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“Webster’s Dictionary defines the genre as ‘category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.’ This article is a part of a series in which I talk about the few ‘genres’ that I love in fiction. These are the main genres, not the sub-genres, in either movies or books or anything fiction. Here, I dissect the genres, talk about their significance to me and a little history of those genres. I might also recommend some movies and books in the same genres.”
Why do so many stories revolve around the crime genre? Have you ever felt that the crime genre is being repetitive in recent times? We see a lot of classic movies, books or web-series have a crime or a criminal or a gang as the central element. But why do they use crime as the element?
Is there a need for the crime genre in the stories that we see or read? As Anurag Kashyap said in an interview “All great cinema is crime genre.” So, what does that tell us about the films we see? Is the crime genre good or bad? Let’s try to find out the answers!
The first and foremost question you might ask is - What is the Crime Genre?
A genre consists of four elements: character, story, plot and setting. If we look for these elements in the context of the Crime Genre, we can get the answer to the above question.
- Plot: In most of the crime fictions, the central elements are some criminal acts and/or their investigation. Generally, stories revolve around murders or heists or the intricate planning or execution of those plots
- Characters: Mostly the protagonists and antagonists are either criminals or policemen or detectives. Sometimes, the characters aren’t even criminals; they’ll be a common man witnessing a heinous crime.
- Setting: A lot of times the settings tell if the story will be a crime or some other genre. A setting in a story means the location where the narrative takes place, like a police station or a mob family house or a prison
So now we know what crime genre is. It can be a story revolving around any criminal activity or a criminal character or in a crime related setting. With these elements, we can see some of the classic stories.
In Jeetu Joseph’s classic crime thriller, Drishyam (2013), the whole plot revolves around missing of IG’s son.
As mentioned above, according to Anurag Kashyap, “All Great Cinema is Crime Genre”. He backs that thought up with his affection towards the genre. He particularly enjoyed crime-related stories when he was young. He says, “Crime Genre is a cinematic genre.”
Generally, all the stories revolve around the characters, their needs and the conflicts they face while achieving their goals. Those kinds of stories do receive the maximum amount of praise. The reason is, we as audience empathize with the characters. In The Shawshank Redemption, the audience certainly feels for the prisoners, even though they were criminals.
Crime Fiction does the same with the protagonist. The protagonist in crime fictions are mostly Detectives, Cops or Gangsters. It’s their journey that we enjoy. It’s the journey that makes us root for them or hates them. In most of the crime fiction stories, the journeys are much interesting. Their journeys provide us with an escape from reality and enable us to dream for a while. Forensic crime novels have been referred to as ‘distraction therapy’, proposing that crime fiction can improve mental health and be considered as a form of treatment to prevent depression.
That’s why Anurag Kashyap loved the crime fiction stories he read in his childhood and he did make some of the classic crime fiction movies in modern Bollywood.
There’s another question though; what about the gangsters? What about the serial killers? What about those stories where the criminal gets away? Sometimes, the protagonists of crime fictions are the criminals or the “gangsters”. We ought to hate those films that glorify crimes, right?
In the 40s and 50s Hollywood, there was a code called Hays Code which conveyed that the criminal should be caught or killed by the end of the movie so as not to glorify crime on screen. But that code died in 1968 and there are so many classics where the villain gets away with what he does. Despite all the cruelty and violence, we tend to love gangsters on screen, why?
To explain that question in short, the character of a gangster conveys control. Control over all the other things, he is menacing, he can do whatever he wants with just a gesture of his hand. In Godfather, Vito Corleone waves his hand and the guest gets a drink. We see this gesture even before we see Vito’s face, symbolising his power.
Therefore to conclude the "why", we can say that due to the symbolism of power, the thrill of journey and complexities of conflicts, crime genre becomes a much powerful genre over the other genres. But the modern-day crime fiction differs a lot from its inception. Let’s take a look at where it began.
The Evolution Of Crime Fiction
When talking about the first stories in crime fiction, some might say Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave us the first detective driven story; but Edgar Allan Poe did that quite a lot of time before him. The very first examples of crime fiction can be found way back in the short story “The Three Apples” in the Arabian Nights series. It follows the usual murder mystery format. It is one of the early examples of such stories.
“The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee” is a Chinese crime novel from the 18th century. It contains many stories revolving around Di Renjie, a county magistrate and statesman of the Tang Court. In America, Edgar Allan Poe wrote some of the classic stories in the crime thriller genre. He is considered to be the inventor of detective fiction stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle then introduced the world to the stories of Sherlock Holmes narrated by Dr Watson. Conan Doyle was the first to give the narrator not only a name but also a crucial role in the stories. Agatha Christie then picked up the job to give the world some of the classiest and pulpiest “whodunits”.
The works of three legends mentioned above gave rise to hardboiled crime fiction. Hardboiled fiction is a sub-genre in crime fiction. Many writers in the 20th century made stories with similar tropes.
There was an American protagonist who was mostly depicted as a man in his 30s or 40s. He was a loner but a tough guy. He was a heavy drinker, hanging out in the shady bars. His journeys were also quite similar. They began with easy looking mysteries and got harder to solve as the leading hero went further. The police in those stories were usually inefficient or corrupt.
The influence of these hardboiled fiction stories can be seen in the Indian stories like Faster Fene by B. R. Bhagwat, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi by Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay.
These kinds of storytelling influenced the 40s and 50s of Hollywood with the rise of Film Noir. Film Noir was a very influential genre that made some films that are still considered classics. Some of my favourites movies from that era are – The Third Man (1949) , Sunset Blvd. (1950), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Notorious (1946), Touch Of Evil (1958).
Into the 60s and 70s, new trends emerged with the cold war going on and the world had faced two world wars. The “Neo-Noir” genre rose to popularity. It usually revolved around the cynicism and possibility of nuclear annihilation. That genre focused on the brutality of violence and duality of governments. Most acclaimed Neo-Noirs are – Chinatown (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Some examples of this genre in Bollywood can be Zanjeer (1973), Deewar (1975).
During the same time, as the Hays Code died, Gangster Movies rose to prominence. Francis Ford Coppola adapted Mario Puzo’s novel and gave the world The Godfather (1972) and its equally amazing sequel. Martin Scorsese made Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Most of these films revolved around the Italian-American Mobsters. Scorsese also made Gangs Of New York (2002) with Daniel Day-Lewis, The Departed (2006) and his latest The Irishman (2019).
In India, Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998) is still considered as the pivotal movie. That film gave us amazing and iconic actors, writers and directors. Vishal Bharadwaj has adapted Shakespeare’s plays into Bollywood crime-drama films, and they have unique authenticity to them. Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014). These films drew their inspirations from the happenings in Mumbai’s underworld and created a whole sub-genre of Mumbai Underworld. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012) is a rural pulp crime film.
All the gangster films mentioned above show us the rise and fall of the gangsters. But they also tend to comment on the socio-political issues that create gangsters, they comment on racism on a thematic level. Some of these movies are inspired by real-life incidents. The Irishman (2019) deals with the existential crisis of a gangster where Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012) laughs on the mentality and stupidity of gangsters.
The crime-thriller template is also very famous in films and stories. This sub-genre mixes the elements of crime and thriller genre. There are twists, mysteries, conspiracies and much more. Few writers like John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Vikram Chandra, Ruskin Bond have written some amazing books.
A few that I like are – The Pelican Brief (1992), The Da Vinci Code (2003), The Perfect Murder (2017) and Sacred Games (2006). All of which work well as thrillers, but they also have crime drama elements. The Pelican Brief as the unexpected hero in the tough situations, The Da Vinci Code has all the detective fiction elements. Sacred Games can’t be categorized into one genre as it can be derived differently by everyone.
Some classic movies in this sub-genre are – Andhadhun (2018) by Sriram Raghavan, Seven (1995) by David Fincher, The Silence Of The Lambs (1992) by Jonathan Demme and almost all of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography can be considered crime-thrillers. Quentin Tarantino managed to make the pulpiest crime fiction films. His amazing works involve Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill (2003/04). It would be a crime to call them just crime-thrillers.
And there are more and more names of writers and directors working in Crime Fiction. Crime Fiction stories are fun, but in the modern stories, they also convey important themes of politics, satire and societal commentaries. Crime is an inherent part of society and Crime Fiction works as a mirror to the society with its subtexts and underlying themes. These themes, motifs, conflicts and characters make crime fiction into interesting stories.
All in all, crime fiction is a meta-realistic and meta-fantasy genre that gives us enough reason to escape the real world but also keeps us slightly aware of the existence of that world. Maybe that is the reason why I love this genre so much.
What do you think? Do you like crime fiction as well? Write in the comments about your favourite movies from this genre.
© 2021 Atharva Onkar Deshpande