Crime fiction is a unique genre where the single central character is the one to watch out for.

Last month, we looked at the crime novel through the prism of The Godfather. The Godfather is an example of a family saga that also happens to be a crime novel. Most crime fiction, however, does not revolve round a family. It finds its focus in a single character who is, more often than not, the fictional detective.

Detective fiction, as we know today, began in 1841 when American writer Edgar Allen Poe invented Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin for his short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe established the basic prerequisite of the genre — a baffling crime that needs the superior intellect of a brilliant detective to solve. That tenet was picked up in the latter part of the 19th century by Arthur Conan Doyle who created in Sherlock Holmes not only the genre's most famous detective but also the world's most well-known literary character. In the 20th century, the genre was further expanded by the hard-boiled detective novel pioneered by Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who depended on his ingenuity to solve the crime, the hard-boiled detective used brute force. Furthermore, the hard-boiled novel rarely ventured outside cities and tended to be narrated in the first person with the detective as the narrator which left little room for the kind of theorising or surprise deduction found in the Sherlock Holmes novels. In recent years, technology has come to play a major role in the detective novel. It is not coincidental that one of the most recognisable characters in modern crime fiction, Lisbeth Salander of The Millennium Trilogy, is a computer hacker.

The fictional detective comes in multiple shades. He or she can be a private eye like Sherlock Holmes, a police detective like Kurt Wallander, or a computer hacker like Lisbeth Salander. He or she can work alone like Philip Marlowe or have a sidekick, such as Doctor Watson for Sherlock Holmes, or start out as a sidekick and then come to dominate the entire series as its most compelling character like Lisbeth Salander.

That said, fictional detectives do have some things in common. Most of them tend to be loners whose life revolves round their work. Sherlock Holmes has no personal life and no substantive relationship other than his friendship with Watson. Philip Marlowe is a single man operation. He relaxes by playing chess with himself. Lisbeth Salander was abused as a child and is both introverted and anti-social. Kurt Wallander has a wife who left him and a difficult relationship with his only child. He is frequently disillusioned by police work, but also driven to do it, partly out of a sense of outrage directed at the criminal, partly because that is the only constant in an otherwise unsettled existence.

The fact that he or she pursues the bad guys does not preclude the fictional detective from having a dark side. Sherlock Holmes has a fondness for opium. Kurt Wallander and Philip Marlow drink too much. Wallander also exhibits a penchant for losing his temper. Lisbeth Salander is a bisexual who uses men and women for sex but is far too scared to fall in love. Even when she falls for her colleague Mikael Bloomkvist, she questions her feelings every step of the way.

Interesting departure

What makes detective fiction particularly interesting is the way it departs from conventional storytelling, which demands the story be told from the point of view of the character at the centre. Instead of straddling the centre, the detectives normally enter the story from the margins and painstakingly work their way to the centre. For instance, in a typical murder mystery the characters at the centre of the story are the murderer and the victim. It is the job of the detective to unravel the story between them in order to fix the blame. Because the detective approaches the case knowing as much about it as the reader, the writer has the potential to develop a strong identification between the detective and the reader. As the detective learns more about the crime, so does the reader. Furthermore, what the main character does not know about the crime gives the writer the freedom to create tension. The writer can use that ignorance to pose questions to the reader, scare them out of their wits, or play around with them by taking them down false trails. The result is a narrative that keeps the reader anxious to learn what comes next, which is what makes detective fiction one of the most popular forms of storytelling.

Keywords: crime fiction

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