Classics of Crime Fiction
This short course will look at some major successes of crime fiction, reaching over time and place from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1840s America (but set in France), through Arthur Conan Doyle’s uncertain London, Agatha Christie’s disrupted rural English peace and Raymond Chandler’s threat-laden Los Angeles, to the modern complexity of Sara Paretsky’s feminist Chicago and Peter Temple’s conflict-ridden Australia.
Detective fiction is a form of story developed in the nineteenth century to respond to the new threats and anxieties of urban society. In London, the largest of the new great cities of Western mercantile society, where nobody knew anyone else reliably, and any hand might be against your property or your life, the police were established as a real-world protection in 1829. But humble policing was not potent enough in mythic terms, and writers invented knowledgeable specialists to identify the enemies of society through a mix of close observation and the aura of science.
The series of major detective successes in fiction marks varying ways of perceiving threats and ways of imagining security in different contexts. In both the values set up in crime fiction as valid to operate against social disorder, and the differing forms of that disorder, we will see how concepts of gender, class and personal value mutate across time to produce a widely-accepted and to us now remarkably revealing set of ideas about the kinds of crimes that most threatened the self, and how people might imagine measures to be taken, in fiction at least, against those modern anxieties. That the writers have convinced, or at least intrigued, the contemporary audiences by their beguiling mix of threats and resolutions is strongly suggested by the massive sales of the genre – it is estimated that 25% of all books sold are crime fiction.
Edgar Allan Poe, the three ‘Dupin’ stories, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1841-5: ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Mystery of Marie-Roget’, ‘The Purloined Letter’
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1891-2: ‘A Case of Identity’, ‘The Speckled Band’, ‘The Cardboard Box’
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939
Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only, 1982