In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crime Fiction

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • History of the Genre
  • Foundational Texts
  • Women Writers and Female Detectives
  • Gender, Sexuality, and the Body
  • Masculinity and Crime Fiction
  • Science and Forensics
  • Space, Place, and Region
  • Race, Ethnicity, Nation, and Empire
  • Global Crime Fiction

British and Irish Literature Crime Fiction
Janice M. Allan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0118


As an umbrella term for an increasingly diverse body of writing, “crime fiction” is a category recognized by readers across the globe, though it remains notoriously difficult for scholars to pin down. In part, this difficulty stems from the genre’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity to evolve and mutate in response to the social, cultural, political, and, in more recent years, increasingly global contexts in which it is produced and consumed. Indeed, the ways in which crime fiction responds to such contexts is an important thread within the critical responses it has generated. The most obvious manifestation of this capacity is the diversification of the form into various subgenres, from the clue-puzzles of the interwar years, to the hard-boiled American fictions of Hammett and Chandler, to the more recent codification of the serial killer narrative and forensic crime fiction, both of which foreground the materiality of the body in ways unthinkable within earlier iterations. Yet the boundaries between subgenres remain permeable and elude hard and fast distinctions. The formulaic structure and contents of crime fiction have continually been appropriated and reformulated, most importantly by women writers, gay and lesbian writers, and writers of color, to accommodate new constructions of race, ethnicity, and gender, and, in so doing, the genre’s structural conservatism and historic masculinity—real or perceived—have been called into question. The very popularity of the genre delayed, until the 1960s and 1970s, the advent of serious academic analysis, as it was seen to fall on the wrong side of the high/low cultural divide, but from that point onward it has attracted the attention of many scholars and critics, and their readings are now as varied and diverse as the genre itself. I have attempted to give readers a sense of this diversity, both within the fiction and within the critical writings that have grown up around it. While the emphasis within many of the sources is on Anglo-American fiction, there is a growing acknowledgement of the increasing importance and visibility of international crime fiction, and this is reflected, albeit in a limited manner, through a specific section on global crime fiction.

Introductory Works

From the large number of introductory works on crime fiction published in recent years, those listed below have been singled out for their ability to present the complexities and diversity of the genre in a clear and accessible manner. For those new to the area, Knight 2010, Priestman 2013, and Scaggs 2005 offer historical accounts that provide readers with a good sense of how the genre has developed from its origins to the present, and, moreover, how it has mutated into various subgenres in response to its social, political, and cultural contexts. Priestman 2013, however, is particularly good for those interested in the formal narrative structures of the various subgenres. For those interested in the relationship between text and context and, more specifically, the politics and ideology of crime fiction, Messent 2013 offers an excellent and nuanced discussion of the area. Priestman 2003, Rzepka and Horsley 2010, and Worthington 2011 can be read cover-to-cover or consulted in relation to specific topics, authors, or subgenres. What emerges from all the texts below is a series of key issues that preoccupy both authors and critics of the genre, notably gender, race, the body, sexuality, politics, and ideology. In one way or another, each of the sources below queries whether crime fiction is an inherently conservative genre or a site of social and political critique.

  • Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    Knight’s survey covers three major development stages. The first focuses on the figure of the detective, while the second, moving to clue-puzzle and private eye narratives, explores the importance of death. The final “modern stage” reflects a focus on diversity within the genre and considers genre, race, ethnicity, and other factors.

  • Messent, Peter. The Crime Fiction Handbook. Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2013.

    Adopting a sociopolitical perspective, Messent explores key forms and themes, including the representation of the body, gender, and race. Readers can trace the chronological development of the genre and how it is complicated by generic hybridity and political ambiguity. Also offers detailed readings of key texts.

  • Priestman, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    A standard resource for undergraduates, this collection explores key issues and debates in clear and accessible language. The volume includes historical chapters, as well as discussions of subgenres and themes such as gender, race, and adaptation. Includes a reasonably comprehensive chronology.

  • Priestman, Martin. Crime Fiction: From Poe to the Present. 2d ed. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2013.

    Adopting a formal approach to the genre, this slim volume offers concise accounts of different types of “whodunit” and thriller narratives, enhanced by the addition of a new chapter on serial killer fiction. Written in an accessible and engaging style, it is well suited to undergraduates.

  • Rzepka, Charles J., and Lee Horsley. A Companion to Crime Fiction. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444317916

    A standard reference text for students and researchers, this is a wide-ranging collection with contributions from key scholars in the area. Essays cover history, genres, individual authors (from Godwin to Walter Mosley), and film.

  • Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction: The New Critical Idiom. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2005.

    An introductory overview of the social and historical development of crime fiction sets the context for individual chapters covering a range of subgenres, with Scaggs usefully pointing to the dependencies and differences between them.

  • Worthington, Heather. Key Concepts in Crime Fiction. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    Entries in this dictionary-style volume are detailed and comprehensive and the further reading selections are well chosen. Although limited to Anglophone crime writing, entries such as that on “evidence” provide a useful lens through which to read the genre, while others, including “children’s crime fiction,” cover less familiar territory.

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