Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers

In February Blackwell publishes its Companion to Crime Fiction. My contribution is a long-ish (6000 words) article on ‘Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers’, which is an historical overview of crime and detective fiction for children. I’ve just added it to my archive. Here’s a taster:

Crime and  Detective Literature for Young Readers

The category of crime and detective fiction for young readers is in many ways an artificial one. Children and young readers are not restricted to stories written specifically for them and anthologies of crime and detective fiction produced for younger readers often include a mix of stories, at least some of which were originally intended for adults. Detective Stories (1998), edited by Philip Pullman, is a case in point. Although the anthology overall is produced as a collection for young readers, it includes stories by Dashiell Hammett, Damon Runyon and Agatha Christie, all known as writers for adults, alongside an excerpt from Erich Kästner’s 1929 detective novel for children, Emil and the Detectives. While the market for crime and detective literature written specifically for young readers expanded rapidly in the early twentieth century, it has frequently overlapped with crime and detective writing for an adult audience. Crime and detective literature for children allows for different possibilities in detection and plotting, especially in cases where the detective is a child, or part of a group of children, but it shares common origins with the genre as a whole.

Most studies of children’s literature, including Peter Hunt’s An Introduction to Children’s Literature (1994), identify a period in the mid-nineteenth-century in which children’s literature began to move away from didacticism and moralising and towards entertainment and adventure. This took place in the 1840s, at much the same time as detective fiction for adults was beginning to gain popularity among readers in the fast-growing cities of Europe and the United States. Dennis Butts (1997) argues that in the 1840s adventure and fantasy stories began to take over from religious and moral tales as suitable material for children, partly as a form of escape from the turmoil and uncertainties of life in the early nineteenth-century, but also because attitudes towards children were changing:

The emerging children’s literature, with its growing tolerance of children’s playful behaviour, its recognition of the importance of feelings as opposed to reliance upon reason and repression, and its relaxation of didacticism because it was less certain of dogmas, all reflect what was happening in the world beyond children’s books. It is surely remarkable that, whereas fairy tales had to fight for recognition in the 1820s, no fewer than four different translations of Hans Andersen’s stories for children should have been published in England in the year of 1846 alone. (Butts 1997: 159-160).

Elements of mystery, crime, and detection have long been important features of stories enjoyed by young readers. Yet despite the element of play that seems inherent to solving mysteries, crime and detective literature written specifically for young readers was slower to develop than the adult form, perhaps because children’s literacy in the major countries of Europe, and in the United States, did not become a general expectation until the late nineteenth century. Arguably the landmark moment in the emergence of detective fiction for children, at least in a widespread and popular sense, did not arrive until the appearance of the first ‘Hardy Boys’ story in 1927. [Read more]