Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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3Crime Fiction and Women


Crime has a long tradition which goes back to the prehistoric times, only in the written form crime fiction appears relatively recently as one of the literary genres in its current structure. Crime fiction clearly deals with crimes, the wide-ranging criminals and their motives, the detectives and their detection, and surely the intriguing clues. Most of the crime novels share a common notable structure which involves in general a murder, afterwards the investigation proceeds, and eventually detection concludes the whole story. Flexibility characterizes the genre and thus makes it appealing on account of its huge variety of crimes which gives the author chance to improvise and offer various kinds of investigation. Women become part of the genre mainly in the last century, starting with Agatha Christie, and they produce excellent works throughout the twentieth century up to this day.  

3.1Crime Fiction and its Historical Background


Crime fiction means a work of fiction in which the evidence related to a crime or to a mysterious event is so presented that the reader has an opportunity to consider solutions to the problem, the author’s solution being the final phase of the piece. Thus it represents type of popular literature dealing with the step-by-step investigation and solution of a crime, usually the murder. The detective story differs from mainstream fiction and other genres, such as science fiction or historical fiction, but boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred. The detective genre covers not only whodunits, but also thrillers, courtroom dramas, or hard-boiled fiction. Therefore the reader might find it difficult to define a typical crime story, but these novels share a common structure and possess the traditional elements of the detective story at least.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica offers one of many definitions of the genre which follows main features of the detective story; first the novel “begins with the seemingly perfect crime, usually a murder; then the investigation process follows with wrongly accused suspect at whom circumstantial evidence points; and finally ends with the resolution or judgment of greater powers of observation and superior mind of the protagonist detective, and subsequent criminal’s arrest or death” (Britannica, 39). These facts summarize the idea of a crime novel and point out the basic features of the genre and hence shapes the traditional concept of crime fiction which should, but sometimes fails to, be followed by the particular detective story author.

In crime fiction, the reader usually takes part in an investigation; this phase frequently includes a mysterious murder. One of the significant features covers a closed circle of people involved somehow in the murder. Each of them has an ulterior motive which connects him or her with the victim and these suspects create the group from which the investigator must choose the murderer in the end. The Great Detective’s task is to question and examine certain suspects to identify the killer. According to P. D. James, crime fiction of the Golden Age was “marked by a dominant detective, usually amateur, with emphasis on the ingenuity of the puzzle and the brilliance of the detection” (P. D. James, 3). The reader follows the text and imperceptible hints given by the author who helps him or her to guess who the murderer is. Eventually, the culprit is brought to light and the reader can point out the relevant and logical clues mentioned in the novel in the previous stages. This game between the author and the reader produces an interesting characteristic of the detective novel. The author proposes an exciting reading where the reader’s ‘little grey cells,’ as Christie’s Great Detective Hercule Poirot would put it, start to work on the investigation. The art of writing a detective story had to be specified, in other words, in particular the traditional author was to follow some rules of the genre.

In 1928 Ronald A. Knox, sometimes called Father Knox, formulated a set of rules for writing detective fiction. One of the first rules explains how the murderer conducts in the story, “the criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow,” which corresponds with another rule, “the detective must not himself commit the crime,” or lastly, “the stupid friend of the detective [...] whose intelligence must be slightly below that of the average reader” (Wright) appears in the text, which creates the above stated game between the author and the reader. Besides the three rules mentioned before, Father Knox stresses ten of them altogether, which basically limit crime fiction boundaries for writing the detective novel: he deals with supernatural elements which must be avoided in the story, or he requests all sorts of poisons that must be known to the reader, no secret rooms to be allowed in the narrative, also mentions that no accident should help the detective to solve the problem, or no twin brother can finally appear at the scene. The traditional detective story thus displaced very specific limitations and creating a masterpiece in the genre meant a difficult task as the priority lay in the puzzle and the solution.

The detective story originated at the end of the nineteenth century and reached its peak in the twentieth century. It started to be considered a genre only towards the end of the nineteenth century, “crime has nevertheless been the foundation for an entire genre of fiction for over one hundred and fifty years” (Stevenson 1), even though before there were a lot of allusions to detective fiction. The genre, in general, originated in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. Since, it steadily expanded on throughout the United States, France, and Britain and by the turn of the twentieth century, as Stevenson declares, crime fiction was widely acknowledged as the new and unique type of literature.

It is though hard to find the exact point when the genre was born, but one of the first Great Detectives originated towards the end of the nineteenth century, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle (1880-1920), who considerably contributed to the popularity of the genre, produced this detective, famous for his logical reasoning and careful observation of detail. Sherlock Holmes stands for the defender of justice, and so do his followers and successors. Holmes’ mysteries are conventionally defined as ‘locked-room mysteries’, which refer to “a type of crime story whose central mystery is that a crime – usually a murder – has occurred in a room which seems to be hermetically sealed, allowing the criminal neither entrance to nor exit from” (Scaggs 146). Scaggs also claims that the locked-room mysteries are closely associated with the Golden Age, which covers the period between the two World Wars, as mentioned below.

The twentieth century saw a great boom in crime fiction and can be divided into two major categories that encompass only women detective story writers. Women authors became a significant part of crime fiction and devoted their lives to the English detective story with their contribution to the genre and indisputably began to possess the leading roles. Providing the two categories; the First Wave of the English Queens of Crime, also called the Golden Age of the detective story, started in 1920 with the publication of Christie’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles and ended in 1937 with the publication of Sayers’ last novel Busman’s Honeymoon, includes one of the best world-known detective story female writers, Agatha Christie, whose novel is examined in the thesis, or further Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and undoubtedly Dorothy L. Sayers, who is also among the four authors discussed. The Second Wave of the English Queens of Crime begins in the 1960s and has not ended yet. P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, whose text is also explored, and finally Frances Fyfield, the fourth detective story author discussed here, create the leading members of the second category.

In her text, Karin Molander Danielsson points out that the crime must be a murder, and moreover, committed for personal reasons. The explanation for this is largely a question of class since the personal motive thus becomes more suitable because the murder story must reflect the reader’s everyday experience and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions (Danielsson, 26). That suggests that in crime fiction a deliberate risk and the following congregation of social disconcertment take a shape, which influences the social structures on the whole. The questions dealing with someone’s social position or the possibility of a social change render a powerful argument for the criminal happening. The murder, which for most of the crime novel is the engine of destruction, stands for the means of social dissatisfaction and in the conclusion the events result in setting up a new society after its members unveil the truth about the murder and the murderer, thus changing the character of the community. The rigid social layout appears almost everywhere in the British context and shapes one of the main themes of crime fiction. Recapitulating, “crime fiction implies naming and capturing a criminal [...] which manifests itself as a nostalgic re-forming of social classes” (Rowland, 39).

The social morals of the Victorian time define the formula for the early detective stories, which most of the time challenge the diversion in the community and the fatal act stems from such a social structure. Sometimes the notion slightly moves towards the property and possession which drives the killer to commit his or her crime. More contemporary crime fiction tends though to be complex in almost every area. “On the other hand, the works of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine point towards later developments in the detecting/crime genre in a more liberal recasting of form” (Rowland 39) and the motives become more psychological and complicated. Besides breaking the limitations within the genre, the pro-feminist tendencies appear on the scene in the form of liberal and independent women who want the equality and become more meaningful members of society. They destroy the boundaries of the social structure and gain male positions, which also provide the motive for hatred and mutual disagreement between women and men, or even among women themselves. As well as “the detective genre describes the growing ‘humanism’ of justice as it becomes popularly conceived as socially centered” (Rowland 136), female population gains its laws and regulations that signalize their newly acquired position. The representatives selected for the analysis come from different time spectrum throughout the twentieth century and also display the development in the genre.


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