective - someone with immense powers of reasoning and deduction and observation, someone who can make sense in the chaos of urban life - because many of these stories are in fact set in the modern metropolis. So that’s the emphasis here on logic and deduction, on scientific reasoning, echoing development of contemporary policing, which we’ll talk more about as we go on in this course.
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The second type of crime fiction I want to talk about is what is known as Golden Age Detective Fiction, typically associated with the UK in the period from the 1920s to the 1940s. The main figure is Agatha Christie and we’ll be reading Appointment with Death later on. So the Golden Age format is often referred to as ‘cosy’ in the sense that it presents readers with an unmenacing mystery - typically, violence - it doesn’t play a key role, at least it’s not described in any serious way, and it always ends with the restitution of social order.
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So things return to normal, as it were and we get a confirmation that the reigning social order is a good one and a right one, whereas crime and murder are only exceptional occurrences.
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Historically, this is often related to the trauma of the First World War, you know, following or the death and and the violence of that war. People wanted some kind of, like, escapism. They didn’t want to be confronted with traumatic things in literature, having experienced it in life. The third format I want to talk about is the American
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counterpoint to Golden Age, which is referred to often as the Hard-boiled Crime Novel or Noir simply. It’s a type of crime fiction that’s very strongly associated with urban crime in the American metropolis of the 1920s and 30s. So organised crime, the Mafia, prostitution, prohibition -all those types of criminal activities that were sort of impacting on American social life at that period in time. The main character is typically a man and typically a tough guy who has a physical presence, as it were, who can fight, fight it out with the bad guys, someone who’s unsentimental and not given to overthinking things or having a deep sort of emotional side to their personality. And
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someone who is a bit of a blank sheet in the sense that we don’t know very much about them and so someone who is streetwise, someone who is capable of surviving in the mean streets. That’s the key to the hero of the Hard-boiled American Crime Novel. Now, the fourth format is perhaps the one that’s most important in a contemporary sense is the Police Procedure. It emerged in America like the Hard-boiled in the 1940s and 50s. A key figure is Ed McBain who has written 50, 60 odd police procedures over a 50-year period.
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You can also think of Dragnet, which is a very important radio and then later TV show that ran for several, you know, multiple seasons in the 50s and 60s. And the police procedure is characterised by following the actual police work of a precinct typically. So the focus is not on an individual character necessarily, although that does occur, but on the team working together and typically it’s a team of individuals who are not particularly smart or you know - don’t necessarily have amazing powers of deduction but together as a team, they work as a well-oiled machine and they manage to get the criminal behind bars as it were.
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Often, there’s a focus on forensic science and police procedures and you know, the various kinds of scientific work that support police work. We’ll talk more about that later in the course. The fifth format I want to talk about is the Postmodern or Metaphysical Crime Novel. It’s a format that has a long history. It also emerged in the 1940s and still around to date, to some degree, although it probably had its heyday in the 80s and 90s. Key authors are Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer and his story definitely encompass which set the whole thing in motion, arguably in the 1940s.
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It’s a kind of — and then you have others - Umberto Eco, Paul Auster and Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Laureate from Turkey and key to the Postmodern Crime Novel is this idea that the criminal mystery is not really the centre of attention. It’s used instead as a vehicle with which the author can or through which the author can explore deeper sort of philosophical questions around life and the meaning of existence in that language and the nature of being and stuff like that. So it’s a sort of a distinctly highbrow and somewhat philosophical subform of the crime genre.
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The last version or the last format I want to talk about is not really a format at all. It’s what I would propose to call World Crime Fiction. It’s simply a way of acknowledging that crime fiction today, and that’s been the case for a while now, is a global phenomenon. Arguably, crime fiction is more global than any other literary genre. You can get crime fiction in any country on the planet virtually, and even where you can’t get it. That’s interesting in itself. So crime fiction is produced and consumed virtually everywhere on the planet, and that’s something we should be mindful of.
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It’s important to note as well that that World Crime Fiction is not simply a matter of other countries taking over the models that we’ve developed in the West, in the UK and the US and simply copying that. What happens when crime fiction crosses borders and the format is adopted in a different foreign context is that the format changes. It’s inflected and adapted to local circumstances. And that’s interesting too to know and interesting to study how crime fiction today is evolving very rapidly as a result of those transnational connections, etc. So those are the six formats I wanted to talk about and I want to conclude with the caveat of sorts, just like I started with a caveat.
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It’s important not to take these six categories too seriously. Obviously, I’m leaving things out here. But most importantly, I’m leaving out you all the hybrid forms that exist and all the crime texts and novels and short stories, etc. that don’t follow one specific format but blends and merges ideas and devices from different ones. And arguably, if World Crime Fiction today is an important form, Hybrid Crime Fiction that crosses over and blends genres is also very important and a very dominant way of doing crime fiction today. Thank you.

In this video, I highlight a number of key traits that stand out in the evolution of the crime fiction genre. It’s quite likely that you’ve already noticed some of these formats and patterns on your own. The ‘police procedural’ is a particularly common one and is a primary source for some of the painful puns that you’re likely to see littered throughout this course.

Good cop, bad cop

I mentioned towards the end of the video that that some of these crime fiction categories and formats have been mixed together to form hybrids. Are there any particular format combinations that you’re fond of? Are there any that you think have been done to death?

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Classic Detective Fiction

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