What is Crime Fiction? by Chris Longmuir

I was recently asked to adjudicate a competition for crime stories, and the entries turned out to be a mixed batch. Some stories were a good fit for the crime genre, but others were of a more general nature, probably a better fit for the general or literary short story with a crime as part of the plot.

It had me thinking again about the nature of crime fiction, and what diffentiates a crime story from other types of story, even if they include a crime. For the purposes of the competition I decided to use the broadest, most basic definition which was a short story which included a crime.

However, my mind kept ticking over on the conundrum of what constitutes crime fiction, and I recalled a similar problem when I was researching for my nonfiction book CrimeFiction and the Indie Contribution.

What I found out when doing this research was that defining crime fiction was not such an easy task as I had assumed. Before I started writing the book I thought I knew what a crime novel was. It had to be a novel that featured crime, any kind of crime, from petty theft through to murder, pulling in fraud and corporate crime along the way. That seemed logical to me. But that was before I started trawling the internet for definitions of crime fiction, and succeeded in confusing myself, and questioning whether I was actually a crime writer.

The reason for my confusion arose from the many definitions of what I thought was crime, appearing under the heading of thrillers. A lot of the material referred to crime fiction as mystery, and the definitions were related to what I would term the traditional mystery, the type of story Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie might have written. This gives the impression crime fiction has not moved on and has become stuck in the early twentieth century.

A comparatively new and expensive addition to my reference library, The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, by Joyce G. Saricks, does not even have a section on crime fiction. The nearest categories she uses are Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers.

In her section on mysteries, Sarick’s considers they consist of a puzzle, there are clues and red herrings, which she refers to as “attempts to obscure some information”, and the reader as well as the detective is drawn into the puzzle in an attempt to solve it. The crime usually involves murder, and a body. Thrillers, on the other hand are action packed adventures and may focus on other types of crime as well as espionage. Both, however, should be gripping, plot centred stories.

My trawl of the internet did not reveal much in the way of definitions for crime fiction. If I wanted to look at this genre, a search for mystery was more successful. Thrillers brought many more results, although a lot of the definitions were equally applicable to crime fiction. It made me wonder whether crime fiction as a genre was being swallowed up by the thriller genre. Or maybe this is a British, American thing, with the Brits referring to the genre as crime fiction and the Americans using the thriller genre. Certainly, many writers referred to as thriller writers I would have termed crime writers. Authors such as, Ed McBain, Robert Crais, Michael Connolly, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and many more. I even found Agatha Christie, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, listed as thriller writers.

The Online Free Dictionary, defines thriller as “a book, film, play etc., depicting crime, mystery, or espionage in an atmosphere of excitement and suspense.” I could not find a definition for crime fiction in the dictionary, but it defines murder mystery as “a narrative about a murder and how the murderer is discovered.”

James Patterson, in the introduction to Thriller: Stories to keep you up all night, writes that thrillers cover a wide spectrum which he calls a literary feast, “The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented.” The thriller, therefore, seems to cover a great deal of ground. But hang on a minute. In the middle of that list is the police thriller. Now surely that must be crime fiction! Patterson goes on to say “By definition, if a thriller doesn’t thrill, it’s not doing its job.” Well, at least I am in agreement with him there.

By this time you will realize why I was starting to question what kind of writer I am. I have always classed myself as a crime writer, and I certainly fit the criteria of having a puzzle to solve in my books. However, I am also an action writer and I like to use suspense to build tension, and that fits more comfortably into the thriller category. So, am I a crime writer or a thriller writer, or a mix of both?

Some of the information in this post has been taken from my book Crime Fiction and the Indie Contribution. If you are interested in seeing more examples of what I uncovered in my research, it is in Chapter 6 – What is Crime Fiction?

In the meantime I have a load of crime story entries to adjudicate, and I hope my selection of the overall winner, is a worthy one.

Chris Longmuir


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Wendy H. Jones said…
Really interesting post. It can be difficult to categories crime fiction. As you realise there are multiple strands and sub genres within this. I think, in the Ned, the reader wants a good story and if it keeps them reading then that is what is important. I really enjoyed this and it made me think.
Susan Price said…
Yes, you made me think, Chris! I realised that what I read, and would call 'crime fiction' are all, in the end, stories about murder - Walters, Hayder, Rankin, and somebody called Longmuir. And sure, murder's a crime, but it's a narrow application of 'crime.'
Nick Green said…
We should remember that categories are made for readers; they are not prescriptive or proscriptive, but merely guidelines.

I look like my brothers; enough to suggest that we are all related, but not enough so that you'd inevitably guess it. So it is with genres. Crime novels may share a family resemblance, some more than others, but otherwise can be as dissimilar as any two members of a wide and diverse family.
Chris Longmuir said…
You are so right, Nick, but what we can't forget is that categories are important, particularly in the ebook market. If you wrongly categorise your book it will be hidden from readers and your sales will probably be zilch. And we are writing for the readers benefit, aren't we?
Bill Kirton said…
First, let me reassure you that you're a crime writer Chris.

Next, yes, you're describing a puzzling situation. OK, readers need to know what they're getting but all the categories you mention overlap in so many ways. The first book of mine that got a publisher interested was a thriller. They didn't want what they called 'stand-alone thrillers' at the time, though, so they asked if I'd write a police procedural. I did, they published it and, a few years down the line, the rewritten 'stand-alone thriller' was published as part of the same 'police procedural' series. These labels may help readers but they're a bugger for us at times.
Mari Biella said…
I suspect that categories are of most use to booksellers, Chris - and to those readers who prefer to read within a given genre. They're only ever guidelines. For example, and to take a genre that I'm fond of, horror could encompass everything from very subtle, psychological horror to the out-and-out gore-fest. An example that springs to mind is Penelope Crowe's 100 Unfortunate Days, which might be classified as horror (rightly so, because it's genuinely horrific), but which has little in common with more traditional horror.

That said, we do have to take care when assigning categories to our books, as you say. It can get very tricky on occasion...
glitter noir said…
This issue plagued me for years, Chris, after I broke off from horror. Finally, I've gone with 'suspense' for the short books in the Fast and Furies series. For the Boss MacTavin books, I couldn't go with any existing labels...and chose to call them 'action mysteries'.
Chris Longmuir said…
Mari, the thing I noticed most was the difference in the categories between the U.S. and the UK, and I experienced difficulties when I searched for books in specific crime category on Amazon. It's this thriller or crime fiction difference. The category that proved most difficult was psychological crime. The search just brought up psychic and supernatural crime. Not sure how this would affect horror books.
Myra Duffy said…
Very interesting post, Chris.I've noticed there is an increasing number of cross-genre novels,something I'm tempted to try.
Enid Richemont said…
How is Ruth Rendell classified? I love her work, mainly, I think, because I ALWAYS want to understand the psychological background of any crime, and she really gets inside people's heads. Sadly, she had a major stroke some time ago - does anyone know how she is?
julia jones said…
Interesting that early crime fiction (c19) more often revolved around theft. It would seem a bit weak now - I wonder what that says about us?

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