The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction



British and American detective fiction share a common origin in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but by the time they were enjoying their respective Golden Ages in the early twentieth century they had already become quite distinct from the other, with each possessing its own unique tropes and clichés. This article will look at the development of the hard-boiled and ‘soft-boiled’ genres, and provide an explanation for the British preference for the countryside and the American predilection for stories set in the ‘mean streets’ of L.A., San Francisco, etc. It will demonstrate that the differences between British and American crime fiction can be attributed not only to obvious matters of geography but also their social milieus, and that both the British and American detective were designed to fulfil very different purposes: stability and the preservation of the status quo in the case of the former, and a study into moral complexity and blue-collar sympathy regarding the latter.

The first literary detective was Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Poe is the font from which all future crime writers drew their inspiration, but Dupin has more in common with British creations like Hercule Poirot than he does Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Dupin is European, eccentric, aristocratic, arcane in his pursuits and, like Sherlock Holmes, is best characterised as a ‘consulting detective’. Unlike later American detective stories, whenever Poe utilised miasmic streets and labyrinthine alleys he turned to London (The Man of the Crowd) or Paris (Murders in the Rue Morgue) as backdrop. Mid-to-late nineteenth century American fiction, when dealing with their own cities, tended to portray them as “urban-pastoral world[s] of primeval novelty” rather than “a city anyone ever inhabited.” The “mean streets” of Chandler and Hammett had yet to emerge from the turmoil of the new century.

The classic British detective story, according to P.D. James, was concerned with “bringing order out of disorder” and was typically “a genre of reconciliation and social healing”. Though detectives like Poirot sometimes found themselves jaunting between Britain, Egypt, Iraq and the Continent, the typical location for these stories was the countryside, often represented as “an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration”. Readers could be assured that whenever a story’s mystery was resolved the countryside would be restored to its previous “prelapsarian tranquillity” by an omnisciently-observant gentleman detective.

These detectives were typically aristocratic and included doctors, solicitors, spinsters, and pastime sleuths. They were “never frightened or appalled, never himself (and occasionally herself) a victim of events, never outwitted or daunted” and their ultimate purpose was “to build and uphold a firm structure of social and moral values.” Stephen Knight noted that some societies in early crime fiction were “so tightly knit that escape will not be possible … If there has been a murder, ‘some gentleman’ will come along and take the criminal to a magistrate.” If the police themselves are ever hostile or condescending towards the private investigator then by the tale’s resolution they are “humbly amazed” by his singular brilliance. The idealised British detective therefore was a paragon, especially equipped to remove crime from the countryside. In his book British Writers of the Thirties author Valentine Cunningham puts forward that the detective genre “doubtless owed a lot to its ritualized acts of determining order and significance amidst the seeming randomness of the murderer’s bullet or cut-throat razor.”

British crime fiction’s predilection for posing murder and mystery in the countryside rather than the city are manifold. Firstly, the early detective novels sprang from the country-house genre. Raymond Williams writes that “the true fate of the country-house novel was its evolution into the middle-class detective story … with some of its roots in George Eliot and Hardy but with a significant limitation of scope.” ‘Country house’ novels typically explored small, interlocked communities where social and personal familiarity were key themes. These concerns were transposed more or less directly into the detective novel, even if only to be exploited.

Secondly, English rural writers and poets had long denigrated London and its “insolent rabble” and the “idle, profligate and debauched” therein. They came from a tradition that insisted upon the “very powerful myth of modern England in which the transition from a rural to an industrial society is seen as a kind of fall, the true cause and origin of our social suffering and disorder.” That cities were chaotic and polluted was a given, that they were troubled by incessant crime a certainty. For many intellectual and refined detectives the criminals in England’s cities were too common and their crimes too conventional. Crime fiction put knives and poisons in the hands of zealous parlour maids, butlers, housekeepers, fortune hunters and remaindermen. It took the strange and terrible and transposed it into the mundane and ordinary.

In Agatha Christie’s short story collection The Thirteen Problems a writer, a clergyman, a solicitor and a former police commissioner all debate on whose profession and “what class of brain” is best suited for solving mysteries. Each would become a British mystery novel archetype, as would the victor in their debate – an elderly spinster called Miss Marple. Marple is an inconspicuous figure. Her modesty disguises a sharp intellect and a peregrine’s eye for details. Her long life has made her a storehouse of knowledge, but she conducts herself with a disarming Socratic humility.

“I think it would be very interesting,” said Miss Marple, “especially with so many clever gentleman present. I am afraid I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St Mary Mead does give one an insight into human nature.”
“I am very sure your co-operation will be very valuable,” said Sir Henry, courteously.

In true parlour fashion, the mysteries in The Thirteen Problems are merely mental exercises, solved from the comfort of an armchair, the stakes no higher than the loss of face during a guessing game. The book’s main device is what Poe called “ratiocination” (and what Christie’s own Poirot would refer to as his ‘little grey cells’); it is the unique ability to soak up details and turn out precise observations that reveal deeper or hidden truths. It is this class of brain, and this stock of character, Marple’s companions realise, that is best suited for solving mysteries.

Williams found it fitting “that a mode of analysis of human relationships which came out of Baker Street, out of the fogs of the transient city, should find a temporary resting-place in this facade way of life, before it eventually returned to its true place in the streets.” To suggest that the streets are the ‘true place’ of deduction and syllogistic reasoning is to suggest that it has no place in the countryside at all: that the people there have no need for it, that they are intrinsically trustworthy and devoid of iniquity. This assumption highlights why the countryside was the perfect environment for a mystery story: the notion that a butler, vicar or maid could be a murderer is more likely to surprise a reader than if the suspects were a pickpocket, a burglar or any other felon. The detective novel’s purpose was to provide the stimulant of a puzzle and the thrill of revelation. It was not designed to remind readers of the squalor of the inner cities, but tease them with the exciting prospect that there was something hidden amongst the picket fences and cropped grass and familiar and genteel smiles of their neighbours. “Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes,” Miss Marple teases in The Thirteen Problems.

Even the most famous city detective found the demure countryside landscape chilling. Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, utters that “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” And we must remember that London, as Watson tells us in A Study in Scarlet, is “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”

Holmes and Watson. Parlour games and exercises of the mind.

Holmes and Watson. Parlour games and exercises of the mind.

While the British detective held court in the parlour rooms of the country house the hard-boiled detective stalked through the mean streets of a rapidly expanding and yet decaying Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. His origin is to be found (or is lost) in the dime novels of the early twentieth century.

These ‘grey papers’ or pulp magazines specialised in making heroes out of “cowboys, soldiers, explorers and masked avengers” before branching out to crime detection. They were sparely-written, flecked with slang and colloquialisms, and peopled by tough and unsentimental detectives who were routinely referred to in the new street lingo as gumshoes, snoopers or sleuths. The bumbling or inept constabularies of British detective fiction were also replaced by corrupt or indifferent police departments, and disillusionment with the police force was usually a compelling factor for the sleuth to become a private detective in the first place. American detectives weren’t afraid to go knuckle-to-knuckle with an adversary, even before introductory words can be exchanged. Their clients include the spurned and the desperate (only the British detective can call aiding the King of Bohemia a “small matter,” as is the case with Holmes). The American detective frequented flop houses and clip joints. They fought against and walked amongst finks, juicers, dips, goons and two-time losers as well as gangsters and plutocrats. The gumshoe has no villainous arch-rival, no Moriarty or Dr. Fu Manchu, because he himself is largely unspectacular. “He is a common man,” Raymond Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled hero, “or he could not go among common people.”

The American detective owes his roughhouse distinctiveness to, of course, America. In the fifty years between Poe’s death and the new century a calamitous civil war had been settled, the nation had “doubled its geography”, and the number of “foreign born, suicides, industrial labourers, divorces, gross national product, and white-collar workers all doubled.” Thomas J. Schlereth writes of early twentieth century America that “A country in transition was also in transit. Everyone seemed en route: emigrating and immigrating, removing or being removed, resettling and relocating in many directionseast to west, south to north, rural to urban, urban to suburban.” Architecture also went its own way: ‘Queen Anne’ styled housing went out of fashion and the rise of the skyscraper gave big city skylines a distinct appearance (notably, in Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Miss Marple, suffering the passing of old friends and strange new villagers, finds comfort in “the little nest of Queen Anne and Georgian houses, of which hers was one”. Rural England’s architecture being the only constant anchor for an aging and archaic mode of life).

The end result was that by the early twentieth century Americans, transformed by inescapable upheaval and progress, were beginning to make “strident claims for ‘100 percent Americanism’”. Inevitably the country’s literature began to evolve into new and distinct forms. Detective fiction, despite its progenitor’s rejection of “the idea that there should be a specifically national character to American writing,” also became distinctly American or, as the genre came to be called, hard-boiled. Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled creed:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which the gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket.

Though American writers were undoubtedly aware of, and had extensively read, the work of their British counterparts, the hard-boiled did not arise as a response to it, but as the natural consequence of a domestic social revolution. Ian Ousby writes:

The hard-boiled school came not in reaction against Golden Age fiction, or indeed as the result of any programme of rebelling, but simply as a separate and rival development in the USA – a country which was anyway bound to tire of borrowing from the Old World to find its voice.

British detective fiction, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly archaic and stereotypical. The post-First-War period was increasingly an age of “mass-production, mass-demonstrations, mass-meetings, mass sporting occasions, mass-communications, mass-armies, a time when things would be done in, and to, and for crowds.” But while hard-boiled fiction took to the city streets the ‘soft-boiled’ equivalent stayed comfortably rustic, to its eventual detriment. “Even the exterior setting of the thing is in danger of becoming stereotyped,” complained Ronald Knox, “If I walked into the detective-story house, I believe I should be able to find my way about it perfectly; it is always more or less the same in design.” Incessant sequels and a glut of knock-offs diluted the bourgeois detective until he was no longer remarkable and no longer effective. Writer William Trevor remarked that

All over England, it seemed to me, bodies were being discovered by housemaids in libraries. Village poison pens were tirelessly at work. There was murder in Mayfair, on trains, in airships, in Palm Court lounges, between the acts. Golfers stumbled over corpses on fairways. Constables awoke to them in their gardens.

The British detective was fast losing his relevancy and potency. He was trapped in an unending cycle of locked rooms and exotic poisons and contested wills and perfidious servants. He was ageless and static and increasingly becoming a figure of fun. “Society was becoming corporate and efficient,” wrote William Marling. “The erudite Victorian hero wasn’t; he lost potency as alter ego, and eventually he became an anachronism.” P.D. James surmised that:

The omni-talented amateur with apparently nothing to do with his time but solve murders which interest him has had his day, partly because his rich and privileged lifestyle became less admirable, and his deferential acceptance by the police less credible, in an age when men were expected to work.

As the British detective was declining the American counterpart was quickly confirming his relevance. The gumshoe’s motivation would be employment, not leisure; he is vexed and frustrated, rather than thrilled or invigorated, by elaborate puzzles and ruses. If the aristocratic pastime detective finds himself taking on cases as a result of his immense free time and wealth then the gumshoe is a victim of his economic circumstances. “He is a relatively poor man,” Chandler wrote, “or he would not be a detective at all.”

The prototype for the hardboiled detective is arguably Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, who first appeared in Black Mask serials before being transported into novels like Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. The Op is short, portly, and not particularly erudite. His namelessness and unremarkable demeanour mark him as an everyman. “If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework,” Chandler later wrote, “you don’t know anything at all about the police.”

Hammett’s later creation Sam Spade is another bold deviation from the classic mold. His physical description is given at the beginning of the novel, and he is described as an impossible variety of ‘v’ shapes (chin, mouth, nostrils, brows, and hairline) and even his body seems “conical”. His description as a “blond satan” evocatively sets him apart from his forebearers and contemporaries. He is handsome, but not upstanding. William Marling contends that “Hammett, designing a new hero for new readers in a new era, tells them by this design that Spade is no Victorian detective. Spade is modern, seemingly amoral, rather than a synecdoche for any reassuring quality, as, say, Sherlock Holmes was for reason.” But despite any of his drawbacks, the typical cocky gumshoe was also an idealised figure. Hammett, in the 1934 introduction to The Maltese Falcon, explained that:

[Spade] is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander or client.

Spade is no gentleman, and isn’t particularly compassionate either. At the story’s beginning we see him feign politesse and compassion: “Spade nodded his blond satan’s head, frowned sympathetically, and tightened his lips together.” He operates from his office, rather than a parlour room or apartment. His workspace is merely one cell in a series of interconnected capillaries and he can never feel, even when isolated, truly alone: “The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighbouring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully.”

Veteran actor Howard Duff portrayed Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Veteran actor Howard Duff portrayed Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Ronald Knox and other British crime writers had decreed that the detective is not to fall in love or even toil with it. Though that rule had been sporadically bent before, it was in the American tradition where love or lust could be convincingly utilised as more than an aside or distraction. Spade’s quandary when giving up Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the police is not incidental to The Maltese Falcon’s drama; it is the culmination of it:

 “You didn’t–don’t–l-love me?”
“I think I do,” Spade said. “What of it?” The muscles holding his smile in place stood out like wales. “I’m not Thursby. I’m not Jacobi. I won’t play the sap for you.”

Spade explicitly rejects revenge or love as motivating factors. He hands Brigid in not because he distrusts her, but because “I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.” Brigid may have killed Spade’s partner, but her arrest is not personal. His desires are secondary. His moral code is a natural one. He is, ultimately, a deontologist. But this is not a reassuring or all-encompassing morality: for one, though it drives him to solve his partner’s murder, it does not stop him from sleeping with the man’s wife; secondly, sending Brigid to her inevitable execution horrifies his secretary, Effie, who can’t bear to have Spade touch her. Though his moral code does not protect him from acting immorally, and even though it damages, if only temporarily, his relationships with other people, it must be abided by.

Though the British detective seems mired in a never ending cycle of peace and disruption, they at least have the consolation of harmony, however brief. In The Dain Curse the Op is told that he is “A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same.” The Op and his ilk may often act in the greater moral interest, but they are not entirely likeable. Conversely, Sherlock Holmes can regularly be told that he has “saved England from a great public scandal”. But the gumshoe is not a solution to the world’s problems and there is no ‘prelapsarian tranquillity’ to restore it to. The effort to return a crime-ridden city into some semblance of serenity was explored in Hammett’s Red Harvest, and in typical hard-boiled fashion required gangsters and corrupt policemen to be gunned down to achieve its (arguably impossible) goal. The American detective could never set the world right. His was too primitive and yet too complex.

If the British detective can only amble on into irrelevance or retirement, the American sleuth, the perennial poor man in an onerous profession, must die in the gutter or keep his doors open for business, as Sam Spade is doomed to do in The Maltese Falcon’s closing moments:

“Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘Yes,’ he said, and shivered. ‘Well, send her in.’”


  • Cawelti, John G., Adventure, Mystery and Romance, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).
  • Chandler, Raymond, The Simple Art of Murder, (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).
  • Christie, Agatha, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, (New York: HarperCollins Ltd, 1977).
  • Christie, Agatha, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
  • Christie, Agatha, The Thirteen Problems, (New York: HarperCollins Ltd, 1932).
  • Conan Doyle, Arthur, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892).
  • Cunningham, Valentine, British Writers of the Thirties, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  • Deforest, Tim, Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America (Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc, 2004).
  • Hammett, Dashiell, The Maltese Falcon, (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2000).
  • James, P.D., Talking about Detective Fiction, (Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2009).
  • Marling, William, The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain and Chandler, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).
  • Marx, Leo, ‘The Puzzle of Anti-Urbanism in Classic American Literature’ in Graham Clarke (ed.) The American City: Literary Sources and Documents, (Hastings: Helm Information ltd, 1997).
  • Ousby, Ian, The Crime and Mystery Book, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997).
  • Reidhead, Julia (ed.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).
  • Schlereth, Thomas J, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
  • Symons, Julian, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, (London: Faber & Faber, 1972).
  • Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City, (London: Chattos & Windus Ltd, 1973).

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