Conventions Of Crime Fiction

Conventions of Crime Fiction #

Crime fiction is generally regarded as a second rate form of writing and scarcely to be mentioned in decent company. Yet it is the most popular of all reading and television entertainment. Some psychologists believe that it is the only respectable means an intelligent person has of breaking away, temporarily at least, from the resistance of respectability. We read it because it creates the illusion that there is justice in the world and that it fosters the belief that good will overcome evil. The more the contemporary world fails us, the more we turn to fairy tales or detective novels for reassurance.

Raymond Chandler is generally recognised as the doyen of Thrillers also known as Pot boilers, whodunits, page turners…… and Philip Marlowe as the prototype of the wisecracking shoe leather brigade. John Sutherland describes Marlowe:

whose patter is so hard-boiled you might roll it across the White House lawn, who portrays himself as a man so jaded by life as to be immune to its charms, is in fact every bit as much the knight­-errant as Don Quixote, willing to sacrifice everything and anything for a moral principle.

Pico Iyer, writing in Time magazine, Dec. 1988 described him:

Chandler’s most immortal creation—co-produced by Humphrey Bogart—was the quixotic figure of the gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, private eye and public conscience, sitting behind his pebbled-glass door with an office bottle and a solitary game of chess. What made Marlowe special was simply the fact that he was nothing special, no genius like Sherlock Holmes, no Connoisseur model like James Bond. Just an underpaid drudge with, as one mobster says, “no dough, no family, no prospects, no nothing”—except a habit of making other people’s worries his own, and a gift for walking in on corpses.

When all other conventional authorities fail us, society is rescued by a loner who crusades for morality and restores what is right for the world.

At the heart of all Chandler’s novels is a leggy blond:

I lit another cigarette and looked at the dental-supply company’s bill again. The minutes went by with their fingers to their lips. Then there was a small knocking on wood. It was a blond. A blond to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looked by moonlight. She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. “Cops are just people,” she said irrelevantly.

“They start out that way, I’ve heard.”

The two salient characteristics of Crime fiction are the tall leggy blond and dismissive attitude to conventional policing – they are flat-footed.

It’s a mystery to me - the game commences
For the usual fee plus expenses
Confidential information - it’s in a diary
This is my investigation - it’s not a public inquiry

Dire Straits, Private Investigations #

The form of the novel itself is a very simple one. We are not expected to think too deeply about the source of the plot, nor even about the stock characters themselves. It is very like a Western wherein our sympathies are quickly engaged and there is no strain upon the imagination. It is a pleasant and regular world without the difficulties of psychology where the good are always rewarded and the bad are always punished. And furthermore, we do not have to worry very much about distinguishing between them because black and white are the two distinguishing colours that are used.

Violence: #

  • essential to the genre for reader credibility and to create tension

  • Claudia threatened four times: (yet protected by H.L.)

The ambiguity of ‘her legs were her best assets’ (reference to Chandler’s leggy blonds) - she also has a functional use for them.

i) close to the container terminal - Glebe Claudia kicks gun & runs

ii) breaks into Lavender’s office & finds O’Toole’s body

iii) naked fight with Sally in sauna

iv) In the chase across Pyrmont Bridge, Darling Harbour, Her legs and her city save her from the Maori.

As well there are many threats of violence.

Leads and false trails


Much Crime fiction is characterised by formula or recipe writing. As a genre it has a fairly predictable script:

  1. The Body –The cadaver. A death has occurred; most people, conventional law and order officials accept it as unsuspicious. However the world is out of joint – There are suspicious circumstances and Society is threatened.

  2. The characters: Prototypes, stereotypes and other clichéd or stock characters.

a) the detective - hero - saviour. Like us he is mortal like us shares our human failures, a loner, hard and fast living but s/he has the call” to right wrongs, to save the world from imminent disaster. His/her personality, deeds, methods bring witness to his secular creed of religious doctrine.

The male sleuth whose love life is a disaster zone. It’s as if those who mix it professionally with low-lifes can never have normal private lives and, in the age of the unorthodox heroine, more and more female protagonists share this lonesome territory.
They are apostles of gadgetry; of recent innovations of Science and Technology used for good. The reader is infused by identifying with the hero into believing they are saving the world from evil forces. Herein lies the seductive power of the “whodunit”.

Michael Duffy argues that what distinguishes the gumshoe is the rebel quality of superiority in courage, insight and moral perception. “*The hero sees things to which all those around him are blind.” * Superiors often remove heroic investigators from big cases - being up against the bad guys and the people you work for is a well-known convention of crime and espionage stories.

b) the foil - often a conventional police officer who represents the blindness of society.

c) The villain - a threat of all of society.

  1. Mystery stories are bloodstained fairy tales; Paradise Lost, Paradise sought for, and Paradise Regained.

  2. They allow us the readers to play vicariously the role of the saviour.

At the end we are assured that order has been restored, justice has been accomplished and that we are safe from harm.


Women behaving badly take plum roles in screen dramas


We hear far less about the screen’s expanding cast of anti-heroines, female characters who are deeply compromised, as noteworthy for their devastating flaws as for their strengths. Yet the early 21st century has spawned the biggest resurgence of anti-heroines since Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara tried to steal handsome Ashley Wilkes from under the nose of goody two-shoes Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind.

Of course, there have always been female characters with less-than-heroic qualities - O’Hara, Lady Macbeth and Helen Mirren’s memorably brittle Detective Inspector Jane Tennison (from the Prime Suspect series) are among them. Those characters compelled us because their festering ambition (Lady Macbeth), naked self-interest (O’Hara) and emotional defects (Tennison) were once seen as rare and anomalous in women.

Yet today in film and television, a plethora of female characters, from drug-dealing housewives to a queen with a taste for incest, have little trouble locating their inner anti-heroines. Intriguingly, in spite of committing transgressions that could result in an extended jail sentence, these fictional women often attract our empathy.

Take Lisbeth Salander, crimefighter and computer hacker extraordinaire, and the beating, scarred heart of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books and films. Survivor of a traumatic childhood, Lisbeth is antisocial, bisexual and violent and vengeful towards those who hurt the vulnerable - she once carved the words “pig” and “rapist” on the abdomen of her sadistic guardian. Crime drama The Killing - Denmark’s biggest cultural export since Lego - gives us another socially challenged female lead in homicide detective Sarah Lund, who turns rudeness and lack of emotional intelligence (unless she is interrogating a killer) into an art form.