Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Crime Fiction? What is that?

I had a really interesting experience the other day while I was at the library. I was waiting in line to check out some books and the woman in front of me was asking the clerk if he could help her find something. She explained that she needed some help to find some good crime fiction novels. Then, she added, 'so what kinds of crime fiction are there?' I wished I had my camera with me so I could have immortalized the look on the library clerk's face. Confusion doesn't even begin to cover it. He pointed to a section labeled 'Mystery' and told her to begin there.

When I got home, I started thinking about her question, and wondered just how many types of crime fiction there were. I did some research and found there were quite a number of different types and sub-genres. Let's take a look at some of them.

Beginning with what I see as the main category, crime fiction itself is defined as fiction that deals with certain aspects of crime(s), the criminal(s), and the police and/or detectives who solve them. I'm not sure what I had originally expected to find, but I certainly was surprised by this loose explanation. Surely there's so much more to a crime fiction piece than that; so many different elements and driving factors. Well, looking into this further, I was amazed at what I found.

Let's begin with detective fiction. This is comprised of stories that contain detectives as characters, right? That's what I thought until I dug deeper and found that, not only is that a nonsensical analysis of detective fiction, there are actually several sub-genres of that type of plotline. You can, however, define classic detective fiction as a story that contains a detective, whether they be professional or amateur, who investigates and/or solves a crime, which is often a murder. Within that scope though, are countless variations on that theme.

Hardboiled detective fiction: This is a literary style which portrays crime and violence in an unsentimental way. This was kind of a broad statement, but does give a clue that there's more to it than just throwing in a PI or two.

Detective fiction itself can be broken down into three subcategories as well. You have the whodonit, which is a complex plot-driven variation of the detective story in which the puzzle is the main feature of the story. Then, you have the locked room, which is where a crime, usually murder, is committed under seemingly impossible circumstances and/or the perpetrator continues to escape detection also under seemingly impossible conditions. Lastly, you have the cozy, where any sex and/or violence are downplayed or treated lightly or with a touch of humor.

Inverted detective or howcatchem: This one really intrigues me (Columbo was the best in this regard, in my opinion). This is where commission of the crime is revealed at the beginning, and usually includes the identity of the perpetrator. Where the story goes from there is that it shows you how the detective attempts to solve the mystery and identify the individual(s) responsible.

Then, we come to the sub-genre of a thriller. Thrillers are generally plot-driven vs. character-driven stories. But within thrillers, we also have several variations.

Psychological or suspense thriller: These reverse the formula, and become primarily character-driven. Often the suspense comes from two or more characters preying upon each other's minds.

Legal thriller: The main characters in these stories are usually lawyers and their firms. The concept of justice itself plays a major role. The lawyers in these types of thrillers are usually taking the system on, almost as if they are on a type of quest for truth and the power of good. Frequently, they become so obsessed, they end up putting themselves, their friends and family, and at times, their employers, at peril.

Police procedural: These can be described as a piece of detective fiction which tries to accurately depict the day-to-day activities of the police as they investigate crimes. Novels of this type usually consist of several unrelated crimes since they are focusing on the investigative procedures and skills of the police and detectives working the cases.

Last, but most certainly not least, we have noir--a personal favorite sub-genre of mine. Noir is defined as of or relating to a type of crime literature that features tough, cynical characters, dark plotlines, and bleak settings. Gritty and truly not for the faint of heart.

Looking back, there really isn't just one type of crime fiction story or novel. Crimes, and their involved parties on all sides, are all different, and writing about the same crime can be approached from many different perspectives. This, to me, is what makes this whole area of literature so incredibly fascinating. There are no limits to style or point of view when it comes to writing about crime. Good stuff. Indeed.


  1. This is a great piece, Joyce. You've spent a lot of time researching this and make some great points about the various sub genres within the overall umbrella of crime thrillers. I must admit that when I was writing 'A Study in Red' I wrote it as a dark psychological thriller and never imagined it would actually end up being classified as a crime thriller too, but of course, that's what happened, so it became a kind of 'cross-over' between genres, or maybe, that leads us into yet another sub-genre, the 'cross-over'

    Well done on a very thoughtful post.

    Brian L Porter
    Winner, The Preditors and Editors 'Best Author' Readers Award, 2009.
    Author, A Study in Red - The Secret Journal of Jack the Ripper, Winner the P & E Best Novel Award, 2008

  2. Nice insight into the different categories of crime fiction, Joyce. It really is a hard genre to peg.

  3. Great post, Joyce. It's an interesting question, isn't it? I read a book a few years ago by a scholar named John Scaggs where he divided crime fiction into three categories: the Whodunit, the Howdunit, and the Whydunit.

    In the Whodunit the emphasis is on the mystery, the puzzle. Woolrich, Hammet, Chandler, and Agatha Christie are all different writers but they all have a mystery that you expect to be solved in the last ten pages or so.

    The Howdunit is more about process, either the process of crime or crimefighting (i.e. the heist story or the police procedural). Donald Westlake's Stark novels, and the Precinct novels of Ed McBain, ect.

    The Whydunit is more about the psychology of the criminal. Most noir would fall under this, I assume. Certainly people like Cain and Thompson.

    Thanks for your post. Interesting stuff.

  4. Almsot missed this damn fine piece.

  5. Brian, Thanks so much for stopping by and your comments. That's a good point that you brought up. I wonder how many times that's happened to writers--where they plan to write to kind of fit into a particular slot and when it's done, it's evolved into a completely different category. But, then again, that's what makes the process of creating so exciting. Projects seem to live and breathe and at times, go the way they choose. I received a comment from another writer who stated his crime story combined several sub-genres, and that's an interesting path too. The psychology and perspective of the killer, the detective, police procedures, a bit of romance, the mystery that needs to be unraveled... I'm certain that can work nicely as well. So many different ways to go and choices to make--I wouldn't have it any other way.

  6. Jason, Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It is hard to pin down, but I believe that's a good thing and what makes crime fiction such a fascinating topic to write.

  7. Jake, Thanks for taking time to stop by and for your comments. I love your breakdown into Whodunit, Howdunit and Whydunit. You can break each one of those down a bit further I think, but those three really capture the main categories of crime fiction. Simple, yet they explain so much. Thanks for sharing that!

  8. Paul, Thanks! I always appreciate your comments. I enjoyed researching this just as much as writing it. Thanks so much for taking time to stop by.