Typical classic detective novels are set “in large country houses in the depths of winter, cut off from the outside world by snowdrifts and fallen telegraph wires and with a most unpleasant house guest found in the library with an ornate dagger in the heart,” writes P. D. James (2009, 193). This description of the quintessential Golden Age novel (see my earlier post) reminds us what we find so attractive and yet so irritating about earlier classic mysteries. Even though they take us worlds away from the complexities of modern existence and provide a pleasant fictional escape from the challenges of our fast-paced lives, the situations they describe are often so artificial that it is difficult to identify with them. Unlike their Golden Age counterparts, post-war mystery novelists focus on the realities of life.
Although amateur detectives and private investigators were still popular in post-war novels, police detectives were preferred. Before the 1950s, police played only minor roles in mystery novels. Often they were figures of ridicule or derision. The police procedural novel (in which an entire team of police detectives solve a crime) made its debut in Hillary Waugh’s 1952 mystery, Last Seen Wearing. . .
Ed McBain was the novelist who truly popularized the police procedural. His 87th Precinct series began in the late 1950s and continued until his death in 2005. The shift from private investigator novel to the police procedural was a transformation from a “personal, small-scale, and often self-serving investigation, to the public eye, in the sense of civic, large-scale policing that serves society as a whole” (Scaggs 2005, 89).
Developments in police detection transformed the procedural. “The discovery of DNA is only one, but among the most important,” writes James,
of the scientific and technological discoveries which have revolutionized the investigation of crime. These include advanced systems of communication, the scientific analysis of trace elements, greater definition in the analysis of blood, increasingly sophisticated cameras which can identify bloodstains among multi-stained surfaces, laser techniques which can raise fingerprints from skin and other surfaces which previously offered no hope of a successful print, and medical advances which affect the work of forensic pathologists. (2009, 185)Although mystery writers still used amateur detectives in the post-war novel, they often teamed them up with professionals who had access to these new procedures.
Once modern methods of detection became available, a new subgenre developed – the forensic mystery novel. Autopsies and forensic evidence occupy centre stage in the mysteries of novelists such as Patricia Cornwell. Other subgenres also emerged in the last half century, providing greater variety for readers. The psychological thriller, the mystery caper, the spy novel, and the gangster novel have diversified a genre once reliant on the clue-puzzle formula.
In fact, diversity has become the mystery-novel hallmark in the second half of the twentieth century (Knight 2004, xiii). Post-war novels have challenged the traditional reliance on “Western, white, male protagonists” (Rzepka 2005, 235). The introduction of detectives from minority ethnic groups, from the lesbian and gay population, and from the feminist ranks have provided greater choice for mystery fans. Tony Hiller, Amanda Cross, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley, and Sara Paretsky are some of the most popular mystery writers today.
Since the war, focus has shifted from plot to character; even traditional clue-puzzle mysteries have become more character-centric. It has also shifted from a sense of certainty and order to one of ambiguity and complexity. The line separating good characters from bad is not as firmly entrenched as it once was. Justice is not as easily defined, right and wrong not as easily distinguished.
The modern mystery novel is characterized by an awareness of the dark undercurrents of society and personality (James 2009, 193-94). Contemporary novelists often probe the social context of crimes, using the detective novel to criticize social ills. Criminals are frequently depicted as products of their societies. Many modern novelists explore the roots of criminal behaviour – psychological, familial, and social.
Today there is greater variety of choice than ever before. Do you prefer amateur, private, or police detectives? Male or female protagonists? African American, Latino, or Native detectives? Historical, humorous, or series novels? Whatever your preference, there are mystery novels to suit your taste.
James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.
Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.