Detective Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Detective Novel

Stephen Rachman

The detective novel emerged from the U.S., France, and Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth century out of a number of generic forerunners—some of long standing, others of more recent invention. As a popular form derived from the short stories of the American Edgar Allan Poe featuring the first fictional amateur detective, the Parisian C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), its development in the English-speaking world throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century coincided with the rise of the short story and was intimately connected to the growth of mass-circulation magazines, especially in connection with the international success of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle (see SERIALIZATION). It also contributed to the streamlining of the sprawling three-volume novels of the Victorian era into more compact, single-volume narratives. In the twentieth century the development of inexpensive mass circulation (pulp) paperbacks further expanded the market for detective novels (see PUBLISHING). While stage, film, and television adaptations have generally replaced the audience once served by the various forms of short fiction, the demand for the detective novel has grown into a global phenomenon, and detective shows of one variety or another are a staple of television worldwide (see ADAPTATION). The dissemination of the detective genre can be traced through translations of English-language classics, and by the early twenty-first century virtually every major nation and language with developed publishing industries enjoys a popular detective series in translation and produced by indigenous writers.

As Poe first described his tales as “ratiocinative,” emphasizing the analytical and empirical aspects of detective fiction, “that moral activity which disentangles,” scholars of the genre have connected it to the rise of scientific methodology. In its classic form, the crime narrative that functions as an intellectual puzzle challenging the reader to solve the crime along with a superhuman detective has been viewed alternatively as either a superficial or profound invention of modern literature. But whether championed or disparaged as a popular genre, the detective novel has proven itself to be highly adaptable. Often dismissed as overly formulaic (the fussy, idiosyncratic detective, the red herring-laden plot of suspicious characters, the explanation in which all is revealed or theatrical confession is extracted), these very features have made the genre fundamental to contemporary Western cultures and readily exportable from one culture and language to another. If its nineteenth- and twentieth-century precedents featured elite, leisured, masculine (and typically) Caucasian detectives, then the last decades of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of ethnic, class, and sexual diversity (see RACE, SEXUALITY). A number of related genres also developed, including but not limited to hardboiled novels, spy novels, police procedurals, true-crime novels, and roman noir (which, like its more familiar cousin film noir, uses a highly stylized vocabulary of dark and light). Detective fiction has attracted many serious novelists as well, creating sophisticated variants that paradoxically promote and call into question the conventions of the genre. It has been adapted to all major literary trends (realism, modernism, postmodernism, magical realism) and genres (adventure, horror, fantasy (see SCIENCE FICTION), historical fiction, romance, and young adult).

In addition to studies of the genre, the detective novel has also been the subject of, or impetus for, significant literary theorization, ranging from the metafictional writings of Jorge Luis Borges (see METAFICTION) to the literary psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan (1901—81), the deconstructive theories of Jacques Derrida (1925—2007), and the postmodern fiction and theorizing of Carlo Ginzburg, Umberto Eco, and Donna Haraway.


Critics have found the constitutive elements of the genre in ancient and diverse sources such as the Bible, Chinese “magistrate tales,” and Sophocles's Oedipus Rex in which the protagonist is a great solver of enigmas and also the perpetrator of the central crime. Renaissance tales of crime and criminals, known as rogues' tales, and eighteenth-century forms of the same attracted wider audiences through the publication of accounts of the sessions of criminal courts and the so-called gallows confessions of the condemned found in The Newgate Calendar (seventeenth—nineteenth centuries). With the establishment of metropolitan police departments from the second decade of the nineteenth century (chiefly in London and Paris), crime narratives were routinely reported in the newspapers and the memoirs of notorious criminals became more commonplace. Though detectives and the “science of detection” had yet to be invented, gothic fictions, advertising themselves as mysteries by Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1781), Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794), and Matthew Lewis (The Monk) emerged in the late eighteenth century and often featured criminal subplots and individuals unwittingly thrust into the role of investigator. William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794), with its title character being framed for theft and its plot of suspicion and retribution, is frequently noted as a harbinger of the form, as are the early American novels of Charles Brockden Brown, especially Arthur Mervyn (1799). In France Zadig, ou le Destinée (1748, Zadig, or Destiny) by Voltaire (pseud. of François-Marie Arouet) is often cited as a precursor for the way in which its title character uses techniques of empiricism and logical inference in tracking down a missing horse. Mystery-oriented English and French novels featuring criminal plots became more commonplace during the first half of the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), set in London's criminal underworld, and Bleak House (1856) derive in many ways from his reportage often focused on London courts and prisons, and led to the form of mystery termed “sensation” fiction pioneered by Dickens's associate Wilkie Collins in The Moonstone (1867).

The appearance of the Memoirs (1828) of Eugène-François Vidocq, a one-time criminal mastermind who became the first chief of the SÛreté, the metropolitan police force of Paris, led to the development of the roman policier, novels of policing told from the point of view of the inspector. Le Père Goriot (1835, Old Goriot) by Honoré de Balzac features Vautrin, a character based on Vidocq. Exploiting similar terrain, Les mystères de Paris (1845, The Mysteries of Paris) by Eugène Sue offered readers serialized narratives of byzantine complexity threading their way through metropolitan criminal labyrinths, a template that was soon emulated in Great Britain by George Reynolds and in the U.S. by George Lippard. Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1867) explored this figure also, in the character of the relentless Inspector Javert.

In creating Dupin, Poe incorporated many of these elements into the first detective fiction: the metropolitan setting, the violent crime scene in an apparently locked room, the vain, befuddled law-enforcement official, the wronged suspect, the confession, the cleverly convoluted solution with an exotic perpetrator, the class antagonisms implicit in the genteel detective's apprehension of the violent working-class criminal, and the masculine camaraderie of a supercilious gentleman mastermind and his credulous companion/narrator. By the second tale, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1843), Poe had Dupin attempting to solve an actual mystery—the disappearance of Mary Rogers from New York City—in fictional guise. By the third tale, “The Purloined Letter” (1845), pipe-smoking and an uncanny antagonist made their appearance. In these three stories, Poe offered, in Terence Whalen's estimation, “a genre in miniature” (226). Poe had given the form its initial shape and created its first great detective. These elements found in Poe were picked up most swiftly in France, chiefly through Émile Gaboriau, whose Monsieur Lecoq (1868) represents the first instance of the full-length detective narrative, and as such the invention of the detective novel proper. In the U.S. during the 1870s, “Old Sleuth” began to appear as a detective figure in dime novels catering to working-class audiences. Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, began to publish ghostwritten “real-life” detective novels, and with The Leavenworth Case (1878), Anna Katherine Green established a more melodramatic form of the detective novel, in which the analytical frame serves to cast suspicion in all directions on a broad array of suspects, a technique that would influence many authors, notably Agatha Christie, giving rise to the “whodunit.”

But the features of Poe's tales of ratiocination were most thoroughly absorbed and generally expanded upon by Conan Doyle in creating Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John H. Watson, and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. From A Study in Scarlet (1887) to The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) and the shorter adventures published in The Strand Magazine, Doyle popularized the idiosyncratic detective as no one had before. Where Poe shrewdly observed that there was more “air of method than method” in the Dupin stories, Doyle, through the figure of Holmes, gave that air of method an unprecedented fictional depth. Holmes personified the “scientific method” of detection in his lean, angular form, his mastery of chemistry, forensics, disguise, and his exhaustive knowledge of Victorian criminology. If Dupin was associated with Parisian mystery, then Holmes doubly intensified his association with London, making fictional locations (e.g. 221B Baker Street) part of London's actual geography. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle achieved a formulaic model of detection in which the analytical, deductive, and puzzle aspects of the detective novel combined with adventure (often accompanied by a sidekick) so successfully that it superseded other forms of mystery and crime fiction, inaugurating what is generally referred to as the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, and influencing the spy novel and virtually any other kind of narratives involving investigative pairs. Legions of imitators and innovators followed, notably R. Austin Freeman and his detective, the forensically obsessed Dr. Thorndyke, as well as G.K. Chesterton and his detective, the empirically minded Father Brown. Subsequent generations produced many notable sleuths in this mold: John Dickson Carr's Dr. Fell, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, and Christie's Hercule Poirot, to name but a few.

Generic Developments

Just as Poe found it convenient to adapt the culture of detection to a fictional Paris, the detective novel proved itself equally flexible, producing a number of significant generic innovations. In 1896, Mark Twain (pseud. of Samuel L. Clemens) produced one of the earliest juvenile detective novels, Tom Sawyer, Detective. While Twain also satirized the violence of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in “A Double-Barreled Detective Story” (1902), he readily adapted the form to his juvenile heroes, reprising Huckleberry Finn from his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), now in the narratological guise of a Mississippi Dr. Watson, chronicling the deductive feats of Tom Sawyer. Twain prefaced the story with a note implying that his detective novel was adapted from older reports of a Swedish criminal trial, suggesting how the form could be easily translated from one culture, country, and genre to another (see INTERTEXTUALITY). German children's author, Erich Kästner, whose popular Emil und die Detektive (1928, Emil and the Detectives), the Hardy Boys Mysteries series (1927—) and the female counterpart, the Nancy Drew Mystery Series (1930—) continued in this genre, often emphasizing themes of childhood, adolescence, and the relation of children to corruption and an awareness of the adult world.

In the U.S., the development of the “hardboiled” detective novel or crime fiction after WWI was, as Charles J. Rzepka has noted, “conceived in part as a direct challenge to the Anglo-American classical tradition inspired by Holmes,” but like its forerunners, it was pioneered in short fiction formats (179). Rejecting the genteel diction and milieu of its predecessors, the hardboiled detective novel frequently featured morally ambiguous “tough-guy” detectives who tended to subsume the puzzle/deductive aspects of their cases in tense, adventure-filled situations. Popular inexpensive story magazines known as “pulps,” directed at the working classes, had largely replaced dime novels and gained wide readership. Black Mask, founded in 1920, became the chief organ for the hardboiled style, featuring such contributors as Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Cornell Woolrich. Hammett, whose five detective novels include The Maltese Falcon (1930), featuring Sam Spade, also created the Continental Op and the sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles, and did more than any other author to establish the hardboiled genre. Raymond Chandler, whose detective, Philip Marlowe, first appeared in The Big Sleep (1939), offered a version of the hardboiled detective as a modern knight errant. In “The Simple Art of Murder” (1945), an essay on hardboiled detective fiction, Chandler explained in an oft-quoted statement, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” The impact of hardboiled can hardly be overstated. Its idioms and conventions have been adapted globally and have in many ways supplanted the classical detective form.

After WWII, Mickey Spillane, whose popular, sadistic detective Mike Hammer, and Ross MacDonald (pseud. of Kenneth Millar), whose gentler, more psychologically subtle detective, Lew Archer, seemed to embody the poles of conservative and liberal consciences in the Cold-War Era, achieved new levels of popularity. Inspector Maigret, created by the Belgian author writing in French, Georges Simenon, also reflected an intensifying interest in criminal psychology and the psychological in general.

Since the 1970s the development of ethnically diverse detectives has marked the detective novel. Where once ethnicity was a stereotypical or racist mark of difference (e.g. Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto), contemporary detectives such as the black detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rollins, who first appeared in Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress, navigates the African American terrain of South-Central Los Angeles from within. Hardboiled female detectives from Sara Paretsky's Polish American daughter of a Chicago cop, V. I. Warshowski to Sue Grafton's weightlifting “tough-girl” Kinsey Millhone have proliferated. Tony Hillerman's Navajo detectives and C. Q. Yarbro's Ojibway investigator, Charlie Spotted Moon, reflect the way this trend has extended the detective novel beyond its original terrain. The postmodern detective novel, exemplified by Paul Auster in his New York Trilogy and Umberto Eco in Il nome della rosa (1983, The Name of the Rose), has inverted the genre by calling into question the very conventions of detection, analysis, and imaginative reconstruction, offering readers the mystery of solutions rather than mere solutions to mysteries.

SEE ALSO: Censorship, Decorum/Verisimilitude, Dialect, Frame, Melodrama, Naturalism.


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