by Lily King
Crime fiction, detective fiction, suspense, mystery, and thriller - these are all genres that mix and mingle and overlap considerably. But no matter what you call it, readers can't seem to get enough of crime, criminals, and the dedicated professionals - private eyes, cops, FBI profilers, lawyers, medical examiners, psychologists, and forensic anthropologists - who tirelessly pursue justice.
Crime fiction doesn't always follow a straightforward whodunnit formula. Sometimes the identity of the perpetrator is revealed on the very first page and the rest of the story is concerned with the whydunnit, exploring the criminal's motives; the howdunnit, exploring how the crime was committed; and the howcatchem, exploring how the hero or heroine catches - or doesn't catch - the bad guy. And sometimes, the hero or heroine is the bad guy.
Crime fiction has been around since the 19th century, with stories from authors like Edgar Allan Poe in the U.S., Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the U.K, Fyodor Dostoyevski in Russia, and Paul Féval and Émile Gaboriau in France. Féval's eleven The Black Coats novels, published between 1863-1875, comprise what is considered one of the first crime fiction series, and Gaboriau's police detective Monsieur Lecoq influenced Conan Doyle's creation of Sherlock Holmes.
Despite its popular appeal, through the first half of the 20th century crime fiction was considered pulp, with novels from the likes of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Mickey Spillane often seeing limited or non-existent print runs of hardcover editions, ending up as inexpensive paperbacks, with wonderfully lurid covers, filling the racks at the corner drugstore.
Even though that low opinion has changed somewhat, crime fiction today is still often dismissed by the literary elite as populist, formulaic pap. But I imagine bestselling authors like Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, John Sandford, and Kathy Reichs would agree with their legions of fans - who cares what the critics say?
The dark underbelly of society and the twisted mind of the criminal are fascinating places to visit. This small sample of some of crime fiction's best authors, both past and present, will keep you riveted long into the night. Just be sure to lock your doors and windows.