Detective fiction  

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"The historical whodunit joins the detective plot with nonfictional narrative, producing texts like Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose ... such as Arturo Perez- Reverte's The Club Dumas (1993) and A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990) ."--Encyclopedia of Literature and Politics (2005) by M. Keith Booker

"THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them."--"Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" (1928) by S. S. Van Dine

Sherlock Holmes (right) and Dr. Watson, by Sidney Paget
Sherlock Holmes (right) and Dr. Watson, by Sidney Paget

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Detective fiction is a branch of crime fiction that centers upon the investigation of a crime, usually murder, by a detective, either professional or amateur. Detective fiction is the most popular form of both mystery fiction and hardboiled crime fiction.

A common feature of detective fiction is an investigator who is unmarried, with some source of income other than a regular job, and who generally has some pleasing eccentricities or striking characteristics. He or she frequently has a less intelligent assistant, or foil, who is asked to make apparently irrelevant inquiries and acts as an audience surrogate for the explanation of the mystery at the end of the story.


Beginnings of detective fiction

Early Arabic detective fiction

The earliest known example of a detective story was "The Three Apples", one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and find the murdererer within three days, or be executed if he fails his assignment. Suspense is generated through multiple plot twists that occur as the story progesses. This may thus be considered an archetype for detective fiction.

The main difference between Ja'far in "The Three Apples" and later fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, however, is that Ja'far has no actual desire to solve the case. The whodunit mystery is solved by the murderer himself confessing his crime, which in turn leads to another assignment in which Ja'far has to find the culprit who instigated the murder within three days or else be executed. Ja'far again fails to find the culprit before the deadline, but due to his chance discovery of a key item, he eventually manages to solve the case through reasoning, in order to prevent his own execution.

Early Chinese detective fiction

Chinese literature

Another strand of detective fiction is the Ming Dynasty Chinese detective fiction such as Bao Gong An (Chinese:) and the 18th century novel Di Gong An (Chinese:). The latter was translated into English as Dee Goong An (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) by Dutch sinologist Robert Van Gulik, who then used the style and characters to write an original Judge Dee series.

The hero of these novels is typically a traditional judge or similar official based on historical personages such as Judge Bao (Bao Qingtian) or Judge Dee (Di Renjie). Although the historical characters may have lived in an earlier period (such as the Song or Tang dynasty) the novels are often set in the later Ming or Manchu period.

These novels differ from the Western tradition in several points as described by van Gulik:

  • the detective is the local magistrate who is usually involved in several unrelated cases simultaneously;
  • the criminal is introduced at the very start of the story and his crime and reasons are carefully explained, thus constituting an inverted detective story rather than a "puzzle";
  • the stories have a supernatural element with ghosts telling people about their death and even accusing the criminal;
  • the stories were filled with digressions into philosophy, the complete texts of official documents, and much more, making for very long books;
  • the novels tended to have a huge cast of characters, typically in the hundreds, all described as to their relation to the various main actors in the story;
  • little time is spent on the details of how the crime was committed but a great deal on the torture and execution of the criminals, even including their further torments in one of the various hells for the damned.

Van Gulik chose Di Gong An to translate because it was in his view closer to the Western tradition and more likely to appeal to non-Chinese readers.

Early Western detective fiction

One of the earliest examples of detective fiction is Voltaire's Zadig (1748), which features a main character who performs feats of analysis. The Danish crime story The Rector of Veilbye by Steen Steensen Blicher was written in 1829, and the Norwegian crime novel "Mordet på Maskinbygger Rolfsen" ("The Murder of Engine Maker Rolfsen") by Maurits Hansen was published in 1839.

Das Fräulein von Scuderi, by E.T.A. Hoffmann 1819, in which Mlle de Scudery, a kind of 18th century Miss Marple, establishes the innocence of the police's favorite suspect in the murder of a jeweller, is sometimes cited as the first detective story and a direct influence on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". However, detective fiction is more often considered to have begun in 1841 with the publication of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" itself, featuring C. Auguste Dupin. Poe set up a plot formula that's been successful ever since. Poe followed with further Auguste Dupin tales: "The Mystery of Marie Roget" in 1843, and "The Purloined Letter" in 1844. Poe referred to his stories as "tales of ratiocination". In stories such as these, the primary concern of the plot is ascertaining truth, and the usual means of obtaining the truth is through a complex and mysterious process combining intuitive logic, astute observation, and perspicacious inference.

"The Mystery of Marie Roget" is particularly interesting because it is a barely fictionalized account based on Poe's theory of what happened to the real-life Mary Cecilia Rogers. The style of the analysis, with its attention to forensic detail, makes it a precursor and perhaps inspiration for the stories about the most famous of all fictional detectives, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, Holmes mentions the Poe story in the first Conan Doyle novel.

Another early example of a whodunit is a sub-plot in the vast novel Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens. The conniving lawyer Tulkinghorn is killed in his office late one night, and the crime is investigated by Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan police force. Numerous characters appeared on the staircase leading to Tulkinghorn's office that night, some of them in disguise, and Inspector Bucket must penetrate these mysteries to identify the murderer.

Dickens's protégé, Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) — sometimes referred to as the "grandfather of English detective fiction" — is credited with the first great mystery novel, The Woman in White. His novel The Moonstone (1868) was described by T. S. Eliot as "the first and greatest of English detective novels" and by Dorothy L. Sayers as "probably the very finest detective story ever written". Although technically preceded by Charles Felix's The Notting Hill Mystery (1865), The Moonstone can claim to have established the genre with several classic features of the twentieth-century detective story:

  • A country house robbery
  • An "inside job"
  • A celebrated investigator
  • Bungling local constabulary
  • Detective enquiries
  • False suspects
  • The "least likely suspect"
  • A rudimentary "locked room" murder
  • A reconstruction of the crime
  • A final twist in the plot

Some readers have suggested much earlier prototypes for the whodunnit, most notably the Old Testament story of Susanna and the Elders (Daniel 13; in the Protestant Bible this story is found in the apocrypha); Oedipus Rex, Sophocles' dramatic masterpiece, in which the young Oedipus tries to find out what happened to his murdered father and to his mother; the story of the dog and the horse related in the third chapter of Voltaire's Zadig (1747).

Golden Age detective novels

Many English and some North American readers, in what became known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction between the wars, generally preferred a type of detective story in which an outsider -- sometimes a salaried investigator or a police officer, but often a gifted amateur -- investigates a murder committed in a closed environment by one of a limited number of suspects. The most widespread subgenre of the detective novel became the whodunit (or whodunnit), where great ingenuity may be exercised in narrating the events of the crime, usually a homicide, and of the subsequent investigation in such a manner as to conceal the identity of the criminal from the reader until the end of the book, when the method and culprit are revealed.

The four original Queens of Crime were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. Apart from Ngaio Marsh (New Zealand) they were all female British writers; perhaps Josephine Tey could be added.

The most popular writer of the Golden Age whodunnit, and one of the most popular writers of all time, was Agatha Christie, who produced a long series of books featuring her detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, amongst others, and usually including a complex puzzle for the baffled and misdirected reader to try and unravel. Also popular were the stories featuring Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey and S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance.

The 'puzzle' approach was carried even further into ingenious and seemingly impossible plots by John Dickson Carr - also writing as Carter Dickson - who is regarded as the master of the "locked room mystery" and Cecil Street, who also wrote as John Rhode, whose detective Dr. Priestley specialised in elaborate technical devices, while in the US the whodunnit was adopted and extended by Rex Stout and Ellery Queen, among others. The emphasis on formal "rules" during the Golden Age (as codified in 1929 by Ronald Knox) produced a variety of reactions. Most writers were content to follow the rules slavishly, some flouted some or all of the conventions, and some exploited the conventions with genius to produce new and startling results.

The private eye novel

Private eye Martin Hewitt, created by British author Arthur Morrison, is perhaps the first example of the modern style of fictional private detective. By the late 1920s, Al Capone and the Mob were inspiring not only fear, but piquing genuine mainstream curiosity about the American underworld. Popular pulp fiction magazines like Black Mask capitalized on this, as authors such as Carrol John Daly published violent stories that focused on the mayhem and injustice surrounding the criminals, not the circumstances behind the crime. Very often, no actual mystery even existed: the books simply revolved around justice being served to those who deserved harsh treatment, which was described in explicit detail." In the 1930s, the private eye genre was adopted wholeheartedly by American writers. The tough, stylish detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Jonathan Latimer, Erle Stanley Gardner and others explored the "mean streets" and corrupt underbelly of the United States. Their style of crime fiction came to known as "hardboiled," which encompasses stories with similar attitudes concentrating not on detectives but gangsters, crooks, and other committers or victims of crimes.

In the late 1930s, Raymond Chandler updated the form with his private detective Philip Marlowe, who brought a more intimate voice to the detective than Hammett's distant, third-person viewpoint. His cadenced dialogue and cryptic narrations were musical, evoking the dark alleys and tough thugs, rich women and powerful men about whom he wrote. Several feature and television movies have been made about the Philip Marlowe character. James Hadley Chase wrote a few novels with private eyes as the main hero, including "Blonde's Requiem" (1945), "Lay Her Among the Lilies" (1950), and "Figure It Out for Yourself" (1950). Heroes of these novels are typical private eyes which are very similar to Philip Marlowe.

Ross Macdonald, pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, updated the form again with his detective Lew Archer, while still writing in what is considered the PI's Golden Age of Detective Fiction, begun by Hammett. Archer, like Hammett's fictional heroes, was a camera eye, with hardly any known past. "Turn Archer sideways, and he disappears," one reviewer wrote. Two of Macdonald's strengths were his use of psychology and his beautiful prose, which was full of imagery. Like other 'hardboiled' writers, Macdonald aimed to give an impression of realism in his work through violence, sex and confrontation; this is illusory, however, and any real private eye undergoing a typical fictional investigation would soon be dead or incapacitated. The 1966 movie Harper starring Paul Newman was based on the first Lew Archer story The Moving Target (1949). Newman reprised the role in The Drowning Pool in 1976.

Michael Collins, pseudonym of Dennis Lynds, is generally considered the author who led the form into the Modern Age. His PI, Dan Fortune, was consistently involved in the same sort of David-and-Goliath stories that Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald wrote, but he took a sociological bent, exploring the meaning of his characters' places in society and the impact society had on people. Full of commentary and clipped prose, his books were more intimate than his predecessors, dramatizing that crime can happen in one's own living room.

The PI novel was a male-dominated field in which female authors seldom found publication until Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton were finally published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Each author's detective was brainy, physical, and could hold her own. Their acceptance, then success, caused publishers to seek out other female authors.

The PI novel today is rich in variety. The strongest characteristic that binds them is that the detective now has a past and a life, while solving cases.

Police procedural

Many detective stories have police officers as the main characters. Of course these stories may take a variety of forms, but many authors try to realistically depict the routine activities of a group of police officers who are frequently working on more than one case simultaneously. Some of these stories are whodunits; in others the criminal is well known, and it is a case of getting enough evidence.

Other subgenres

There is also a subgenre of historical detectives. See historical whodunnit for an overview.

The first amateur railway detective, Thorpe Hazell, was created by Victor Whitechurch and his stories impressed Ellery Queen and Dorothy L. Sayers.

"Cozy mysteries" began in the late 20th century as a reinvention of the Golden Age whodunnit; these novels generally shy away from violence and suspense and frequently feature female amateur detectives. Modern cozy mysteries are frequently, though not necessarily in either case, humorous and thematic (culinary mystery, animal mystery, quilting mystery, etc.)

Another subgenre of detective fiction is the serial killer mystery, which might be thought of as an outcropping of the police procedural. There are early mystery novels in which a police force attempts to contend with the type of criminal known in the 1920s as a homicidal maniac, such as a few of the early novels of Philip Macdonald and Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails. However, this sort of story became much more popular after the coining of the phrase "serial killer" in the 1970s and the publication of The Silence of the Lambs in 1988. These stories frequently show the activities of many members of a police force or government agency in their efforts to apprehend a killer who is selecting victims on some obscure basis. They are also often much more violent and suspenseful than other mysteries.

Suspense — the core tenet of detective fiction

A beginner to detective fiction would generally be advised against reading anything about a piece of detective fiction (such as a blurb or an introduction) before reading the text itself. Even if they do not mean to, advertisers, reviewers, scholars and aficionados usually have a habit of giving away details or parts of the plot, and sometimes -- for example in the case of Mickey Spillane's novel I, the Jury -- even the solution. (After the credits of Billy Wilder's film Witness for the Prosecution, the cinemagoers are asked not to talk to anyone about the plot so that future viewers will also be able to fully enjoy the unravelling of the mystery.)

The unresolved problem of plausibility and coincidence

Up to the present, some of the problems inherent in crime fiction have remained unsolved (and possibly also insoluble). Some of them can be dismissed with a shrug: Why bother at all, even if it is obvious to everyone that an ordinary person is not likely to keep stumbling across corpses? After all, this is just part of the game of crime fiction. Still the fact that an old spinster like Miss Marple meets with an estimated two bodies per year does raise a few doubts as to the plausibility of the Miss Marple mysteries.

De Andrea has described the quiet little village of St. Mary Mead as having "put on a pageant of human depravity rivaled only by that of Sodom and Gomorrah". Similarly, TV heroine Jessica Fletcher is confronted with bodies wherever she goes, but over the years people who have met violent deaths have also piled up in the streets of Cabot Cove, Maine, the cozy little village where she lives. Generally, therefore, it is much more convincing if a policeman, private eye, forensic expert or similar professional is made the hero or heroine of a series of crime novels.

This implausibility is satirized frequently on the TV show Monk, in which the main character, Adrian Monk, is frequently accused of being a "bad luck charm" and a "murder magnet" as the result of the frequency with which otherwise normal people attempt to pull off elaborate schemes for perfect murders when he is in the vicinity. Likewise Kogoro Mori of Detective Conan got that kind of unflattering reputation. Although Mori is actually a private investigator with his own agency, the police has never been intentionally consulting him and he just keeps stumbling from one crime scene to another.

Also, the role and legitimacy of coincidence has frequently been the topic of heated arguments ever since Ronald A. Knox categorically stated that "no accident must ever help the detective" (Commandment No.6).

The Effects of Technology

Technological progress has also rendered many plots implausible and antiquated. For example, the predominance of mobile phones, pagers, and PDAs has significantly altered the previously dangerous situations in which investigators traditionally might have found themselves. Some authors have not succeeded in adapting to the changes brought about by modern technology; others, such as Carl Hiaasen, have.

One tactic that avoids the issue of technology altogether is the historical detective genre. As global interconnectedness makes legitimate suspense more difficult to achieve, several writers -- including Elizabeth Peters, P. C. Doherty, Steven Saylor, and Lindsey Davis -- have eschewed fabricating convoluted plots in order to manufacture tension, instead opting to set their characters in some former period. Such a strategy forces the protagonist to rely on more inventive means of investigation, lacking as they do the scientific tools available to modern detectives.

Proposed rules

Several authors have attempted to set forth a sort of list of “Detective Commandments” for prospective authors of the genre.

According to "Twenty rules for writing detective stories," by Van Dine in 1928: "The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more--it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws--unwritten, perhaps, but nonetheless binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort of credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience." Ronald Knox wrote a set of Ten Commandments or Decalogue in 1929, see article on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Famous fictional detectives

The full list of fictional detectives is immense. The format is well suited to dramatic presentation, and so there are also many television and film detectives, besides those appearing in adaptations of novels in this genre. Fictional detectives are generally applicable to one of four archetypes:

  • the amateur detective (Marple, Jessica Fletcher);
  • the private investigator (Holmes, Marlowe, Spade, Poirot);
  • the police detective (Dalgliesh, Kojak, Morse);
  • the forensic specialists (Scarpetta, Quincy, Cracker, CSI).

Notable fictional detectives and their creators include:

Amateur detectives

Private Investigators

Police detectives

Forensic specialists

Catholic Church detectives

Government agents


For younger readers


Science-fiction and Fantasy

Detective debuts and swansongs

Many detectives appear in more than one novel or story. Here is a list of a few debut and swansong stories:

Detective Author Debut Swansong
Roderick Alleyn Ngaio Marsh A Man Lay Dead Light Thickens
Harry Bosch Michael Connelly The Black Echo
Father Brown G. K. Chesterton "The Blue Cross"
Guido Brunetti Donna Leon Death at La Fenice
Brother Cadfael Ellis Peters A Morbid Taste for Bones Brother Cadfael's Penance
Albert Campion Margery Allingham The Crime at Black Dudley
Elvis Cole Robert Crais The Monkey's Raincoat
Dr. Phil D'Amato Paul Levinson "The Chronology Protection Case"
Peter Decker Faye Kellerman The Ritual Bath
Alex Delaware Jonathan Kellerman When the Bough Breaks Gone
Nancy Drew Carolyn Keene The Secret of the Old Clock
Marcus Didius Falco Lindsey Davis The Silver Pigs
Kate Fansler Carolyn Gold Heilbrun/Amanda Cross In the Last Analysis
Dr. Gideon Fell John Dickson Carr Hag's Nook Dark of the Moon
Gervase Fen Edmund Crispin The Case of the Gilded Fly
Sir John Fielding and Jeremy Proctor Bruce Alexander Blind Justice
Gordianus the Finder Steven Saylor Roman Blood
Heiji Hattori Gosho Aoyama Detective Conan
Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A Study in Scarlet (in Beeton's Christmas Annual) His Last Bow (see also "The Final Problem")
Shin'ichi Kudo / Conan Edogawa Gosho Aoyama Detective Conan  
Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers Elizabeth George A Great Deliverance
Miss Marple Agatha Christie The Murder at the Vicarage Sleeping Murder
Jasi McLellan Cheryl Kaye Tardif Divine Intervention
Travis McGee John D. MacDonald The Deep Blue Good-by The Lonely Silver Rain
Sir Henry Merrivale Carter Dickson The Plague Court Murders The Cavalier's Cup
Kinsey Millhone Sue Grafton 'A' is for Alibi
Inspector Morse Colin Dexter Last Bus to Woodstock Remorseful Day
Nick Naught John E. Stith Naught for Hire
Terrell Newman Bernard J. Taylor The Deliverer
Thursday Next Jasper Fforde The Eyre Affair
Stephanie Plum Janet Evanovich One for the Money
Hercule Poirot Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles Curtain
Ellery Queen Ellery Queen The Roman Hat Mystery A Fine and Private Place
Jack Reacher Lee Child Killing Floor
Dave Robicheaux James Lee Burke The Neon Rain
Rabbi David Small Harry Kemelman Friday the Rabbi Slept Late That Day the Rabbi Left Town
Spenser Robert B. Parker The Godwulf Manuscript
V.I. Warshawski Sara Paretsky Indemnity Only
Lord Peter Wimsey Dorothy Sayers Whose Body? Busman's Honeymoon
Nero Wolfe Rex Stout Fer-de-Lance A Family Affair
Angel (Angel Investigations) Joss Whedon & David Greenwalt City Of Not Fade Away


  • Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel - A History by Julian Symons ISBN 0-571-09465-1
  • Stacy Gillis and Philippa Gates (Editors), The Devil Himself: Villainy in Detective Fiction and Film, Greenwood, 2001. ISBN 0-313-31655-4
  • The Manichean Investigators: A Postcolonial and Cultural Rereading of the Sherlock Holmes and Byomkesh Bakshi Stories by Pinaki Roy, Sarup and Sons, New Delhi ISBN 978-81-7625-849-4

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Detective fiction" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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