Unlike most styles of fiction, detective fiction has a definite genesis. Scholars credit Edgar Allan Poe, a Virginian, with creating the first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in 1841. Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin was the literary model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s more famous Sherlock Holmes. Subsequently, detective fiction has remained a mainstay of popular writing. Although the particulars of the detective have changed a great deal, detective fiction still bears the stamp of its nineteenth-century southern creator.
Because detective fiction has its roots in southern literary tradition, it is no surprise that Mississippi has produced its fair share of detective novelists. Mississippi’s most famous writer, William Faulkner, dabbled in detective fiction. Contemporary Mississippi authors John Armistead, Ace Atkins, Nevada Barr, Jim Fraiser, John Grisham, Carolyn Haines, Charlaine Harris, Thomas Harris, Greg Iles, Neil McGaughey, Charles Wilson, and Genevieve Holden (the pen name of Genevieve Long Pou) have also embraced tales of detection.
Faulkner, a Nobel Prize winner and Raymond Chandler contemporary, wrote several hard-boiled detective stories that are collected in Knight’s Gambit, and critic André Malraux observed that one of Faulkner’s most commercially successful works, Sanctuary, incorporated hard-boiled themes. Although Faulkner was not the first author to have a lawyer as detective, he embraced the character early and is a progenitor of the legal thriller fiction Grisham has excelled at writing.
Grisham is undoubtedly the most popular contemporary Mississippi author. Born in Arkansas, Grisham moved to Southaven as a child. He graduated from Mississippi State University in 1977 and the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1981. In terms of books sold, Grisham is one of the biggest names in all of contemporary fiction. The majority of his work is of the legal thriller variety—fiction with a lawyer-detective as the protagonist. The popularity of this genre represents a turn away from the hard-drinking, womanizing, gun-toting heroes of hard-boiled detective fiction and a turn back toward heroes like Dupin and Holmes. In the words of critic Larry Landrum, “Capturing with perfect pitch the obsession with money and power that began in the early 1980s and the paranoia of the 1990s, Grisham’s legal thrillers tap into several different audiences.” Grisham’s work also features themes of racial strife and the conflict between industry and environment.
Iles has not attained Grisham’s stratospheric popularity but is nevertheless an important Mississippi detective writer. Iles moved to Mississippi as a child, was educated at the University of Mississippi, and has written several best-selling legal thrillers with Natchez lawyer Penn Cage as the protagonist. Critics have consistently praised Iles’s rendering of Natchez life, but like Grisham, Iles’s work has proven popular with the reading public but has failed to gain serious scholarly attention. In 2014, Iles published the first of what he calls the Natchez Burning Trilogy, Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree, and Mississippi Blood. Each work features a detective addressing intersections of violence, race, sex, and family history.
Atkins is not a native Mississippian but has set several novels in the Delta and currently resides in the state. He was born in Alabama and played football for Auburn University before becoming a writer for the St. Petersburg Times and then the Tampa Tribune. Atkins’s protagonist, Nick Travers, a former National Football League player and current college professor, seems to meld all of the hard-boiled detective’s manliness with all of the Victorian detective’s intellectual prowess. Enigmatic Texas musician and politician Kinky Friedman has said, “If Raymond Chandler came from the South, his name would be Ace Atkins.” In recent years, Atkins has authored several books in the Spenser series pioneered by Robert B. Parker.
Among several native Mississippi female detective writers, Haines stands out because of the size of her body of work. Haines has written seventeen Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries and a dozen other novels, with more on the way. She has also written numerous romance mysteries under the pseudonym Caroline Burnes. Born in Lucedale, Haines was educated at the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of South Alabama. Like Atkins, Haines cut her teeth as a journalist before moving on to novels.
Charlaine Harris was born in the Mississippi Delta but now resides in southern Arkansas. She was educated at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Best known for the Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels that became the basis for the HBO series True Blood, she has also written ten Aurora Teagarden novels about a Georgia librarian-detective; five Lily Bard novels about a Shakespeare, Arkansas, detective; and numerous other novels. Her most recent work has retained elements of the detective novel but has made a pronounced shift toward Southern Gothic fiction.
Barr has written more than a dozen novels in the Anna Pigeon series. The Nevada-born Barr came to Mississippi after receiving her education at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and the University of California at Irvine. Her experience as a park ranger on the Natchez Trace Parkway is reflected in her protagonist, who is both a park ranger and a detective. Critics have consistently praised Barr’s use of language and descriptions of nature.
In very broad terms, Mississippi detective fiction has tended toward more educated, cultured, and erudite detectives than Mike Hammer or those in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct. Mississippi detective authors also seem to address violence as an organic fact of life rather than something outstanding or unnatural. Violence in Mississippi detective fiction tends to cross racial lines, and race typically plays an integral part in plots. In addition, the crimes featured tend to be small-town crimes committed by or against the power structure. Finally, Mississippi detective writers tend to pay more attention to the natural world than do writers from more urbanized areas.
- Larry Landrum, American Mystery and Detective Novels: A Reference Guide (1999)
- Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne, eds., Dimensions of Detective Fiction (1976)
- Martin Priestman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (2003)