Ever since the genre began crime writers have been tighttrope walkers, trying to find the right balance between the two basic elements of mystery fiction that are plot and character. Whether the criminal or human interest should prevail is ultimately for the writer only to decide, but depending on the period the average answer was, and still is, different.
The first detective story solved the problem in a radical fashion: there is no human interest at all in Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe like his twentieth-century heirs Lovecraft and Borges was primarily interested in concepts and structures, not people. It was enough to start a genre but hardly a recipe to sustain it at a time when fiction, especially of the popular kind, was very much about people. As a result, crime fiction of what the following period took the opposite course. Gaboriau’s romans judiciaires, Collins’ sensation novels and Green and Hume‘s early detective novels have plenty of human interest, too much for their own good according to some. The balance shifted once more when Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and put the focus back on the Great Detective, a superhuman character whose involvement in the case is solely of the purely intellectual (or financial) kind. For all individual attempts to restore the pre-holmesian consensus, the notion that crime fiction was primarily about crime prevailed at least until WW2’s outbreak. The post-war years as we know took a different course and the new consensus (crime fiction is about crime and people) is still prevalent today, for good and ill.
Not that the quarrel over plot vs. character has settled. There are still writers and readers who care only for the puzzle and others who prioritize characterization, and clashes can sometimes be quite violent. The problem as I see it is that most people see the question as a zero-sum game, an either/or whereas in truth criminal and human interests are not mutually exclusive. Just because many writers past and present have difficulty, fail or don’t care managing both doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. What’s more, the perfect balance has to do not with the author but with the book itself. Just because a writer found the right note in Book A doesn’t mean he’ll be able to find it again in Book B, or that it will work the same way. Some books call for a primarily plot-focused approach, others for a more people-centered one. In the end however the verdict belongs only to the reader, since they are the only one knowing which appeals most to them – and the reader can fluctuate too.
Yes, I hear you asking, but what is your own take on this? Well, I put myself among the « fluctuating » crowd as depending on the mood or the book I can be either a plot or character-driven reader. Two of my favourite mysteries of the year so far, Noël Vindry’s Le Double Alibi and Helen McCloy’s Alias Basil Willing are primarily focused on the criminal element but the other two, Jean Potts’ The Diehard and Ellis Peters’ A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs are more about the human factor. All four are remarkable books by writers I equally admire. What they have in common is first that they make their priorities clear from the start, meaning you’re not wasting your time reading them to know what they’re up to, and second and most crucially that whether focusing on the criminal or human interest they are actually interesting.
Which in the end might be the most important requirement for a book, crime fiction or not.