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.
At present, we live in an era of genre proliferation. Informal, ad-hoc genres and subgenres– often not “organic” (are they ever?) but confected for the purposes of marketing culture industry commodities– are circulated and touted in a virtual public sphere– the web– peopled by readers, fans, bloggers, who possess at least a wider (if not deeper) knowledge of culture.
A fan of, say, Walking Dead may consult Wikipedia, individual blogs, AMC’s website, etc. and deepen/refine their attachment to and appreciation of the series by discovering its sources in the graphic novel, a genre (the zombie narrative) crowded with texts, the socio-cultural signficance of Voudoun as a syncretic religion produced in the crucible of Afro-Caribbean racial hierarchy and enslavement.
OTOH, surely, a fraction of the audience (or certain audiences) consumes WD indifferently in a fragmentary, only partially engaged fashion. WD constitutes simply one layer or facet of a much more complicated yet shallow mediasphere.
The question of genre is only one among many regarding crime fiction’s/ crime in lit’s relationship to historical context. Other issues include:
The rise of the modern state, with its juridical functions and the ways these transformations relate to the discourse of crime(in)fiction (cf. Foucault, Discipline and Punish).
Note that the fictional detective, according to Knight, precedes the establishment of detective bureaux, at least in the UK.
The modern state develops in tandem with capitalism (or, even further back, the extension of commercial relations, the nascent capitalism of Tudor England).
Crime is often economic activity by other means. Certainly this is the case with piracy and, more generally, property crimes. Fraud, confidence games, theft, robbery, resale of stolen goods– what crimes can we catalog as being obviously economic according to motive/effect? Then there are other crimes committed for pecuniary gain: contract killing (mercenaries?); murder in the act of another crime….
The development of legal codes necessitates distinctions between il/licit forms of economic activity. Because the capitalist state operates in the interests of capitalists their economic activities– ex. enclosure of the commons, which is an expropriation or act of theft itself– are legitimated at the expense of others: punishments for trespassing, poaching, gleaning, etc. The criminal is one whose economic practices are not sanctioned by the state.