Detective fiction: A type of fiction featuring a crime (in most cases, a murder) that is solved by the protagonist, a detective, through the use of deductive reasoning from a series of clues. Characterization, setting, and description have often taken a backseat in detective fiction to the twists and turns of the plot, in which clues and “red herrings” alike are introduced to the reader as the detective comes across them. Although the genre has evolved through the years, the basic elements of detective fiction have remained the same: a baffling crime that usually occurs at the beginning of the story, several suspects, an often-eccentric sleuth who solves the case through an impressive display of logic, and an unexpected conclusion. The poet W. H. Auden concisely defined detective fiction in “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict” (1948) when he wrote: “A murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.”
Detective fiction should be distinguished from mysteries more generally, which are fictional works concerning any type of perplexing mystery, criminal or otherwise, and which may or may not involve a detective, deductive reasoning, or the other hallmarks of detective fiction. Thus, while detective fiction is a subset of mystery fiction, the terms are not coextensive.
Detective fiction should also be distinguished more specifically from the crime novel, another type of mystery fiction that was heavily influenced by detective fiction. Although both detective fiction and crime novels involve crime, the focus of the crime novel is on the criminal and his or her psychological state, rather than on investigative efforts to solve the crime through logical, deductive reasoning. Dorothy Sayers’s The Omnibus of Crime (1929) provides a classic overview of the genre; Tony Hillerman and Rosemary Herbert’s A New Omnibus of Crime (2005) picks up where Sayers left off, compiling notable twentieth-century crime stories.
Detective fiction may have its roots in works involving crime and criminal apprehension written as early as the mid-1700s. Such precursors include Voltaire’s Zadig (1747), Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), William Godwin’s The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), and Eugène François Vidocq’s autobiography, Les mémoires de Vidocq (1828). The many editions of The Newgate Calendar — a collection of true crime stories first published in London in 1773, updated and reprinted for more than a century — are also viewed as forerunners of detective fiction, with “Newgate Fiction” reaching the height of its popularity in the 1830s.
Most scholars agree that the first true example of detective fiction is American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), a watershed work that both established the codes and conventions of the genre and introduced one of the first fictional detectives, Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. Consequently, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a British master of detective fiction, called Poe “the father of the detective tale.” Other early detective stories by Poe include “The Purloined Letter” (1845) and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1850).
Other notable writers of nineteenth-century detective fiction include Wilkie Collins, an Englishman, and Frenchman Émile Gaboriau. In 1868, Collins published The Moonstone, a novel involving a diamond heist that is said to have influenced all subsequent detective fiction. Twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot referred to Collins’s work as “the first and greatest of English detective novels” in his essay “Wilkie Collins and Dickens” (1927); similarly, in The Omnibus of Crime, Sayers, herself an important detective novelist, wrote: “Taking everything into consideration, The Moonstone is probably the very finest detective story ever written.” Gaboriau, author of the first full-length French detective novel (Le crime d’Orcival ) and the first to make his detective, Lecoq, a policeman, is credited with establishing the roman policier, a French form of detective and crime fiction.
It was Doyle’s short stories and novels, though, that made detective fiction a popular form of literary entertainment. When he introduced the extraordinarily observant and astute Sherlock Holmes in his first two novellas, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1890), he created the prototype for countless fictional detectives to come. (In Dr. James Watson, he also created the model confidant, or sidekick, another common element of detective fiction.) In 1891, short stories he published in the magazine The Strand vastly increased the market for detective fiction by appealing to a broad range of readers. Two collections of stories — The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894) — were followed by a novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and several other Sherlock Holmes works. Doyle inspired a generation of British authors including Ernest Bramah, who created the first blind detective (Max Carrados); Arthur Morrison, whose Investigator Martin Hewitt is a man of extraordinary technical and statistical knowledge; and R. Austin Freeman, who introduced the first scientific detective (Dr. John Thorndyke) and anticipated the inverted detective story, a form of detective fiction in which the reader is aware of the killer’s identity from the beginning of the story although the detective is not.
In America, the most prominent — and prolific — detective fiction authors following Poe were women. Anna Katharine Green, the first American female author of detective fiction, published her first novel, The Leavensworth Case, in 1878; Mary Rinehart published one of her best-known works, The Circular Staircase, thirty years later. Perhaps the most popular male author was S. S. Van Dine (a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright), whose The Benson Murder Case (1926) launched a series of similarly titled novels.
The period between World War I and World War II (1918—39) is generally considered to be both the golden age of detective fiction and its classic period. In 1928, G. K. Chesterton, a well-respected English poet and author of the Father Brown series of detective stories, became the first president of the London Detection Club, which was founded in 1928 and whose guiding principles may have been influenced by Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” (1928) and Monsignor Ronald Knox’s “A Detective Story Decalogue” (1929). One of these principles, which prohibited authors from concealing any vital clue from readers, became part of the solemn oath taken by club members. Particularly important during the interwar period were four women — Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham — referred to as the “Big Four.” Christie, the creator of the mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the dauntless English spinster Miss Jane Marple, became the best-known detective novelist of the twentieth century. Her eighty-plus novels, perhaps the most famous of which is Murder on the Orient Express (1934; adapted to film in 1974 and again in 2017) have been translated into dozens of languages.
Other respected classic detective writers include E. C. Bentley; Anthony Berkeley (a pseudonym for Anthony Cox, who also wrote as Frances Iles), a key figure in developing the inverted detective story; Nicholas Blake (pseudonym for C. Day Lewis, who is said to have based his detective on W. H. Auden); John Dickson Carr; Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of lawyer-detective Perry Mason; Michael Innes (pseudonym for J. I. M. Stewart); A. E. W. Mason; and Ellery Queen (pseudonym for two writers, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee). Post-World War II authors in the classic tradition include Stanley Ellin, Kenneth Fearing, Elizabeth Ferrars, P. D. James, Simon Nash, Ellis Peters, Ruth Rendell, Rex Stout, and Patricia Highsmith, whose novels Strangers on a Train (1949) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1957) were both later adapted to film: Strangers in 1951 and Ripley first in 1960 (under the title Plein Soleil, or Purple Noon) and then again in 1999.
As popular as classic detective writing became, it had to contend with a powerful competitor. In the 1920s, a new, decidedly American subgenre called hard-boiled detective fiction emerged, gaining adherents so rapidly that it began to eclipse the classic tradition in the 1940s. Unlike classic detective fiction, in which the world is depicted as an orderly place in which crimes are aberrations and order is restored by the crime-solving detective, the hard-boiled world is one in which gangsters reign, chaos and violence are the norm, and the detective only temporarily provides relief from dysfunction. Black humor and grotesque scenes and situations are common. Moreover, hard-boiled stories, typically set on mean city streets patrolled by corrupt cops, take a different view of law enforcement than classic whodunits, in which honest if inept police are apt to bumble around plush country estates, as in the 2001 film Gosford Park.
Practitioners of hard-boiled stories found it difficult to gain recognition in part because such works were not initially considered to be literature. Indeed, hard-boiled stories were first published in magazines printed on cheap paper made from wood pulp. Black Mask, one popular pulp magazine founded in 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Nathan, offered writers like Raymond Chandler, Carroll John Daly, and Dashiell Hammett a penny per word to publish their stories. Daly’s Race Williams was the prototype of the new American detective, but Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade were the best-known private eyes, or “dicks,” of the hard-boiled subgenre. Also notable are Raoul Whitfield’s stories, first published in Black Mask in 1930, about a tough Filipino “Island Investigator” named Jo Garr.
Writers James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, and Jim Thompson continued the hard-boiled tradition in the ensuing decades. Ross Macdonald, who was first published in the 1940s and continued writing into the 1970s, patterned his novels after the fiction of Chandler, Daly, and Hammett but softened the violence and took a psychological approach to characters in order to attract sophisticated upper-middle-class readers. Subsequent popular writers who further modified the hard-boiled style include Andrew Bergman, James Crumley, James Ellroy, Arthur Lyons, Robert B. Parker, and Roger L. Simon.
Hard-boiled detective fiction was introduced primarily by male authors and, perhaps for that reason, generally portrayed women as either good housewives or femmes fatales. Exceptions included the works of a few female authors who published in this style during its early years. In 1928 Katherine Brocklebank’s “Tex of the Border Service,” featuring a female detective, was published in Black Mask. Other early female “hard-boiled” writers included Leigh Brackett, Dolores Hitchens (who sometimes published under male pseudonyms), and Dorothy B. Hughes. Contemporary women who write hard-boiled detective fiction include Sara Paretsky, whose private eye Victoria Iphigenia (“V.I.”) Warshawski first appeared in Indemnity Only (1982); Sue Grafton, who publishes a series of novels with alphabetical titles ranging from A is for Alibi (1983) to Y is for Yesterday (2017); and Janet Evanovich, who writes about a sassy and irreverent bail enforcer in a series of novels with numbered titles such as Hot Six (2000) and Tricky Twenty-Two (2015).
In addition to presenting a darker, grittier world than their classic counterparts, contemporary hard-boiled detective writers have often woven hard-hitting social and racial issues into their stories, leading the way in resurrecting social realism. As writer Dennis Lehane, using the term “crime novel” broadly, said, “Today’s social novel is the crime novel.” Novelist Walter Mosley is generally credited with starting this trend through his Easy Rawlins mystery series (1990— ), which chronicles several decades of black life in Los Angeles. Paula L. Woods has likewise incorporated black experience into her Charlotte Justice novels (1999—2006), in which the protagonist is a black woman in the mostly white, mostly male LAPD. In Inner City Blues (1999), Woods’s debut novel, Justice comments, “I learned from my mother’s experiences that life in America was a game called Pigmentocracy, color a card you played.”
Notably, although female writers of detective fiction played prominent roles throughout the history and development of the genre, there were few black practitioners until well after World War II. Hughes Allison’s story “Corollary” (1948), a police procedural featuring a black detective named Joe Hill, broke new ground as the first African American detective story published in the prestigious Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. African American writers subsequently gained a solid foothold on the terrain of detective fiction with the popularity of Chester Himes, who wrote several hard-boiled detective novels set in Harlem in the late 1950s and 1960s, and John Ball, whose novel In the Heat of the Night (1965) was adapted to film in 1967.
Whether classic, hard-boiled, or hybrid in their approach, contemporary authors have tended to situate many or all of their stories in a particular historical period, professional environment, geographical setting, or cultural or religious context. Examples include Amanda Cross’s (Carolyn Heilbrun) Kate Fansler novels (1964—2002), which take place in academic settings; Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Mysteries (1970—2006), in which two Navajo tribal policemen solve crimes on a Southwest reservation; Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series (1973— ), in which an ex-boxer works out of Boston; Ellis Peters’s (Edith Pargeter) Brother Cadfael series (1977—94), which is set in a medieval English monastery and features a monk; and Sandra Scoppetone’s Lauren Laurano series (1991—99), which features a lesbian detective and highlights gay culture. Works depicting professional crime scene investigation have been particularly popular, as evidenced by television series such as Quincy, M.E. (1976—83) and CSI (2001—15); Patricia Cornwall’s Scarpetta novels (1990— ), in which the heroine, like Quincy, is a medical examiner; Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels (1992— ), in which the hero is an LAPD homicide detective; and Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series (1997— ), which features a quadriplegic who once headed the NYPD forensics unit. On the lighter side, Lillian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who series (1966—2007) showcases the mystery-solving duo of Koko the cat and his mustachioed owner Jim Qwilleran, who has been transplanted to a rural county “400 miles north of everywhere.”
Detective fiction for children is also popular, though it generally involves nonviolent crimes or at least not murders. Classic examples include the Hardy Boys (1927—2005) and Nancy Drew (1930—2003) mystery series, created by Edward Stratemeyer and written by various authors under the pseudonyms Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene, respectively, and Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books (1963—2012).