This Is Not A Test: Questions About Crime Novels


While I cleared all of the second-rate crime novels from the shelves that I have hung onto for sentimental reasons, I was thinking about what crime novels could or should be. Here are a few questions I have about crime fiction in general.

Crime accounts for over a third of all fiction published in the English language. The genre is deceptive because it crosses literary borders. Should we regard any book as a crime novel just because somebody dies violently in it, or does the story require an act of detection?

Crime novels began as whimsical constructs, devices for torquing tension, withholding information and springing surprises, but they slowly became encrusted by rules and then complaints that the rules were being broken. Do we still need rules in crime fiction?

At the time of Oscar Wilde’s trial, one newspaper suggested that decent men were being driven into the arms of boys because their wives were too busy being feminists and everything would go back to normal if they returned to making jam. In the 1950s youth clubs were installed on estates in a doomed attempt to switch anti-social teens to ping-pong. Do you think crime novels should reflect such times or be set non-specifically and remain escapist? Can they ever be both?

Which crime novels do you consider to have changed the game? Please don’t cite ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, which although valid has been dissected enough. Why are there so few experimental crime novels?  The only one I can think of is ‘Hawthorn and Child’. Doesn’t the idea of investigating a confounding set of circumstances offer a fertile ground for experimentation?

Domestic suspense is a sub-genre that has returned to form with a series of powerful, mostly American, novels (I don’t count Paula Hawkins’ execrable, mystifying ‘Girl on a Train’). Created in the late 1940s but really flourishing in Eisenhower’s America, domestic suspense was not just the province of female authors (although they were the best) and set ground rules that have been maintained. I tried to pull a switch on the genders by using a gay man in the role of ‘housewife’ in ‘Little Boy Found’ (God, how I hate that title) because genders have switched in every other sub-genre. So what’s the best domestic suspense novel you’ve ever read?

Please don’t write on both sides of the paper at once.

39 comments on “This Is Not A Test: Questions About Crime Novels”

  1. Dave Young says:

    Charlotte Carter’s ‘Nanette Hays’ trilogy should (when first published in the ’90s) have been a game changer. OK, it’s something of a cult hit now – but that doesn’t make the rent
    Blinkered timidity meant a tautly written series featuring a sax-playing, statuesque, MA educated, sexually confident, jazz fanatic American never got the big time publishing break it deserved
    Ah, but she was female and white male publishing execs don’t know how/can’t be arsed (delete according to cynicism) to market something so original. And what a film the first book, Rhode Island Red’ could have made…

  2. Peregrine says:

    Well several of Patricia Highsmiths novels could come under domestic suspense, perhaps Ediths Diary as prime example. And purportedly many of her male characters were versions of herself.
    I don’t think Ackroyd particularly changed the game, but it did have (as far as I am aware the first of its type ) that original conceit for the denouncement.
    And changing the game, can mean different things to different people. Joseph’s Hansen’s Branstetter, I thought changed the way a detective, who happened to be gay, was portrayed positively, but more importantly believably.

  3. Peregrine says:

    Correct myself, Brandstetter was a insurance investigator, who happened to get involved!

  4. SteveB says:

    I really enjoy the Brandstetter series, apart from being really well written, it was pitched just right for me as a straight guy – not coy, but also not too much detail!!!

  5. SteveB says:

    John Franklin Bardin, Devil Take the Blue Tail Fly?? Does that count?

  6. snowy says:

    “Should we regard any book as a crime novel just because somebody dies violently in it, or does the story require an act of detection?”

    It’s a question, but it is not semantically ‘well-formed’.

    Creating a taxonomy to solve this question alone is difficult, [have you ever seen a 3D Euler diagram?, it makes my brain hurt just thinking about it], and even if you did it would only be of interest to professional librarians, [and internet pedants].

    “Crime novels began as whimsical constructs…”

    Not really, at least in my opinion, they are a very advanced development of the puzzle/riddle.

    “..but they slowly became encrusted by rules and then complaints that the rules were being broken.”

    Difficult to untangle, [doubtless the failing is mine], the allusion to ‘Father Knox’s Decalogue’ is obvious, but that Ronald Knox had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote it is less commonly understood. It comes from a self-appointed group of writers deciding what was and what wasn’t ‘proper’. It was driven partly by a certain narcissistic snobbishness and partly with a commercial eye to what the reading public would not put up with.

    “Do we still need rules in crime fiction?”

    If I can suggest that they are not rules as in immutable laws, but expectation norms, then: bending, breaking, twisting or teasing readers’ expectations is part of a writers arsenal and necessary if the novel form is not to stagnate.

    “Do you think crime novels should reflect such times or be set non-specifically and remain escapist? Can they ever be both?”

    Appears to ask how much an author can deviate from ‘historical fact’ in the service of producing a good story. ‘Historical fact’ in the literary sense is a construction imposed by the reader, based on their own knowledge of past events, which has been gleaned by reading other books and is mutable, extremely individual and almost impossible for a writer to anticipate exactly. For example if one was to read: “Pass me the gimp-mask Watson – I promised I’d give Mrs Hudson a good seeing-to after Supper.”, the seasoned reader would know they were not necessarily in the ‘classic canon’, but someone new to the stories might not.

    I really must pause here, else it will go all ‘Scanners’, [getting blood and brain fragments out of Jacquard weave curtains is a total pain].

  7. Roger says:

    Youth clubs were descendants of boys clubs and community settlements – founded by public schools and universities for the benefit of…er…the public in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They had considerable effects both on the would-be-good Do-as-you-would be-done-bys who ran them – Clement Attlee, for example – and the people who went to them. In the 1960s, it wasn’t ping-pong that attracted me to a youth club, but the revelation that there actually were people who gave a damn about anyone else from pure altruism.

    An obvious example of an experimental crime novel is The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor. It shows the obvious faults of experimental novels – it isn’t very good, to put it politely – but that’s true of most experimental novels. Other novelsts apply the lessons they learn from them much more effectively.

    Does the term “crime novel” actually mean anything except to a bunch of people who have nothing else in common with each other but gather together as “crime novelists” – rather like youth clubs, in fact? There aren’t many novels that couldn’t fit in the category: “The greater the fortune, the greater the crime.” said Balzac of what inspired his own works, and I always quote The Ring and the Book as both the greatest crime novel and the greatest long poem in the English language when I want to end conversations before they get boring.

  8. kevin says:

    I think one could include several novels by Ruth Rendell under the domestic suspense category. I really enjoyed Judgement in Stone and think it one of her best books.

  9. admin says:

    These raise questions of my own.
    Why is noir always associated with jazz? It feels such a cliché. (Although I’ll try Charlotte Carter.)
    Face on the Cutting Room Floor – yes! I’d forgotten the McCabe.
    Ackroyd’s ‘Hawksmoor’ is a good choice.
    AD Miller’s ‘Snowdrops’ is a game changer.
    Snowy, you’re overthinking the questions, not answering them.

  10. Bob Low says:

    Jazz is often described, rightly or wrongly, as the only genuinely indigenous American art form, which makes it the perfect soundtrack to noir, which mostly found it’s greatest expression in American films of the forties and fifties. Coincidentally, the forties was also the decade in which Jazz itself started to become less associated with the dance music of the swing era, and developed into a more intense, less conventionally melodic, and occasionally unsettling listening experience, which again makes it a fitting accompaniment to the sort of stories told in noir films.

    The crime fiction I read was mostly American, and in the ’80s, and I’d say that the real gamechanger of that era was James Ellroy.

  11. Roger says:

    There’s also the French critics and – especially – film-makers who invented the term film noir. Most of them were jazz fans as well and used jazz in the foreground and background in many of their films, which often feature night clubs and jazz musicians.

    Even if he wasn’t experimental formally, “Michael Innes” was a postmodernist and Oulipian before the terms were invented – he used all of the standard tropes and clichés of crime fiction and other literature and stirred them all together,

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    Freidrich Durrenmatt: The Pledge
    Stanislaw Lem: The Chain of Chance
    Marc Behm: The Eye of the Beholder

    They are all experimental, gripping and, in the case of Lem, a tremendous antidote to everything we are led to believe about detection.

  13. RE: Q1 RJ Barker’s truly wonderful Wounded Kingdom books are, on the face of it, high fantasy with magic and assassins guilds and all that jazz. But on closer inspection each one is a finely constructed murder mystery with a very unlikely detective. All the reviews place them firmly in ‘fantasy’ but for my money they have more in common with Christie than Tolkein. I’d certainly call them crime – there is a murder, and a protagonist who solves it – but it seems I’m in the minority.

  14. Bob Low says:

    Roger – it’s too easy to take for granted that ‘noir’ is French – for a moment, I had a flashback to George W Bush’s famous remark about the French not producing entrepreneurs because ‘they don’t even have a word for it’.

    Peter – nice to be reminded of Lem’s brilliant, ingenious subversion of detective fiction.

  15. SteveB says:

    Snowdrops is a good book but I wouldn‘t think of it as a gamechanger. I think as a reader I see things differently, I have often noticed Admin ‚looks behind‘ in a way I din‘t.
    I‘ve never heard of these Wounded King books sounds fun!
    Christie did many innovations not only Ackroyd. Fir instance Compartiment Tueurs which is one of my favourite thrillers is basically ABC murders.

  16. snowy says:

    Q1 Answer: No and No.

    Well if you are going to use terms with fuzzy definitions, [dead cheeky].

    The Crime Novel is an intersection of sets, but need not contain elements of every set.


    The Adventure of the Red Headed League contains both a Detective and Crime but no Body.

    The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane contains a Body, a Detective but no Crime.

    The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter contains a Detective but no Crime.

    The Italian Job, [OK, it’s a film – so shoot me!], has Crime, but no Detective or Body.

  17. snowy says:

    Experimental novels:

    L’Amante Anglaise by Marguerite Duras

    A woman, murdered. Dismembered body parts found on goods trains around France – all except the head.

    Anicet: or the Panorama by Louis Aragon

    It’s Dadaist, so pretending it has a plot, would be foolish.

    Les Gommes by Alain Robbe-Grillet

    For nine days in a row, someone has been murdered at exactly the same time, between seven and eight in the evening, but each killing has occurred in a different part of the country.

    [I’ve not read any of them, don’t blame me if they are all complete rubbish.]

  18. Joel says:

    A crime novel, to me, is a story which contains a crime (or at least something someone sees as an act or offence which needs righting) and one or more of a detective, a motive, a solution and a setting relevant to one or more of all of those.

    Crime stories cross genres – one of my favourites is (both book and film) Len Deighton’s “The Ipcress File”. I haven’t seen crime as a ‘genre’ for a long time – there’s mystery is a lot of tales which although not crime-set have the elements of crime within them – spy and espionage for example. Great example (to me) of this is John Le Carre’s [sorry, can’t put the acute accent on the e] “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

    But if you just want pure venal crime and great adventure, try Dashiell Hammet’s “The Maltese Falcon”, but (spoiler alert) like the ‘The Ipcress File’ the book is significantly different from the film, including the endings in both cases.

  19. Liz Thompson says:

    I don’t know about game changers, what works for one may go over the head of another, but I’ve just read two British Library reprints that at least surprised and entertained me: Family Affairs and Murder of an Aunt.

  20. Experimentalism for its own sake is immensely irritating : Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy (1985/86) is an example of clever dick posturing which makes my teeth itch.

    The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco was a lot better even if you skate over the dazzling surface without being able to decipher the semiotics which are apparently teeming underneath.

  21. Theophylact says:

    The City and The City by China Miéville.

  22. SteveB says:

    The first two John le Carre Smiley books were very much standard whodunits

  23. SteveB says:

    I think maybe The Name of the Rose was an enabler for The Quincunx.

    I don‘t think innovation or experimentalism is the same as game changer.

    That‘s why I voted for Devil take… because I think it was both innovative and a first of its kind. The other two, Last of Philip Banter and Deadly Percheron, are also innovative but not game changers. Ditto Fredric Brown, things like Night of the Jabberwock or Far Cry.

    Fred Vargas‘s books similarly.

    Another book I was wondering if it qualifies is Gene Wolfe‘s Peace.

  24. snowy says:

    I feel like I’m ‘drinking the finger bowl’ here, but being in…

    Q2 Answer: There are no rules, there never were rules, if you thought there were rules, you imagined it, [except for the ones you made for yourself].

    But there are the expectations of the reader, a writer can bend, twist, subvert etc. these. However this freedom comes with risks, chiefly nobody buys the book and the invitations to the ‘Rubber-Chicken Circuit’ dry up.

  25. snowy says:

    Q3 Answer: Yes you can have your cake and eat it, if you are clever enough.

    But I’m not sure I’m reading the question correctly; because it can be expressed in two forms:



    [Needs more absinthe!]

  26. Jan says:

    I never really saw “Hawksmoor” as a crime novel even though murder features in it….more a sort of a very dark comedy /horror. Inspired by a really odd poem by your old mate Ian Sinclair. The poem being even odder than the novel. Bernie INSISTED once that we visit all the places mentioned in that poem. Not one of my 10 best days getting to visit some world war 2 fixed gun installation post somewhere over Waltham Forest. Or gazing at odd Windows in some brewery. Seriously we seen some sights that day

    Mind you we saw a load of vagies (gents of the road) in the darkening early evening gathered around small bonfires around Christchurch Spitalfields. I can still remember how that looked really made an impression on us both. Primeval it was in a sense. All these wild men misfit people near that crazy place. There IS something odd about them churches. Not evil exactly but not right. They are all wrong – they feel wrong there’s something up with them honestly I’m sure.

    I am w8ing for that “City in the City” to turn up in a Phone box library. Loved it on the Telly. That was more SF than crime surely? China Mielville. Great name…

    Does a crime novel HAVE to be a some level a whodunnit? Is it a requirement or just a convenient combination – a convention really? Can’t think of a crime novel that isn’t a whodunnit? . But that may be cos I am proper tired.

    I enjoy the Philip Rickman Merrily Watson crime novels. “The Man in The Moss” one of his earlier non mystery novels is better still.

  27. Jan says:

    What the F**k are you talking about Snowy? You’re making my head ache!!!

    Have you lost the thread of things or what? I have dropped a stitch or two trying to follow you

    I reckon you’ve gone Dadaist that’s the very direction where you seem to be heading this evening maybe you’ve lost the plot or would it just be foolish to think there was much of a plot in the first off.

  28. snowy says:

    Sorry Jan, the questions are a bit woolly, [which gives me too much freedom to run wild].

    “Does a crime novel HAVE to be a some level a whodunnit? Is it a requirement or just a convenient combination – a convention really? Can’t think of a crime novel that isn’t a whodunnit?”

    In “The Problem of Thor Bridge”, a woman’s body is found, the evidence: incriminating note, murder weapon, points toward her husband’s lover. The who is is all tied up at the very start, but the husband disagrees and ask the detective to solve ‘howdunnit’.

    [Perhaps a more accessible answer to Q3 is ‘Life on Mars’?]

  29. Jan says:

    I’ve had a good kip now Snowy apologies for the abuse -things are becoming a bit easier to grasp.

    I’m as daft as you are really ……….is there clear difference between a thriller, a crime story and a detective story a whodunnit? Are there overlap novels?

    A bit ago I read a good London story, dunno who the writer was. I think some woman journo from East London. She was writing about a youngster who had gone off to Turkey for onward transmission into the Islamic caliphate after having being groomed into terrorism and becoming a jihadist vride .

    This matter being investigated by a private (Xjob) teccie who had previously been a soldier in the the 2nd Iraq war -the conflict after 9/11 and his colleague and love interest was a British Asian victim of a forced marriage he had rescued who was now his x lover. Don’t even know it’s title (which comes of me being such a numpty) but this was a was good crime novel. Part of a series and had definitely moved things on a bit from the body in the library A.C. Type detective story.

    The lady Tec went onto the internet for the terrorist groomer to believe he was dealing with some impressionable 15 year old to be tempted into becoming a jihadi bride. Was really good.

  30. Jan says:

    The problem of Thor bridge sounds like it was a sort of version of Columbo.

    Not highbrow Columbo or me. I honestly can’t bring this American painters guys name to mind.

  31. David Ronaldson says:

    Fiction becomes Crime Fiction when the Crime is the McGuffin central to the plot.

  32. snowy says:

    “….is there clear difference between a thriller, a crime story and a detective story a whodunnit?”

    This is where the problems start.

    Thriller is a style.
    Crime is a plot element
    Detective is a character type
    Whodunnit is a format

    Stories are formed by blending/mixing together lots of ingredients; for example ‘Outland’ [1981], which is a Western whodunnit conspiracy thriller – in space!

  33. Helen Martin says:

    You start with what David said and then look at what Snowy said last. The two of them agree on “crime” because the major importance of the plot element is how fiction gets sub-divided (romance/fantasy/science fiction/adventure) at least in my library. I protested because I figured people would just go to their favourite section and never sample other genres, but I’m an elementary school librarian and worked on more exposure. I was right, of course, including myself and have to force myself into unknown territory. Anything that doesn’t fit into the labels or is a “Classic” goes into “general fiction”. Under Crime you get detective and police procedural a duality which sometimes overlaps. Whodunnit is not really a thing because the crime fiction that doesn’t ask you to work out who committed the crime is very small and often belongs in psychological fiction where you’re being asked Why or some other aspect of the person’s character. Thriller is a style though and could appear in any of the categories or as a category of its own.
    I’m not sure any of this makes sense, but it’s how I think of it.

  34. snowy says:

    H, with your professional eye sharpened; where would you shelve ‘The Caves of Steel’ by Isaac Asimov?

  35. Annemarie Pondo says:

    Martin Cruz’s Smith novels have international crime
    Walter mosley novels are special American crime settings and if course pd james is the ultimate in the old fashion psychology of crime.
    Prayers for ur suffering

  36. Helen Martin says:

    I haven’t read Caves of Steel but there’s a “librarian” answer: where would people expect to find it? What is the dominant element? I think most people would agree that it is a science fiction story that happens to be about a crime and Isaac Asimov is a science fiction writer so that’s where it goes. This organisational methodology can have unfortunate results as with a book of Tony Hillerman’s that was filed in “mystery” when it was an account of
    an actual crime – The Great Taos Bank Robbery.That’s when you throw up your hands and either create another category – True Crime – or put all crime true, fictional, or fantastic in one category. I think this is another reason why I don’t care much for sub categories in fiction. Back when Mr. Dewy (spit, bleah) developed his system most writing was non-fiction so he divided, sub divided and sub sub divided that with “fiction” not really a thing. There is “literature” for things like Dickens and the Aeniad and “theatre” for Shakespeare and Sheridan and “poetry” for Wordsworth and ee cumming.
    What this boils down to is that sub dividing fiction is walking in a nest of vipers.

  37. snowy says:

    And with that expert testimony, Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, the case for the Prosecution rests.

    [The court will now rise and adjourn to the ‘MP and Brown Envelope’ for a pint of ‘Olde Wig-Spinner’ and a bag of scratchings.]

  38. Ian Luck says:

    A Dadaist explantion of murder? That surely would be a torn blue umbrella, bundled together with a silken rope, attached to a collection of brass fire irons, and placed on an asymetrical plinth on top of a hessian covered piano, with all black keys, save middle ‘C’, which is bright green, and is held down by a folded photograph of Sitting Bull. The strings of the piano have all been cut, and tied to a rusty wheel from s steam engine. The wheel is struck repeatedly with a tiny hammer, powered, through a clock’s gear chain, by a mouse, wearing a tiny cardboard crown, running in a wheel in it’s cage. In front of all this, two ink-covered capering ninnies in ruined straw boaters cavort randomly, as ‘Le Pétomaine’ farts pages of an 1895 copy of Bradshaw’s Handbook into the street. A large cardboard label in front of all this reads:

  39. Ian Luck says:

    The invitations for the above were etched into a gross of anvils, which had to be shown on leaving, meaning they had to be carried around by each guest, and inscribed on each was:
    ‘You are invited to throw sticks at a picture of a dirigible. Female guests can then have a fag and a jellybaby, and those not female, are cordially invited for a piss and a singe.’
    No time, address or date was included.

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