A Brief History of Crime

The first detective story is widely considered to be Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). It concerns the killing of a woman and daughter. The Detective, Dupin, became the model for the sleuth that dominates mystery writing. Dupin is a well-educated eccentric who lives in seclusion. Through science and reason, he amazes his younger partner with his deductions whilst he shows the dim-witted police how to it’s done. Forty years on Arthur Conan Doyle used this formula for his Sherlock Holmes stories.

Dupin and Holmes both used the smallest external traces to infer the thoughts of others. They relished the intellectual challenge of pitting their abilities against the police. It is a similar challenge that attracts readers who love to interact with the detective in a race to piece together the clues. This formula has been adopted by Dorothy L Sayer, Agatha Christie, and countless novelists since. After all, the causes of - and motives for - crime have not changed; mainly money, passion or insanity. Underpinning modern TV shows like Monk, The Mentalist and Lie to Me, is the notion that crimes can be solved through rational, scientific thought. Logic and reasoning is used to understand human behavior.

Poe’s idea of a semi-independent investigator, with their own expertise, exists today with James Patterson's Alex Cross and Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, to name a couple. But it’s not just the character Dupin that has created the genre, Poe’s plots did too. The Murders in the Rue Morgue is also the first locked-room mystery, an idea enormously fashionable among writers in the Golden Age of detective fiction. The idea being if the room was locked how was the crime done? Deaver’s The Vanishing Man being one of many modern examples of these author set puzzles.

Poe’s The Gold-Bug, revolves around the deciphering of a code leading to buried treasure. Stevenson used the idea in Treasure Island, Conan Doyle employed a similar device in The Dancing Men, and Dan Brown has proved that code breaking remains a popular hook.

Another branch of crime fiction that owes much to Poe is what I call forensic fiction. Deriving solutions from forensic science (in Poe’s case the markings on a bullet) is prevalent in much of today’s crime. Step forward Kathy Riech, Patricia Cornwell, and a plethora of CSI shows.

It would be wrong of me not to mention the impact of other writers on contemporary crime fiction. The hardboiled, urban crime writing, popularized by the pulp magazines and Noir cinema remains influential. Raymond Chandler (influenced by the 1st hardboiled novel The Jungle) adopted a style and voice that changed the genre and a new detective was born. The 35 to 45 year old hard drinking, chain smoking, coffee loving, gun wielding, fist throwing hero, who lives and works in a big city with a rootless population.

Whoever your influences one thing is for sure, the sleuth who endeavors to fathom, defeat, or solve, through reason and action, is not about to go away.