History of crime fiction ... from folk tales to festivals

The group discussed Sherlock Holmes.
The group discussed Sherlock Holmes.

By Isabel Sharp

Last week the members of the Lit enjoyed a very entertaining talk on the history of crime fiction by Allan Martin.

He started by pointing out that much fiction contains a crime without being categorized as crime fiction.

Allan took us on a journey through history from the oral tradition of ballads, folk tales and epic poems right up to the literary festivals of today such as Bute Noir. He explained how changes in technology, society and the law have influenced authors over time.

In the 18th century only the wealthy and educated could enjoy works by authors such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, which included crimes. Gradually broadsheets reached a larger market where readers could enjoy the thrills and gasp in horror at Dick Turpin and Frankenstein.

It was the 19th century before the true birth of ‘crime fiction’ occurred.

This was driven by advances in technology, both cheaper paper and printing, and a more educated readership with more disposable income.

Allan suggested that the first dedicated crime writer was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) who featured a lone detective – an upper-class intellectual who solved problems by thinking rather than by simply chasing villains.

From 1850 onwards, when cheaper newspapers included crime reporting and stories, sensational novels came to the fore. These were melodramatic, had crime at the centre, many plot twists, and focussed on the dark side of respectable society.

The 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes, an independent professional detective who solved crimes by deduction. He was a complex, attractive character who was very influential in the burgeoning genre.

Allan continued through the 20th century, highlighting how theories of crime changed, and on to the popular constant action style of ‘thrillers’ – e.g. Four Just Men and Fu Manchu.

Just after WWI mainly middle class women became the prime readers. Allan questioned if this was post-war escapism and a reassurance of social stability. The clue / puzzle format was established with an upsurge of female writers – Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayer.

Sub-genres have followed in quick succession, such as the darker stories of gangsters and corruption of Raymond Chandler, spy thrillers involving ordinary people caught up in international skulduggery, the police procedurals such as Inspector Morse, and the more recent topic of serial killers.

Allan showed a wonderful short film advertising the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon which makes an interesting comparison with later films like Silence of the Lambs where psychologists are involved and the hunt becomes a personal quest of the detective. The popularity of crime fiction does not abate and Scotland has its fair share of writers in this field – e.g. Alex Gray, Caro Ramsay and Craig Robertson. Many in the audience went home planning to re-read an old favourite ‘detective story’.

The Lit will start 2018 with Ken Colville talking on King George V as a Sailor on Tuesday, January 16.