Why the whodunit genre still reigns

Why the whodunit genre still reigns
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Highlights

Reading books is probably the most popular, and commonest, hobby in the world.

Reading books is probably the most popular, and commonest, hobby in the world. And the variety offered by literature is vast and varied. From plays and essays, to short stories and novels, the scope for choice is quite wide.

All countries, and the languages spoken by their people, have their legacies of literature. An assessment has shown, however, that if any genre exemplifies what is called world literature, it would be crime fiction. This appears to be true of virtually every national literature and regional culture. Books of that category outperform all other varieties in global book sales, appearances on bestseller lists and the number of translations into other languages.

The crime fiction genre is intended to entertain readers through fictional stories of criminal activity. Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue,' published in 1841, is generally considered the first detective story even published. It introduced to the world the private detective Monsieur C Auguste Dupin. Detective fiction was so new, when Dupin entered the library world, that the word detective had not even been used in English before.

The genre of detective fiction can be traced back to the 1800s, or around the time of industrial revolution. Before that, people lived in small towns and knew one another. With the passage of time, and the availability of more jobs in the industrial sector, they moved to large cities. Interactions with strangers led to suspicion, uncertainty and crime. It is also around that time that police forces were first established, with the London police coming into being in 1829, and New York City getting its first police force in 1845. The setting was just right for the detective genre to flourish. The first detective novel followed soon after, British author Wilkie Collins's the 'Moon Stone'.

As is well known, the detective character whose influence can be seen most in crime literature, as we see today, was Sherlock Holmes, the unforgettable and inimitable character created by Sir Arthur Conan and Doyle. Holmes and his assistant Watson are probably known in every country of the world. It is interesting to note that Holmes' character was not only inspired, in part, by Poe's detective Dupin, but was also based on a real man Dr Joseph Bell, who was a surgeon, and a lecturer, at the University of Edinburgh. Doyle himself had said that he had constructed the character of Holmes around the qualities of the quick wit and intelligence of Dr Bell.

The period 1920 to 1939 is generally regarded as the golden age of detective fiction. The most popular author at that time was Agatha Christie, the creator of mini stories, especially those centred around Hercules Poirot, the colourful detective. She and other authors as of that age were responsible for handing down a legacy of novels based on the gathering of clues and solution of crimes as though they were puzzles and what are now called 'cosy mysteries.'

Thus was born the hardboiled detective tradition, with stories that included detectives dealing with corrupt police forces, and organised crime. Crime fiction, or 'whodunit,' is of many varieties, including court room drama, hard-boiled fiction and legal thrillers. Suspense and mystery are the key elements in the plots.

The 'One Thousand and One Nights,' popularly called the 'Arabian Nights,' contains the earliest known examples of crime fiction. ETA Hoffmann's 1819 novel 'Mademoiselle de Scuderi' is generally regarded as the earliest known modern fiction. It was soon followed by Thomas Skinner Sturr's 'Richmond or stories in the life of a Bow Street officer' in 1927.

Many detective fiction writers made a name for themselves and enthralled readers in the 20th century. Georges Simenon, the creator of the detective character Inspector Maigret of Paris, wrote novels in a style that was unique and distinct and, at the same time, extremely gripping.

A leading, prolific and successful writer of books and director of movies, in the category of criminal fiction, was Alfred Hitchcock, widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of cinema. Known as the 'Master of Suspense,' his cameo appearances in every one of his films were really unforgettable. Few of my generation will not have read the novels of Earl Stanley Gardner (who wrote under various pseudonyms including A.A. Fair) whose lawyer-advocate Perry Mason is a household name in the readers of criminal fiction. His novels sold nearly a million copies each. There were other great authors of crime fiction, such as Desmond Bagley and Alistair MacLean, whose fiction was very popular with the reading public. Some of those novels were to become successful movies. 'The Guns of Navarone,' for instance, was a runaway success.

Coming to India, RV Raman is considered as one of the best military mystery novelists of the country. Each Indian language has its celebrated crime fiction writers. Being from Andhra Pradesh, I recall with nostalgia the monthly Telugu periodical 'Detective' which not only provided exciting reading, but came coated in an exotic perfume called 'Cunega Marikolunthu.'

While most of crime detection work is done by officers from government departments, private agencies and individuals also undertake investigative work. It is not unknown for even the official police departments to seek their assistance when they feel the need for certain reasons, such as secrecy or shortage of staff. As a rule, however, government departments prefer to work on their own and do not appreciate interference from outside agencies. Individuals often seek the help of private investigators and agencies for work which the police will normally not undertake. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, was a private detective, as was the well-known Paul Drake, in Perry Mason's stories.

Dogs are not only man's best friends, but also play an important role in crime detection. Most police departments have a dog squad, and use the canine detective for purposes which human beings cannot perform, such as sniffing out bombs or tracing the whereabouts of missing persons, or absconding criminals, by following the scent of their clothes, footsteps etc.

And our pet dog, Scamper, was fully trained as a police dog. The only problem was that, every time my office files came home in a big black box, he would start shivering and, with legs buckling under him, run and hide under a bed, because he was taught that black boxes were usually bombs!

Mullapudi Venkataramana was among the most readable humorists in the Telugu language. He and the amazingly talented Bapu, a household name to all Telugu speaking people in the world, produced many hilarious books and unforgettable movies, notable among the latter being 'Sita Kalyanam.' In one of his stories, he says that the writer and director of the movie sustained unbearable suspense to such a degree, till the very end, that each person in the audience began to suspect the person sitting next to him!

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

(The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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