Why Detective Fiction Is So Popular

Crime doesn’t pay, so they say. Well, whoever “they” are, they aren’t in touch with today’s entertainment market because crime—true and fiction—in books, television, film, or net-streaming, is a highly popular commodity. One solid crime writing sub-genre, detective fiction, is hot as a Mexican’s lunch.

Detective fiction has been hot for a long, long time. Crime writing historians give Edgar Allan Poe credit for siring the first modern detective story. Back in 1841, Poe penned Murders In The Rue Morgue (set in Paris), and it was a smash hit in Graham’s Magazine. Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, used an investigation style called “ratiocination” which means a process of exact thinking.

Poe’s style brought on the cozy mysteries, aka The Golden Era of Crime Fiction of the 1920s. Detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple solved locked-room crimes. They intrigued readers but spared them gruesome details like extreme violence, hardcore sex, and graphic killings.

The golden crime-fiction genre evolved into the hardboiled detective fiction movement, circa 1930s-1950s. Crime writers like Dashiell Hammett gave us the Continental Op and Sam Spade. Raymond Chandler brought Philip Marlowe to life. Carroll John Daly convincingly conceived Race Williams. And Mickey Spillane, bless his multi-million-selling soul, left Mike Hammer as his legacy.

The ’60s to 2000s gave more great detective fiction stories. Anyone heard of Elmore Leonard? How about Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton? Or, in current times, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott, and a wildcard in the hardboiled and noir department, Christa Faust?

These storytellers broke ground that’s still being tilled by great fictional detectives. Television gave us Perry Mason, Ironside, Columbo, Jack Friday, Kojack, and Magnum. Murder She Wrote? How cool was mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher? And let’s not even get into big screen and the now runaway net-stream stuff.

So why the unending popularity of detective fiction? I asked myself this question to understand and appreciate the detective fiction part of the crime story genre. I worked as a real detective for decades, and I know what it’s like to stare down a barrel and scrape up a cold one. But once I reinvented myself as a crime writer, I had to learn a new trade.

I’m on an even-newer venture right now, and that’s developing a net-streaming style series. It’s a different—but not too different—delve into hardboiled detective fiction, and the series is titled City Of Danger. To write this credibly, and with honor to heritage, I’ve plunged into a rabbit hole of research that’s becoming more like a badger den or a viper pit.

What I’m doing, as we “speak”, is learning this sub-genre of crime writing—hardboiled detective fiction—and I’ve learned two things. One, I found out I knew SFA almost nothing about this fascinating fictional world that’s entertained many millions of detective fiction fans for well over a hundred years. Two, detective fiction has far from gone away.

My take? Detective fiction—hardboiled, softboiled, over-easy, scrambled, or baked in a cake—is on the rise and will continue being a huge crime-paying moneymaker in coming years. There are reasons for that, why detective fiction remains so popular, and I think I’ve found some.

I stumbled on an interesting article at a site called Beemgee.com. Its title Why is Crime Fiction So Popular? caught my attention, so I copied and pasted it onto a Word.doc and dissected it. Here’s the nuts, bolts, and screws of what it says.

Crime fascinates people, and detectives (for the most part) work on solving crimes. But the crime genre popularity has little to do with the crime, per se. It has far more to do with the very essence of storytelling—people are hardwired to listen to stories, especially crime stories.

Detective fiction is premiere crime storytelling and clearly exhibits one of the fundamental rules of storytelling: cause and effect. In detective fiction, every scene must be justified—each plot event must have a raison d’etre within the story because the reader perceives every scene as the potential cause of a forthcoming effect.

Picture a Roman arch bridge. Every stone is held in place by its neighbor just like story archs with properly set scenes. Take away one scene that doesn’t support the story arch and the structure fails.

Well-written detective fiction has a bridge-like structure. Each scene in the storytelling trip has some sort of a cause that creates an effect. This subliminal action keeps readers turning pages.

The article drills into detective fiction cause and effect. It rightly says the universe has a law of cause and effect but we, as humans, can’t really see it in action. But we’re programmed to know it exists, so we naturally seek an agency—the active cause of any actions we perceive.

Detective fiction stories, like most storytelling types, provide a safety mechanism. A detective story is built around solving a crime by following clues. A cause. An effect. A cause. An effect. The story goes on until you find out whodunit and a well-told story leaves you with a satisfying end where you’ve picked up a take-away safety tip.

But detective fiction stories aren’t truly about whodunit. Sure, we want the crook caught and due justice served. However, we want to know something more. We want to know motive, and this is where the best detective fiction stories shine. They’re whydunnits.

Whydunnits are irresistible stories. They’re the search for truth, and in searching for truth in detective fiction storytelling—why this crime writing sub-genre remains so popular—I found another online article. Its title Why Is Detective Fiction So Popular? also caught my attention.

Cristelle Comby

This short piece is on a blog by Swiss crime writer, Cristelle Comby. If you haven’t heard of Cristelle, I recommend you check her out. Her post has a quote that sums up why detective fiction is so popular, and it’s far more eloquent than anything I can write. Here’s a snippet:

Detective novels do not demand emotional or intellectual involvement; they do not arouse one’s political opinions or exhaust one by its philosophical queries which may lead the reader towards self-analysis and exploration. They, at best, require a sense of vicarious participation and this is easy to give. Most readers identify themselves with the hero and share his adventures and sense of discovery.

The concept of a hero in a detective story is different from that of a hero in any other kind of fictional work. A hero in a novel is the protagonist; things happen to him. His character grows or develops and it is his relationship to others which is important. In a detective story, there is no place for a hero of this kind. The person who is important is the detective and it is the way he fits the pieces of the puzzle together which arouses interest. Thus in a detective story it is the narration and the events which are overwhelmingly important, the growth of character is immaterial. What the detective story has to offer is suspense. It satisfies the most primitive element responsible for the development of story-telling, the element of curiosity, the desire to know why and how.

Detective stories offer suspense, a sense of vicarious satisfaction, and they also offer escape from the fears and worries and the stress and strain of everyday life. Many people who would rather stay away from intellectually ‘heavy’ books find it hard to resist these. Detective fiction is so popular because the story moves with speed.”

As a former detective, and now someone who writes this stuff, I think detective fiction is so popular because readers can safely escape into a dark & dangerous world of wild causes and wild effects—full of fast-reading suspense—and they get powerful insight into what makes other people (like good guys and bad girls) tick. Detective fiction is crime that has paid, does pay, and always will pay. It’s just that popular.

Kill Zone readers and writers: If you’re into detective fiction, what do you think makes it popular? And if you’re not into the genre, what makes you dislike it? Don’t be shy about commenting one way or another!

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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner with over thirty years experience in human death investigation. Now, Garry has reinvented himself as a crime writer with his latest venture into a hardboiled detective fiction series called City Of Danger. Here’s the logline:

A modern city in dystopian crisis enlists two private detectives from its utopian past to dispense street justice and restore social order.

Follow Garry Rodgers on Twitter and visit his website at DyingWords.net.

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Crime Writing — Do You Like Yours Hardboiled or Noir?

“Your crime writing is dark. Very dark. Do you consider it noir? Hardboiled? How do you slot your sub-genre?”

A podcaster recently put this to me. I was stumped. I knew my stuff was tragic and gore, but I had no strong concept of what noir and hardboiled really were—although I’d heard the terms many times. I thought they were just for the marketing department, but I made it my mission to find out.

What’s old is new again, hardboiled and noir. That certainly seems the case in resurrecting old crime story classics. Look at the resurgence of Agatha Christie. Netflix writers now idolize Elmore Leonard as the dialogue man. Say the names Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Mickey Spillane, and you’ll find an old-style legion of fans ready to tear this book house down.

Women aren’t excluded from the Hardboiled &Noir Club. No, ma’am. Besides Dame Agatha (I kneel before her), there are Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, and (still going) Sara Paretsky. In their footsteps today, we have Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, and the intriguing hardboiled/noir writer Christa Faust.

So what’s the difference between noir and hardboiled, if there is any? From what I’ve just read, I’d say hardboiled is dark and noir is much darker. Noir is the French word for black. The term “noir” is somewhat more recognized in film, where hardboiled (hard-boiled) is common to print.

Either way, each term has its tropes and sub-genre idiosyncrasies. At its core, noir is dark and grim. Noir is urban gothic—hopeless. Hardboiled is gritty and unsentimental. Hardboiled is more like an action movie with a character-driven plot where the protagonist triumphs as best as they can.

Megan Abbot is one smart lady. She’s considered one of today’s masters in noir and hardboiled. I read a fascinating interview with Ms. Abbott where she defined “hardboiled” vs “noir” crime fiction. Here’s her quote:

Hardboiled is distinct from noir, though they’re often used interchangeably. The common argument is that hardboiled novels are an extension of the wild west and pioneer narratives of the 19th century. The wilderness becomes the city, and the hero is somewhat of a fallen character, a detective or a cop. At the end, everything is a mess, people have died, but the hero has done the right thing, or close to it, and order, to a certain extent, has been restored. ‘Law and Order’ is a good example of modern hardboiled.

Noir is different. In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable. In that sense, noir speaks to us powerfully right now when certain structures of authority no longer make sense. We wonder, ‘Why should we abide by them?’ Noir thrived in the 40s after the Great Depression and during the war. It was popular during Vietnam and Watergate and is on the rebound again. ‘Breaking Bad’ is a good noir example.

It’s hard to sum-up noir and hardboiled better than this. Maybe another quote adds to clearing the smoke-filled alleys. The protagonist in noir must himself (herself) be part of the scummy world. The protagonist in hardboiled is a white knight in a world of scum.

Historically, hardboiled crime writing set itself on the perpetually-rainy, mean streets of American cities that were darkened by something more than night. Conventional tropes were the loner detective with a fedora and trench coat whose oak-desked, ceiling-fanned office operated in the low rent district. He looked out on the city of danger through Venetian blinds, chain-smoked, and was never far from a bottle of Scotch. The rebel gumshoe with a moral code spoke in nuanced dialogue saying “dames” for women, “gams” for legs, and “gat” for his gun.

Noir, on the other hand, sees little good in the world. Basically, everything and everyone is F’d. Noir crime writing examines psychological instability in people and their institutions. Being dangerously unstable is the key characteristic of noir protagonists. It might be a key characteristic of successful noir writers, too.

Examining noir and hardboiled isn’t complete without looking at these sub-genre’s origins. This isn’t a chicken-or-egg thing. It’s generally accepted that hardboiled came first and expanded into noir. Some may argue differently, and that’s what the comment section is for.

A hundred years ago, Brits were the kings and queens of crime fiction. Edgar Allen Poe paved the way for Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle to refine the cozy mystery genre. Here, scenes took place in confined trains and enclosed mansion libraries where the sleuth deducted the facts and announced the villain.

Americans, being the troublesome colonists they’ve always been, rebelled against criminally-correct plots and characters. America was shaped by an unregulated frontier that found its way to the roaring speakeasies of Chicago and the cold, cold heart of the Big Apple. Naturally, the North American public wanted a new brand of perpetrator and a hardboiled crime-fighter to match.

A Pinkerton detective shaped the hardboiled crime fiction world in the 1920s. Dashiell Hammett’s protagonist, Continental Operative, fought crime in the streets without sentimental emotion or official sanction. In 1923, Hammett teamed with a pulp magazine called Black Mask. This opened the door for hardboiled-cum-noir greats like Raymond Chandler with his Philip Marlowe character and Mickey Spillane with Mike Hammer.

Today, we have unique twenty-first-century hardboiled writers and characters. Michael Connelly has done well with Harry Bosch, to say the least. So has Lee Child with Jack Reacher.

And there’s a new girl on the block who writes about as dark and action-packed as you can get. Christa Faust has the chops to make her hardboiled noir, and she’s got the creds. Christa grew up riding subways and walking New York streets. She worked Times Square peep shows and practiced as a professional dominatrix. Now, Christa Faust is published by Hard Case Crime.

Yes, what’s old is new again. Hardboiled and noir are alive and well in crime writing city. That’s a good thing. And to answer the podcaster’s question, “How do you slot your sub-genre? Hardboiled or noir?” I have to say poached on the soft-runny side with a slice of dry, whole wheat toast. I’m an optimistic sort with a healthy infection of unorthodox attitude, and I’m not a psycho noir-person.

What about you Kill Zoners? Do you like your crime writing hardboiled or noir?

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Garry Rodgers is a retired cop and coroner. Now, he’s an indie crime writer whose personal experiences with the light and dark side of life find their way into the pages of his books. Garry is about to release the seventh publication in his twelve-part, based-on-true-crime series. Watch for Beyond The Limits on ePlatforms this month.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island at the Canadian west coast. He hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net and occasionally checks his Twitter account @GarryRodgers1. Garry’s Amazon Author Page is open 24/7 as well.

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