American Crime Fiction

“He did not smile. ‘I don’t believe in anything, but I’m too much of a gambler not to be affected by a lot of things.'"1 Golden Age American crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammet’s nameless private eye, known only as the Continental Op, was a morally ambiguous wise guy. His quick comebacks and cynicism made him an early example of a hardboiled detective–characteristics contemporary US crime fiction writers still rely on. The history of American crime fiction begins in the nineteenth century, and an examination of its timeline shows how the genre has changed alongside societal ideas.

American Crime Fiction American Crime Fiction

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Table of contents

    History of American Crime Fiction and Timeline

    Crime fiction is a literary genre with plots that revolve around a crime and its investigation. It is just as common for an amateur to head the investigation as it is for a professional. Although most are about murder, notable exceptions revolve around white-collar crimes or kidnapping. The problems and values of the time period when the story was written figure into its plot.

    There are scatterings of crime fiction in older literature, but its popularity gained steam in Europe after the Industrial Revolution. As people moved from small rural communities where everyone knew each other to large urban areas crowded with strangers, crime became more common. As a result, people became more suspicious of others, and crime novels were an outlet for their fears.

    Edgar Allan Poe is believed to have written the first American detective story–even coining the term “detective.” His short story thriller, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), was an inspiration for other crime writers.

    In the United States, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that urbanization and westward expansion created a niche for crime fiction to be published more frequently. Then, around 1900, these novels began to resemble today’s thrillers because they started to include things like investigative techniques and criminal motives.

    Soon enough, crime novels began to get more sophisticated. They engaged the reader by offering a puzzle, such as a crime committed inside a locked room, or a red herring (false clue) to trick them.

    The 1920s and 1930s are known as the Golden Age of crime fiction. These “whodunnits” settled into a familiar routine that offered very few surprises to their readers. The American script took place in the city and often included gangsters. As law enforcement began to dabble in forensic science, it made its way into books.

    The 1940s introduced a new type of crime novel known as “hardboiled” or “noir” fiction. Compared to the relatively light-hearted portrayal of crime in the Golden Age novels, these thrillers took a cynical turn that reflected the underbelly of modern American life. The city was grimy, danger lurked around every corner, and officials were undoubtedly corrupt.

    Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, thrillers transitioned from being plot-driven fiction to emphasizing their characters’ psychological motivations. Rather than the excitement of figuring out who the criminal was, readers were entertained by trying to predict their next step and waiting to see if the criminal would be brought to justice.

    The 1970s ushered in Contemporary American crime fiction that set itself apart from the classics. These thrillers tend to discard the lone wolf detective and replace them with detectives who are a part of, or aligned with, traditionally underrepresented segments of society. For example, contemporary US crime fiction introduced detectives who were female and from minority ethnic groups.

    American Crime Fiction, Detective, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The detective in noir fiction was a shadowy figure.

    Contemporary American Crime Fiction with Examples

    Crime fiction remains popular for many reasons. First, it stimulates people’s curiosity about danger and crime. Secondly, crime novels allow readers to live vicariously through heroic characters. Lastly, the fast pace of crime fiction keeps their attention.

    Contemporary American crime fiction can be broken down into multiple subgenres:

    Detective Fiction

    In detective fiction, the crime committed shares a spotlight with the detective investigating the crime. Like crime fiction itself, detective fiction has reinvented itself over the years. In the earliest examples, the detective is propped up as more intelligent than their fellow man, relying on their wit to outsmart the criminal. Over time, the clever detective evolved into the grizzled detective with the guts to keep working the crime in hardboiled thrillers. Contemporary detectives combine traits from their predecessors.

    James Patterson (1947-present) fleshed out serial detective Alex Cross throughout a series of novels to create a relatable character that contemporary crime readers follow.


    A mystery is very similar to detective fiction because the investigator, amateur or professional, drives the narrative forward to solve the crime. However, mystery thrillers work to involve the reader more often. These books encourage the reader to connect the pieces as they’re discovered and to ferret out false leads. Tense dialogues and strong imagery work together to create a suspenseful mood.

    Evan Hunter (1926-2005), writing as Ed McBain, published the 87th Precinct series of books for fifty years. The series follows a group of detectives as they work to solve various crimes against a backdrop of an anthropomorphized big city and its citizens.

    When an object or animal is anthropomorphized, it is described using human qualities.


    Contemporary hardboiled fiction transports the noir thrillers of the forties into the problems faced today. In keeping with contemporary crime fiction’s emphasis on character analysis, the detectives in these thrillers are complex antiheroes. The line between legal and illegal can get a little blurry in their pursuit of what's right.

    An antihero is a fictional character with significant flaws portrayed in a way that the audience finds questionable yet relatable. An antihero lacks characteristics that traditionally define heroic characters, like strength and courage.

    Following in noir fiction’s footsteps, the setting in hardboiled novels is a place where corruption threatens to squash justice, so it is necessary for a detective familiar with both sides of the law to step in and make things right.

    Contemporary crime writer Walter Mosley (1952-present) tackles race and social class issues through a hardboiled lens in his book Trouble is What I Do (2020).

    Cozy Mystery

    Cozy mysteries are contemporary Golden Age crime fiction. A female amateur sleuth usually heads the investigation. Unlike other subgenres, cozy mysteries avoid profanity and explicit violence or sex. Instead, these books are published to provide entertainment while involving the reader in a puzzle they want to help solve.

    They are light reads full of twists and turns and character development. Rita Mae Brown (1944-present) is a contemporary crime writer who developed a cozy mystery series co-authored by her cat Sneaky Pie Brown. The main character, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, solves crimes in a small town, unaware that her animal companions are one step ahead of her in the race.

    More Examples of Contemporary American Crime Fiction

    • Elizabeth Peters (1927-2013): Crocodile on the Sandbank (1975)
    • Janet Evanovich (1943-present): One For the Money (1994)
    • Mario Puzo (1920-1999): The Godfather (1969)
    • Stephen King (1947-present): Mr. Mercedes (2014)
    • Gillian Flynn (1971-present): Sharp Objects (2006)

    Contemporary American Crime Fiction Characteristics

    Contemporary crime fiction comes in many styles, but most of the books published follow the same blueprint:


    To state the obvious, a book in the crime fiction genre must include a crime or crimes. Murder is the most common, but other crimes, such as espionage or computer crimes, can also make a good thriller. The crimes featured in crime novels reflect what society deemed illegal at the time.


    It follows that there can’t be a crime without a criminal. Depending on the type of crime fiction, the protagonist occasionally gets help from a known criminal to solve the case. Until recently, the book’s villain was typically ugly or had a physical disability.


    Traditionally, the investigator was male, but contemporary crime fiction is more inclusive, featuring women and a variety of main characters. The detective is often a loner or bucks the system if employed in law enforcement. If the investigator is an amateur sleuth, they have a hobby or special training that allows them insight into the investigation. The amateur sleuth also has friends or relatives who provide case access.

    Some of crime fiction’s roots are in Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism. Gothic literature emerged in the eighteenth century as a precursor to horror and is characterized by its foreboding atmosphere, melodramatic storylines, and vivid scenery. Dark Romanticism is a product of the eighteenth century as well. However, while it shares the melodrama of the Gothic genre, Dark Romanticism is more about a pessimistic and grotesque view regarding nature and humankind. In contrast to Romanticism, which described nature as euphoric and humans as inspired by God, Dark Romanticism saw people for their sins and nature as threatening and dangerous. These genres intersect with crime fiction’s tendency toward graphic scenes of violence, antiheroes, eccentric characters, and an edge-of-the-seat feel.


    The criminal leaves behind a trail of clues for the investigator to follow. Some crime novels detail specialized forensic techniques the detective uses in criminal detection. Still, in addition to physical evidence, the detective relies on dialogue and witness testimony to piece the puzzle together. Crime fiction often includes false clues, also called red herrings, to create a plot twist.


    Crime novel authors use the element of danger to increase suspense in their thrillers. At some point in the book, the detective finds themself or their loved ones in physical danger, or they risk “losing everything” to solve the crime. The level of danger usually increases as the investigator gets closer and closer to solving the case. In addition, the setting can introduce risk, such as when an investigation requires the detective to look for clues in threatening environments.

    Moral Lesson

    Contemporary crime fiction occasionally deviates into an ambiguous ending, but aside from hardboiled fiction, the good guys win in classic crime novels. Similar to the crimes, the moral lesson weaved into the story mirrors the current society’s beliefs. It is communicated by a character wrestling with their conscience, the detective's investigative methods, the outcome of the story, or any combination of the three.

    American Crime Fiction, Black Book Detective Magazine, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Pulp fiction gets its name from crime fiction magazines that were cheap to publish and were meant to shock readers.

    American Crime Fiction Writers

    The best American crime fiction writers stand out because of their contributions to the development of the genre.

    Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)

    Raymond Chandler was one of the first writers to use a hardboiled style, and his character Philip Marlowe—a detective with fuzzy morals and a permanent sneer—continues to influence writers. His attention to atmosphere and character development anticipates the psychological thriller.

    Frank Morrison Spillane, aka Mickey Spillane (1918-2006)

    Mickey Spillane dove into hardboiled crime fiction after it was established, and he pushed the boundaries of sex and violence in books. Although critics panned him, he published dozens of crime novels and sold millions of copies. Spillane tuned into readers’ morbid curiosities, which crime fiction continues to satisfy today.

    Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

    Elmore Leonard started in film and brought the visual techniques he learned to his writing. He was a master of “show, don’t tell” and shocked readers by juxtaposing violence with domestic settings. Leonard transported characters from the Wild West into the city and put everyday people into horrific situations. However, his most significant innovation was to describe characters from another character's perspective.

    Sara Paretsky (1947-present)

    Sara Paretsky, one of the first women to write hardboiled crime novels, created a female detective who gave a voice to the women breaking into conventionally male professions at the time. Her fictional private investigator V. I. Warshowski was critical because unlike most female protagonists in historical and 1980s crime fiction, Warshowski was competent and in control.

    Mark Twain (1835-1910) wrote a novel exploring whether a person’s genes or environment have the most considerable influence on how they turn out, called Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). It is also one of the first novels to use fingerprinting to solve a crime.

    American Crime Fiction - Key takeaways

    • Crime fiction developed in the nineteenth century and is a literary genre whose plot revolves around a crime and its investigation.
    • Crime fiction started to evolve into its contemporary form around 1900 when it began including investigative techniques and criminal motives.
    • Contemporary American crime fiction can be divided into subgenres: Detective fiction, Mystery, Hardboiled, and Cozy mystery.
    • Characteristics of Contemporary US crime fiction include crime, criminals, an investigator, danger, clues, and a moral lesson.
    • Crime fiction was influenced by Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism.


    1. Dashiell Hammett. The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, and Selected Stories. 2007.
    2. Fig. 1: Dashiell Hammet "Thin Man" Portrait (Cropped) Public Domain: (
    3. Fig. 2: Black Book Detective 193307 v1 n2 Public Domain: (
    Frequently Asked Questions about American Crime Fiction

    Who are the best crime fiction writers in America? 

    These American crime fiction writers stand out as some of the best because of their contributions to the development of the genre:

    • Raymond Chandler
    • Mickey Spillane
    • Elmore Leonard
    • Sara Paretsky

    What are the characteristics of American crime fiction? 

    Characteristics of American crime fiction include:

    • A crime
    • A criminal
    • An investigator
    • Clues
    • Danger
    • A moral lesson

    What are the styles of contemporary American crime fiction?

    The styles of contemporary American crime fiction are:

    • Detective Fiction
    • Mystery
    • Hardboiled
    • Cozy Mystery

    What is American crime fiction?

    American crime fiction is a literary genre whose plot revolves around a crime and its investigation. 

    Why is crime fiction so popular?

    Crime fiction is popular for many reasons:

    • It stimulates people’s curiosity about danger and crime. 
    • Crime novels allow readers to live vicariously through heroic characters.
    • The fast pace of crime fiction keeps their attention.

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