In order for there to be a self-conscious genre of crime fiction there must be a social foundation in the form of a judicial/penal system. Even so, there are modern works of fiction featuring crimes and criminals that are generally not considered to be crime fiction. In the past, the distinction between these two forms– Zola’s Therese Raquin, say, and a John Grisham thriller– was ascribed to “literariness.” By definition, aesthetically accomplished texts did not fall into the category of mass-produced “entertainments” (as Graham Greene called his less “serious” novels) even if the scale of publishing operations was the same for both. Since the 1960s in particular, and with the advent of Modernism more generally such distinctions are no longer creditable.
All of the preceding is a way of thinking about the vexed issue of genre and questions of reception. The most useful critical commonplace concerning genre is that it functions less as a container encompassing various texts sharing specific (thematic, formal, production-related) features and more as a spectrum of possible iterations and performances which always risk overspilling generic boundaries. (I.e., genres were made to be broken.) The question of genre– and even that genre is a question at all– indicates a specific stage (too teleological?) of socio-cultural development.