The first academic study of crime fiction was Marjorie Nicolson’s The Professor and the Detective (1929). This begins with the observation that a considerable number of her fellow dons are avid fans of detective novels and poses the question of why this should be – much in the manner of someone who wonders why priests visit brothels. She concludes that escapism is involved, but “an escape not from life but from literature”, or at least the kind of “difficult” literature that had caused so much excitement and controversy over the previous two decades, with devices such as “ ‘stream of consciousness’…to engulf us in its Lethean monotony”.
Nicolson is indulgent and patronising, but Edmund Wilson, in his famous article “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?: A second report on detective fiction” (1945), is appalled that modern civilisation can continue to produce and consume such works: “with so many fine books to read…there is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish”. Wilson treats crime fiction as a symptom of low-cultural idleness, whereas Nicolson regards it as a kind of relaxing crossword puzzle for those taxed with higher intellectual commitments. Both see it as a subsidiary to serious literature – and little has changed since.
The classic example of what happens when “literary theory” encounters detective fiction began with a 1956 seminar, later published as an article, by Jacques Lacan on Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Purloined Letter (1845). This initiated a conversation that later involved Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Norman Holland and Barbara Johnson, but any impression that Poe’s puzzle-in-words was being taken seriously was misleading. The high priests of post-structuralism were not interested in its qualities as literature; rather it was a convenient staging post for their debates on language and existence.
Even among those in the academy who treat crime writing as a genre with its own legacies and conventions, we encounter a subtle form of evaluative apartheid. There is an agreed canon of significant authors, but while respectful monographs are produced on, say, the cultural significance of the American “noir” writers of the 1930s, no one expects Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler to feature alongside John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway in studies of 20th-century US fiction. In his 1944 essay “The simple art of murder”, Chandler himself tells us, albeit inadvertently, something of why he and his peers are classified as second-rate writers. He treats Arthur Conan Doyle and British novelists of the so-called Golden Age – notably Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham – with contempt. Each of them, he argues, embeds crime (murder included) in comfortably middle-class settings that protect readers from the grim realities of a world in which criminality and violent death stalk the lives of ordinary people.
The article’s most famous passage goes: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Such a man is Chandler’s most famous narrator, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is a superb creation but utterly implausible. You have to ask: if a poverty-stricken private eye can do such wonderful things with prose, why doesn’t he give up his lousy job and become a writer? Marlowe is, of course, Chandler’s proxy; by merging nastiness with world-weary elegance, the author hopes to shield his writing from the accusation that it belongs in the same class as “pulp”. But, as Chandler knew, the nastiness would always be a selling point of crime writing.
In “The guilty vicarage” (1948), an article for Harper’s Magazine, W. H. Auden echoes Chandler’s dilemma. He is addicted to crime fiction but confused about the nature of its true attraction. Does he, he asks himself, both appreciate the achievements of a gifted writer and feel comforted by the investigator as the instrument of order and justice? Or is it the ghoulish thrill of watching the commission of a crime and the apprehension, even the gruesome punishment, of its perpetrator that enthrals him?
This second possibility is intriguing, given that crime fiction originated not in the Victorian era of Poe, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle but a century earlier, when the novel itself was a blurred hybrid of truth-telling and pure invention. It was effectively founded not by writers but by the men who became the subjects of numerous biographical and fictional works, Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild.
Sheppard was a legendary highwayman who on four occasions escaped from prison after being sentenced to death. At his execution in 1724, it was said that a quarter of London’s population attended the spectacle. Wild was a “thief taker” who turned out to be the first “crooked cop”. Daniel Defoe authored accounts of their lives and roguish activities, but many others followed suit during the subsequent century. Some turned fact into fiction and altered events (for example, allowing Sheppard to escape execution), while others dwelt on the gripping particulars of their escapades and the lurid details of their eventual demises (Wild was also hanged). They were living versions of what conventional crime writers would do their best to suppress.
Eventually, the honest detective would come to dominate the crime novel. In “The typology of detective fiction” (1977), Tzvetan Todorov provides a model of how the genre works. There are two stories, he wrote: the first, involving the crime, occurs before the novel begins; in the second, the detective gradually uncovers the secrets of story number one. Todorov did not, however, refer to how the detective, the link between the two stories, came into being. He arrived at a time when the novel as a whole was falling prey to conventions of self-censorship all too common in the 19th century. In short, the detective was responsible for protecting us from what we really desire: direct knowledge of, even intimacy with, the mindset of a criminal, a man such as Sheppard.
Is it, then, crime fiction’s innate tendency to bowdlerise that causes academia to treat it as worthy of inspection but little respect? This seems unlikely. Certainly, the most popular British crime writers have maintained a somewhat puritanical attitude towards good and bad behaviour. Their detectives and policemen might be flawed, tending towards infidelity, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and so on, but rarely will we be allowed time to empathise with the nefarious instincts of the criminal – and certainly not enjoy witnessing their triumph over the forces of decency. But over the past five decades the US crime novel has returned the reader to the age of Sheppard. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) overturned all the previous conventions of crime writing – Ripley is at once horrifying and magnetic, and he gets away with murder – and any pretence to the maintenance of a moral consensus disappears completely in the novels of Joseph Wambaugh and James Ellroy.
So why haven’t academics revised their classification of crime writing as a separate subgenre and accorded the likes of Highsmith a status similar to Dostoevsky? The answer exposes a paradox that informs all aspects of literary studies. On the one hand, literary theory has crushed attempts to “define” literature as an art form and, as a consequence, abolished evaluation as an element of critical analysis. Academics now feel that it is intellectually naive and ideologically unsound to grade writers and books in terms of their intrinsic qualities. But at the same time, the effect of “theory” on the old-fashioned canon, the “Greats” around which modules are organised, has been negligible. Any lecturer who proposes that Conan Doyle should enjoy equal status with Henry James and Thomas Hardy on a core module covering 19th-century fiction would be treated as suspect, irrespective of the innovative image promoted by their department.
Thus, crime fiction is caught between a reluctance to judge the value of literary works and an enduring, institutionalised version of Nicolson’s model of the genre as a form of lowbrow recreation. We teach it, but in specialised, elective modules that reflect its ghettoised status on separate shelves in bookshops and the segregated columns of review pages. We write about it similarly, yet rarely question its status as not quite acceptable among the “literary” aristocracy.
Richard Bradford is professor of English at the University of Ulster. His Crime Fiction: A Very Short Introduction came out in April. Is Shakespeare Any Good? And Other Questions on How to Evaluate Literature will be published later this year.