In the following lines, we tell you everything you need to know about the crime novel, including its main characteristics, the most influential works of the genre, and how this type of literature originated.
Literary fiction invites us to discover places in our psyche that are generally unknown to us.
We tend to be curious about the twisted mind of a serial killer, which in turn motivates us to solve the puzzle that each crime represents. If you identify with this premise, this article is for you.
Are you a fan of private detectives or criminal investigation stories? Would you like to write such stories?
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What is a crime novel?
The detective novel is a literary subgenre in which criminal acts and the investigation of those crimes are narrated.
The investigator may be a private detective, eccentric or amateur, and most often focuses on a murder.
Because of the crime novel’s few differences from traditional fiction, the subgenre is also known as a «mystery novel», «detective novel», or «murder mystery».
It should not be confused with the crime novel, in which the resolution of the case is not important and violence is usually the protagonist from the plot point of view.
In the crime novel, the audience is given clues or hints of the perpetrator before the narrative itself reveals his identity. In this way, the reader strives to outdo the detective in the investigative process.
Origin of the detective novel
Detective or crime investigation narratives have existed for several centuries. One Thousand and One Nights (7th century) is the earliest known example of detective literature.
Several of his stories include elements of this type of work, such as solving a crime from clues.
In its earliest stage, crime narratives almost always had to do with bandits who robbed “the deserving”.
These early characters had something of a mystery about them, and it was easy for them to spot crime anywhere.
The evolution of the genre
Mademoiselle de Scudéri, written by ETA Hoffman and published in 1819, is also one of the precursor novels of detective fiction.
However, many experts agree that The Rector of Veilbye is the work that inaugurated the genre (Steen Steensen Blicher is the author of this detective novel, published in 1829).
In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe would be responsible for shaping crime fiction with the publication of the story The Crimes of the Rue Morgue.
In the twentieth century, more and more authors added their contributions to the detective novel, which would be consolidated in these decades. Some of the most successful were Carroll John Daily, Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler.
Sherlock Holmes, written by Arthur Conan Doyle, is considered the work responsible for the success of the “locked room” mystery stories.
Agatha Christie is also considered one of the greatest exponents of the genre. Both were crucial in popularizing the genre in a context where the evolution of print media would help elevate crime fiction.
The advent of organized crime in the U.S. popularized gangster stories. People were attracted to the figure of John Dillinger or Al Capone.
Mario Puzo did the same with his masterful depictions of Mafia life in The Godfather, while the Great Depression would open the door to other notable authors, such as James M. Cain and Jim Thompson.
Essential characteristics of the crime novel
Use of crime as a central element
In the detective novel, the plot usually revolves around a crime that seems impossible to solve.
Usually, this crime is a murder, and can be presented in a fragment of the story or be discovered by the characters through clues.
The crime is the most important element of the story, and its complexity is what hooks the reader and motivates him to solve it.
Protagonism of a detective or investigator
Even in stories where the detective is apathetic or disinterested in the crime, at some point the investigator must show interest and become the driving force of the story.
In the crime novel, the narrative is driven by the person investigating the crime, who experiences all sorts of difficult situations along the way.
Antisocial characters and criminals
Although crime novels and crime fiction in general have no limits in terms of depravity, their characters are often unpleasant.
They are usually antisocial, socially isolated people, psychiatric patients, gangsters, criminals and even ordinary people who look as if they have never broken a dish.
Atmosphere of constant tension and danger
It is possible to affirm that the crime novel is suspense literature. In the end, the details and clues about the crime invite the reader to remain tense until its resolution.
In these novels, the closer the investigator gets to discovering the killer, the more dangerous the challenges he faces. Here, the danger grips the reader and keeps him in the story.
The killer’s motivation is a negative emotion
The motive for the crimes described in detective novels almost always has to do with a negative emotion or human weakness, such as hatred, rage, lust, jealousy, desire for power, greed, etc.
For this reason, stories in crime novels often feature crude and street language, which in turn demonstrates social decay.
Most famous crime novels
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
It is the third work of the author and in which Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist. It was published as a series between 1901 and 1902, and tells the story of Holmes’ journey to the desolate moors of Dartmoor.
There he must solve a mysterious crime committed by a supernatural and diabolical entity.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
This crime novel was published in 1919 and was Chandler’s first work of crime fiction.
In it, the renowned detective Phillip Marlowe is hired by a general to help him solve some family problems.
From there begins a dark and violent journey through the most dangerous places in Los Angeles.
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None is one of the British author’s most important crime novels. Published in 1939, the story shows 10 people who meet in a mysterious place owned by a Mr. Owen.
Although these people do not know each other, they are accused of having committed a crime in the past and death begins to haunt them.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré
Published in 1963, this work is one of the author’s essential titles and was considered the best espionage novel in history by Publishers Weekly magazine (2006).
It tells the story of agent Alec Leamas, who pretends to leave the British Secret Service to become a spy in communist Germany.
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose is a detective novel that mixes some elements of mystery and history.
The plot is set in the dogmatic 14th century, and tells the story of the investigation carried out by William of Bakersville and his assistant into a series of mysterious crimes occurring in northern Italy.
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