Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct. Crime fiction has multiple subgenres, including detective fiction (such as the whodunit), courtroom drama, hard-boiled fiction and legal thrillers. Most crime drama focus on crime investigation and does not feature the court room. Suspense and mystery are key elements that are nearly ubiquitous to the genre.
One of the earliest stories in which solving a crime is central to the story is Oedipus Rex, in which the search for the murderer of the previous king, leads to the downfall of the current one. The earliest known modern crime fiction is Thomas Skinner Sturr's anonymous Richmond, or stories in the life of a Bow Street officer (1827); the earliest full-length short-story in the genre is The Rector of Veilbye by the Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher, published in 1829. Better known are the earlier dark works of Edgar Allan Poe (e.g., "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842), and "The Purloined Letter" (1844)). Wilkie Collins' epistolary novel The Woman in White was published in 1860, while The Moonstone (1868) is often thought to be his masterpiece. French author Émile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq (1868) laid the groundwork for the methodical, scientifically minded detective. The evolution of locked room mysteries was one of the landmarks in the history of crime fiction. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle are said to have been singularly responsible for the huge popularity in this genre. A precursor was Paul Féval, whose series Les Habits Noirs (1862–67) features Scotland Yard detectives and criminal conspiracies. The best-selling crime novel of the nineteenth century was Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), set in Melbourne, Australia.
The evolution of the print mass media in the United Kingdom and the United States in the latter half of the 19th century was crucial in popularising crime fiction and related genres. Literary 'variety' magazines like Strand, McClure's, and Harper's quickly became central to the overall structure and function of popular fiction in society, providing a mass-produced medium that offered cheap, illustrated publications that were essentially disposable.
Like the works of many other important fiction writers of his day—e.g. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens—Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared in serial form in the monthly Strand magazine in the United Kingdom. The series quickly attracted a wide and passionate following on both sides of the Atlantic, and when Doyle killed off Holmes in The Final Problem, the public outcry was so great, and the publishing offers for more stories so attractive, that he was reluctantly forced to resurrect him.
Later a set of stereotypic formulae began to appear to cater to various tastes.
As far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, some authors have been reluctant to publish their crime novels under their real names. More currently, some publish pseudonymously because of the belief that since the large booksellers are aware of their historical sales figures, and command a certain degree of influence over publishers, the only way to "break out" of their current advance numbers is to publish as someone with no track record.
In the late 1930s and 40s, British County Court judge Arthur Alexander Gordon Clark (1900–1958) published a number of detective novels under the alias Cyril Hare in which he made use of his profoundly extensive knowledge of the English legal system. In Tragedy at Law (1942). Scottish journalist Leopold Horace Ognall (1908–1979) authored over ninety novels as Hartley Howard and Harry Carmichael. When he was still young and unknown, award-winning British novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) published some crime novels under the alias Dan Kavanagh. Other authors take delight in cherishing their alter egos: Ruth Rendell (1930-2015) writes one sort of crime novels as Ruth Rendell and another type as Barbara Vine; John Dickson Carr also used the pseudonym Carter Dickson. The author Evan Hunter (which itself was a pseudonym) wrote his crime fiction under the name of Ed McBain.
As with any other entity, quality of a crime fiction book is not in any meaningful proportion to its availability. Some of the crime novels generally regarded as the finest, including those regularly chosen by experts as belonging to the best 100 crime novels ever written (see bibliography), have been out of print ever since their first publication, which often dates back to the 1920s or 30s. The bulk of books that can be found today on the shelves labelled "Crime" consists of recent first publications usually no older than a few years.
Furthermore, only a select few authors have achieved the status of "classics" for their published works. A classic is any text that can be received and accepted universally, because they transcend context. A popular, well known example is Agatha Christie, whose texts, originally published between 1920 and her death in 1976, are available in UK and US editions in all English speaking nations. Christie's works, particularly featuring detectives Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple, have given her the title the 'Queen of Crime' and made her one of the most important and innovative writers in the development of the genre. Her most famous novels include Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and the world's best-selling mystery And Then There Were None (1939).
Other less successful, contemporary authors who are still writing have seen reprints of their earlier works, due to current overwhelming popularity of crime fiction texts among audiences. One example is Val McDermid, whose first book appeared as far back as 1987; another is Florida-based author Carl Hiaasen, who has been publishing books since 1981, all of which are readily available.
On the other hand, English crime writer Edgar Wallace, who was immensely popular with the English readership during the early decades of the 20th century (and who achieved fame in German-speaking countries due to the many B movies made in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that were based on his novels), had almost been forgotten in his home country until House of Stratus eventually started republishing many of his 170 books around the turn of the millennium. Similarly, the books by the equally successful American author Erle Stanley Gardner (1889–1970), creator of the lawyer Perry Mason, which have frequently been adapted for film, radio, and TV, were only recently republished in the United Kingdom—books such as The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937), The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister (1953), etc.
Even television adaptations are not enough to save some authors. Gladys Mitchell rivalled Agatha Christie for UK sales in the 1930s and 1940s but only one of her 66 novels remains in print despite a BBC television series of The Mrs Bradley Mysteries in 1999.
From time to time publishing houses decide, for commercial purposes, to revive long-forgotten authors and reprint one or two of their more commercially successful novels. Apart from Penguin Books, who for this purpose have resorted to their old green cover and dug out some of their vintage authors, Pan started a series in 1999 entitled "Pan Classic Crime," which includes a handful of novels by Eric Ambler, but also American Hillary Waugh's Last Seen Wearing .... In 2000, Edinburgh-based Canongate Books started a series called "Canongate Crime Classics," in which they published John Franklin Bardin's The Deadly Percheron (1946)—both a whodunnit and a roman noir about amnesia and insanity—and other novels. However, books brought out by smaller publishers like Canongate Books are usually not stocked by the larger bookshops and overseas booksellers. The British Library has also (since 2012) starting republishing "lost" crime classics, with the collection referred to on their website as "British Library Crime Classics series".
Sometimes older crime novels are revived by screenwriters and directors rather than publishing houses. In many such cases, publishers then follow suit and release a so-called "film tie-in" edition showing a still from the movie on the front cover and the film credits on the back cover of the book—yet another marketing strategy aimed at those cinemagoers who may want to do both: first read the book and then watch the film (or vice versa). Recent examples include Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (originally published in 1955), Ira Levin's Sliver (1991), with the cover photograph depicting a steamy sex scene between Sharon Stone and William Baldwin straight from the 1993 movie, and, again, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991). Bloomsbury Publishing PLC on the other hand have launched what they call "Bloomsbury Film Classics"—a series of original novels on which feature films were based. This series includes, for example, Ethel Lina White's novel The Wheel Spins (1936), which Alfred Hitchcock—before he went to Hollywood—turned into a much-loved movie entitled The Lady Vanishes (1938), and Ira Levin's (born 1929) science fiction thriller The Boys from Brazil (1976), which was filmed in 1978.
Older novels can often be retrieved from the ever-growing Project Gutenberg database.