With all this crime fiction I've been reading over the last year or so, I thought it would be interesting to read an academic book on the subject. Crime Fiction is part of the New Critical Idiom series, which is designed to provide students with an introduction to key areas of literary criticism. That's exactly what John Scaggs provides here; unfortunately I found the book too shallow. After a thoughtful introduction to crime fiction as a whole, Scaggs examines its various sub-genres in a broadly chronological fashion. The first two chapters look at the roots of crime fiction, going as far back as the Bible, and its role in reinforcing behavioural norms in society. From there he moves on to the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction and its preoccupation with crimes among the aristocracy, which fascinated readers in the early part of the 20th century.
While the 'Golden Age' was predominantly British, American writers of the same period were developing the 'hardboiled' mode, in which wisecracking private detectives dealt with slightly grimier crimes, though often also within the dominant social class. Next Scaggs considers the police procedural, which shifts the focus from individual brilliant detectives to teams of ordinary policemen and women dealing with crime in big cities.
Those are the most significant sub-genres but Scaggs also adds a chapter on what he calls 'crime thrillers' - serial killer thrillers, legal thrillers and thrillers starring forensic examiners and the like - and one on historical crime fiction. A short look at post-modern crime fiction rounds off the book.
It's a good introduction to the genre but I felt that I've already read too widely for it to be of use. I've read many of the books Scaggs covers and, where I haven't read the specific books, I've read other works by many of the authors in question.
I also felt there were some omissions. Most significantly, it strikes me as odd that any chapter on police procedurals would not include Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck series. As the introductions to the recent editions show, many of today's crime writers were influenced by the Swedish series. Non-English language works are given short shrift throughout, overall. France is represented only by Simenon, Italy has to make do with British author Michael Dibdin and the wealth of crime fiction from Scandinavia is scarcely mentioned. Recent developments in crime fiction from Asia and other parts of the world, for example, Mexico, are ignored entirely.
The highlight, for me, was the section on The Name of the Rose, which Scaggs breaks down over a couple of pages. It brought to my attention a lot of references, particularly a couple of direct quotes from Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, that had escaped me when I read Umberto Eco's novel. I would have enjoyed reading similar breakdowns of other significant texts.
Still, this is meant to be a short introduction and there's only so much Scaggs could cover. This is ideal for its purpose - introducing undergraduates to crime fiction - but anyone who has read even moderately widely in the genre will find little of value here.