Crime and Detective Fiction - Study Guides on General Topics

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Crime and Detective Fiction
Study Guides on General Topics

Since the inception of the related genres of crime and detective fiction in the early nineteenth century, readers of all ages find thrill, fascination, and ultimately intellectual and social comfort in the adventures of criminals and the detectives who hunt them down. Crime narratives, the larger generic category into which detective fiction is a subset, detail the commission of a crime, which may range from physical assault to theft to psychological exploitation, its investigation, and then an eventual outcome or judgment. Such a crime upsets or has the potential to upset the social order. Detective fiction is related in that it, too, narrates the investigation and solution of a crime, but with one important difference. According to John G. Cawelti’s study of the genre, “the classical detective story required four main roles: the victim, the criminal, the detective, and those threatened by the crime but incapable of solving it.”

Suspense, mystery, crime, and the constant interplay between right and wrong, good and evil, are popular and resilient plots. Yet, these plots are still riveting for the very puzzles they present and the ways they allow their readers to participate both as amateur criminals—committing blackmail or espionage in a fictional world—and as armchair detectives—matching wits with the best fictional minds to bring order back into a chaotic world. Readers and writers can, by engaging in the criminal imagination, safely walk on the moral wild side, knowing full well that, as Julian Symons avers, “those who tried to disturb the established social order” will be “discovered and punished,” social order will be restored, and the armchair detective will take comfort in a criminal discovered and a mystery solved.

The ability of crime fiction’s readers to relate to its narratives is, perhaps, what contributed to its popularity—a literate American public daily read accounts in newspapers and mass-market magazines that covered, and in many cases, sensationalized, criminal events. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842), in fact, is purportedly based on the actual murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, whose body was found floating in the Hudson River a few days after her disappearance on 25 July 1841.

Creating mystery and detective fiction from real-life scenarios continued in the United States with the publication of the Pinkerton detective series, based on the cases of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and containing elements commonly seen in crime and detective fiction: multiple suspects, surveillance, and advanced technology, such as photography or lie detectors, to whittle down the list of possible criminals. Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer (1856) by Englishman William Russell, who called himself “Waters,” appeared in the United States as a “yellowback,” a cheaply produced book with a yellow cover; it detailed purportedly real-life exploits and cases.

In addition to Pinkerton’s and “Waters’s” stories, readers of crime and detective fiction, particularly adolescents, turned in the late nineteenth century to “dime novels” or “penny dreadfuls,” inexpensive publications aimed at quick sales, which recounted sensationalized crime stories that some Americans believed contributed to an increase in crime among their juvenile readers. Nick Carter was the most famous and widely read of all characters to appear in dime novels and is considered to be the second most published character in all of American literature. He first appeared in “The Old Detective’s Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square” in the 18 September 1886, issue of the New York Weekly, then continued through 1990 in various detective magazines, radio shows, comic books, and more than 250 novels.

The second half of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries witnessed an explosion of the crime and detective genre, introducing some of the most resistant detectives, memorable criminals, and social worlds that resembled very much the everyday realities of many readers. With this increased popularity of the genre, however, came a shift in its focus. No longer content to lavish their creative acumen on the criminal, authors began to provide more lively detail about both the detective, making the person who solved the crime the heroic, if quirky, protagonist and in some cases, the social conditions that surrounded or even contributed to the crime.

Talented crime and detective fiction writers are adept at capturing society’s fears, and the popularity of their hero-detectives may be telling markers of what and who American society values. The middle of the nineteenth century brought the rise of industry, and the concomitant increase in the belief in the power of science and technology to enhance daily life, a theme Ronald R. Thomas explores in his study of detective fiction and the nineteenth-century rise of forensic science. Craig Kennedy, the so-called American Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur B. Reeve, predicted many advances in criminology.

Authors such as Metta Fuller Victor, perhaps best known for her two detective novels The Dead Letter (1866), believed to be the first American detective novel, and The Figure Eight (1869), and Mary Roberts Rinehart, Anna Katharine Green, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Pauline Hopkins created memorable female sleuths and criminals who had direct lineage from the women’s and African Americans’ rights movements and ideologies, while the male author Edward Lytton Wheeler (1854/5-1885) created the “Deadwood Dick” series, which ran from 1877 to 1897 and included the sleuth “Lady Kate, the Dashing Female Detective.” Rinehart subscribed to the American school of “scientific” detection, a focus that mixed adventure stories with mysteries in need of a solution, a combination developed even further in the hard-boiled school later in the twentieth century. Greene was an enormously successful author and in fact wrote the first American best-selling detective novel, selling more than 250,000 copies. Although Greene opposed giving women the right to vote, her fiction often focuses on problems facing women, including the nightmarish control men exert over women’s lives.

Women’s-rights advocacy was not the only civil-rights commentary delivered along with the mysteries. African American Hopkins, writing a short detective story, “Talma Gordon” (1900), addresses the nervous concerns about racial intermarriage or “amalgamation,” the “crime” in the story. Stephen F. Soi-tos, in his study of African American detective fiction, explores what he terms the “blues detective” during this same era. Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) introduces David Wilson, who not only employs fingerprint analysis to solve the mystery; since he discovers that a white and a light-skinned black boy have been switched at birth, this novel offers an important polemic on the morality of judging people according to their skin color, and the dangerous path of racial discrimination.

As the United States moved into the twentieth century, crime and detective stories lost some of their melodrama and detectives, and criminals functioned in a more realistic world of human frailty, error, miscalculation, and social networks. Detectives and readers were asked to consider both crime and its consequences. When organized crime threatened American social integrity, for example, mobsters became prominent in the genre and required equally tough detectives to bring them to justice, characters and tropes Dashiell Hammett mastered in the 1920s and 1930s. Detectives, criminals, and the fiction they populated entered a morally relative world and tried their best to eradicate the troublesome elements in order to enact justice.

At its heart, though, crime and detective fiction addresses what seem to be some of humans’ most foundational concerns and needs. Howard Haycraft suggests that a detective story “embodies a democratic respect for law,” while John G. Cawelti has argued that “our fascination with mystery represents unresolved feelings about the primal scene.” Cawelti also suggests that detective fiction was not only a “pleasing artistic form” for nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century readers, but it also provided a “temporary release from doubt and guilt,” generated from the overwhelming changes in culture. In his “Defence of Detective Stories” (1902) G. K. Chesterton intoned that “we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic world, and that criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but traitors within our gates.” Until the world no longer needs them to work through the ethics of human nature that lead some to murder or steal, the detectives, and the crimes they solve and the criminals they bring to justice, are here to stay on our fictional pages.


  • 1. How does the detective fiction by such authors as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Anna Katharine Greene, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman reflect the social environment and historical era in which it was produced?
  • 2. How has the character of the detective changed since Poe’s introduction of C. Auguste Dupin? How has the character of the detective remained consistent over time? What do you think accounts for these differences and similarities?
  • 3. How have technological advancements appeared in detective and crime fiction, and what do those advancements suggest about the culture? Consider, particularly, the Pinkerton Detective Agency and series, as well as the fictional character “Craig Kennedy’s” use of investigative techniques.
  • 4. How do you see crime fiction at work in other areas of culture? How do crime dramas on television or in movies compare to fiction? What do you think accounts for the popularity of crime drama?



John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

A pioneering study of formula fiction.

Howard Haycraft, ed., The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946).

Compiles the most authoritative writings on the genre in the first half of the twentieth century.

Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980).

Argues that the commercial success of a text should not deter critics from studying it; instead, the criticism should look toward the societal interests in which it was produced.

Stephen F. Soitos, The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).

Beginning with Pauline Hopkins in 1901, traces the lineage of African American detective fiction written by black Americans about black detectives and incorporating themes of race and racial tension.

Ronald R. Thomas, Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Links the nineteenth century’s increasing reliance on technological expertise— such as fingerprinting, photography, and lie detectors—with the burgeoning genre of detective fiction in both Britain and the United States. Thomas’s focus on forensic science is especially concerned with the authority of the literary detective and the way in which those devices relate to broader questions of cultural and individual authority.


Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935)

American poet and novelist, one of the first writers of detective fiction in America, distinguished by adherence to legal accuracy. When her poetry failed to gain recognition, she produced her first and best-known novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878). She became a best-selling author, eventually publishing about forty books.

Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930)

African American poet, journalist, playwright, and fiction writer best known for her serialized novel Of One Blood (1902-1903).

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre with his trio of stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes, said, “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed.... Where was

the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958)

The so-called American Agatha Christie, best known for her mystery novel The Circular Staircase (1908) and her frequent contributions to The Saturday Evening Post early in the twentieth century.

—Laura Behling