In his classic book on Golden Age mysteries, Murder for Pleasure, the critic Howard Haycraft makes the claim that the detective story can exist only in a democracy. The reason for this, he states, is that autocratic governments don’t care about punishing the right person, the individual who actually committed the crime. And of course autocratic governments don’t provide any protection for individual rights, whereas in a democracy there are strict rules of evidence and other means of protecting the rights of individuals.

In fact Haycraft is confusing democracy with freedom [or what we call a liberal democratic republic, using the older sense of the word “liberal”–ed.], a mistake most people make. The thing that guarantees the rights of the individual is the rule of law, not democracy as such.

The detective story evolved in Britain and the United States (and to a much lesser extent in France) in the mid-19th century, at a time when none of these countries was, strictly speaking, a democracy in the sense that we understand the term today. But both the United States and Britain could be considered to be free countries in the sense that they operated under the rule of law. Whether France qualified then (or qualifies today) as a truly free country is more debatable. The French system certainly seems to provide far less protection for individual rights. This may well be why the detective story has never been able to thrive in France to the same extent as in the United States and Britain. (The most popular and acclaimed writer of French detective fiction, Georges Simenon, was Belgian, as it happens.)

It is important to note that Haycraft is talking about the actual detective story, not crime fiction in general. His claim of a link between democracy and the detective story applies only to the type of story that involves the solving of a crime, the puzzle-oriented detective story. Other types of crime fiction can, of course, thrive anywhere. Dostoevsky wrote one of the greatest of all works of crime fiction, Crime and Punishment, under a regime that was by any standards very autocratic indeed.

It’s interesting that the puzzle type of detective story reached its peak of popularity in the 1930s. It remained very popular for some decades after that, but it is certainly no longer the dominant form of crime fiction. Does this reflect a change in society? There’s no doubt that the growth in the power of governments has eroded individual rights and that this process really started to accelerate in the post-World War II period. I think it is also possible that people in the United States and Britain today value their individual rights less highly than did their forebears in the 1920s and 1930s. This is reflected in their reading habits, I suggest, and is visible in the dominance of the mystery genre by “crime stories,” police procedurals, private eye fiction, and “noir” fare since World War II.