The detective story – a changing genre?
Reprinted from Pulse, April 30th, 2016
In the not so distant past, especially during what is known today as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (circa, 1910-1930), writers of detective stories observed certain unwritten conventions, many of which seem outdated. if not downright laughable, almost a century later. Thus one can find certain guidelines or conventions that many writers adhered to, whether they had heard of them or not, simply because they characterized the books they themselves read and were influenced by. These include Knox’s ‘Ten Commandments’ (1929) and art-critic-turned-fiction-writer, Van Dine’s ‘Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,’ published in 1928 by The American Magazine. Van Dine (a pseudonym) defined the genre as a kind of ‘intellectual game’ or ‘sporting event,’ and decreed that “there must be no love interest.” However, even during the Golden Age itself, an element of romance creeped in, via such writers as Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers.
Since then, while some of the older forms of the detective story have continued to find their audience, in the 21st century new forms continue to flourish in seemingly infinite variety. Increasingly, female detectives and sleuths have found their voice, and by now we have detectives from various minorities, sub-cultures and persuasions. Some form part of the establishment (e.g, the police) and work within it. They may take characteristic liberties with police procedure in order to solve their cases, on occasion ‘outsourcing’ certain activities, or otherwise failing to identify with the establishment as such. Others may work from the outside, perhaps to prove their innocence, or are simply amateurs endowed with an observing nature and a penchant for detecting crime.
While some stories continue to be traditional ‘whodunits’ where the crime is solved toward the end of the book, others may start from the end, that is, with the reader knowing the villain’s identity, and being invited to backtrack. The detective may work alone, with a sidekick (say a police consultant, such as a psychologist), or with a whole police unit or forensic team. The crime may be minor or major, a one time occurrence or the handiwork of a compulsive serial killer.
What interests me is the extent to which the detective is allowed a private life. Is it static and barebones (as it was historically, in the past conventions of this genre) or can it be fleshed out and develop? Does its progression of necessity interface with the case at hand, or can it simply exist in a parallel world? To what extent does the detective’s past and present inform or dictate how he or she handles cases? Is it part of the motivation to be a detective?
In my Helen Mirkin series (The Rosebush Murders, 2012; Murder in the Choir, 2016) I have chosen an evolving format. Each book in the series presents Detective Inspector Helen Mirkin at a slightly different place in her personal life. Granted, the steps she takes are gradual, but she continues to grow. While it is entirely possible to read each novel as a ‘stand-alone,’ reading the series in chronological order offers a unique perspective regarding the detective’s experience and changing life circumstances, particularly as the chapters where she makes an appearance are written in the first person.
The author is a trauma therapist and social activist in the area of health policy. She has published two detective novels and edited a non-fiction book, The Enigma of Childhood, written by psychoanalyst Dr. Ronnie Solan (Karnac, 2015).