Detective Story

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Detective Story, tale that features a mystery and/or the commission of a crime, emphasizing the search for a solution. The detective story is distinguished from other forms of fiction by the fact that it is a puzzle. Although a crime usually has been committed, the reader's attention is directed to baffling circumstances surrounding the crime rather than to the event itself. The tale's climax is the solution of the puzzle, and the bulk of the narrative concerns the logical process by which the investigator follows a series of clues to this solution. Very often the detective solves the mystery by means of deductive reasoning from facts known both to the character and the reader. In addition to detective stories, other types of crime fiction include spy thrillers, which are concerned primarily with international intrigue and politics, and crime novels, which are stories that deal with the roots and nature of criminal acts.


Holmes and Watson British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective in the history of literature. The Holmes tales were narrated by his friend Dr. Watson. In this drawing, Holmes, right, outlines the events of the case for Watson.Private Collection: The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

The detective story, often called a whodunit, did not spring into being in its current form. Rather, it evolved over time, beginning with stories in which the reader is not a participant at all, but a witness, so to speak, looking over the detective’s shoulder.

A Early Detective Fiction

Edgar Allan Poe The short stories and poetry of 19th-century American Edgar Allan Poe reflect the writer’s haunting imagination. Poe, one of the earliest masters of short story writing, created the first detective stories. His “The Gold Bug” (1843) tells the tale of a search for buried treasure on a South Carolina island. Culver Pictures

The first true detective stories were written in the 1840s by American author Edgar Allan Poe, but many earlier works used some of the elements of detection. A famous example is a 16th-century Italian tale that was translated into French in 1719 by the Chevalier de Mailly. Le voyage et les aventures des trois princes de Sarendip (translated into English as The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendip, 1722) concerns three princes who are asked how they know that a certain camel, which they have not seen, is blind in one eye, lame, and has lost a tooth. The blindness, they reply, is shown by the fact that the camel ate grass from only one side of a track, although the grass was growing more thickly on the other. The lameness is demonstrated by uneven hoof prints in the dust, which indicate a dragging leg. And the missing tooth is apparent from lumps of partly chewed food that were found in the animal's path. In Zadig (1747) by French writer Voltaire, the hero achieves similar deductive feats, describing a horse and a dog that he has never seen. There are further instances of analytical deduction in some of the Three Musketeers episodes by French author Alexandre Dumas père, and to a lesser extent in the series of books entitled La comédie humaine (The Human Comedy) by French writer Honoré de Balzac.

The first true detective stories were written in the 1840s by American author Edgar Allan Poe.

Yet these books only use elements of detection. Dumas's works are not true detective stories, any more than are the Gothic novels of terror written at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. These books, produced by novelists such as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis, both of England, depend for effect more on their isolated, medieval-like settings and gloomy atmosphere than on a legitimate mystery, although occasionally ghostly occurrences are solved with material explanations.

The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), written by English philosopher William Godwin, deserves an honorable place among the detective story's predecessors. Among its leading characters are an amateur investigator, who is motivated by curiosity, and an implacable police spy. Perhaps the most important stimulus to the development of detective fiction was the Mémoires of Fran?ois Eugène Vidocq of France. In his early life Vidocq was a thief and imprisoned several times. He later turned police agent and became the first chief of the S?reté, the famed Parisian detective bureau. The initial volume of his Mémoires appeared in 1828. In this and subsequent installments, Vidocq described his investigating methods in great detail. He also told, in an energetic though highly embroidered style, of his exciting exploits while catching criminals.

Edgar Allan Poe masterfully drew all these influences together. Among Poe's large output are five short narratives in which he originated almost every significant principle used by detective story writers for more than a century afterward. Poe called them tales of ratiocination (reasoning). These tales, which still make fascinating reading, begin with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), which was the very first in a respected tradition of so-called locked-room cases, where the crime takes place in a seemingly impossible location; "The Gold Bug" (1843), ancestor of hundreds of stories dependent on the solution of a coded message; and "The Mystery of Marie Rogét" (1842-1843), an essay in armchair detection. They continue with "Thou Art the Man" (1844), which reveals the most unlikely person as the murderer and is the first comic detective story; and "The Purloined Letter" (1845), which successfully presents the theory that when all other possibilities have been discarded, the one remaining, however apparently improbable, must be correct. Poe’s writings also introduced C. Auguste Dupin, the first great detective of fiction. Dupin is abrupt, contemptuous of the police, and more like a reasoning machine than a human being.

B Popular Success

Wilkie Collins English author Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone (1868), one of the first full-length English detective novels ever written. Collins also wrote the mystery thriller The Woman in White (1860).Library of Congress

Detective stories as a popular form of literature began to flourish after the establishment of regular, paid police forces and their accompanying detective departments. Detectives became protagonists in many cheap books such as Recollections of a Detective-Police Officer (1852), Diary of an Ex-Detective (1860), and The Lady Detective (1861?). These books, despite their titles, were thinly veiled fictions by anonymous writers with little police experience. On the other hand, English writer Charles Dickens was fascinated by the new detective force and went on investigations with them, resulting in his creation of the convincing character "Inspector Bucket of the Detective" in Bleak House (1852-1853).

The Moonstone, by 19th-century English writer Wilkie Collins, has been called the first modern English detective novel. Suspense, hidden motives, a complex plot, and a cast of strongly drawn and sometimes eccentric characters are all part of this 1868 work. In The Moonstone, Collins displayed one of his distinguishing literary characteristics: the creation of strong, intelligent, resourceful women, often central to the plot. The following excerpt, narrated by an elderly steward, is an account of a dinner party in the household of Lady Verinder. A large diamond moonstone had recently been given to Rachel Verinder as a present on the occasion of her 18th birthday.

Dickens's longtime friend and occasional collaborator Wilkie Collins was similarly interested in the activities of the detective bureau. In his novel The Moonstone (1868), Collins patterned the rose-loving sleuth Sergeant Cuff after the real-life Inspector Wicher and showed him making surprising but logical deductions from the given facts. The Moonstone has been called the first and the best of English detective novels, although the investigation is part of a larger narrative, not the entire focus of the novel. The same qualification can be made about the use of detectives in the so-called sensation novels of Ellen Wood (better known as Mrs. Henry Wood) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon—especially Wood's The Trail of the Serpent (1861) and Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862).

English writer Charles Dickens was fascinated by the new detective force and went on investigations with them.

The two most important crime-fiction authors before 1880 were the Frenchman émile Gaboriau and the American Anna Katharine Green. Gaboriau's L'affaire Lerouge (1867), Monsieur Lecoq (1868), and other novels feature the professional detective Lecoq. Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878), the first significant detective novel written by a woman, follows Inspector Ebenezer Gryce's detailed investigation into a mysterious murder. By the mid-1880s many authors, including B. L. Farjeon and Thomas W. Speight, were writing genuine detective novels. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) by Fergus Hume sold more than 500,000 copies.

C Sherlock Holmes and His Followers

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle British novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced his character Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887). Doyle tired of Holmes after a few years and tried to kill him off in the short story “The Final Problem” (1893). But public outcry led him to resurrect the detective for further adventures.Culver Pictures

In the late 1880s English author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the greatest of all fictional sleuths, Sherlock Holmes. The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in 1887 and was followed by a series of short stories, published through the 1890s, that made Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson, household names. The most famous Holmes stories include The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and the popularity of the Holmes tales was such that Doyle's determined attempt to kill off his hero in the short story "The Final Problem" (1893) had to be abandoned. With the explanation that the great detective had disappeared, not died, Doyle later resurrected Holmes and continued his adventures. The chief attractions of these stories nowadays are their period charm and the characterization of Holmes himself. Arrogant, omniscient, and self-absorbed, he comes through not only with wonderful clarity but also, surprisingly enough, as an extremely sympathetic character.

From The Hound of the Baskervilles

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his creation of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Doyle killed off the character in 1893 to pursue other literary styles, but in 1902 he gave in to pressure from readers and revived Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. The work became perhaps the most popular of the 60 Holmes stories. In this excerpt from the opening chapter, Dr. Watson, the narrator, emulates but cannot quite equal Holmes’s renowned deductive powers.

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Conan Doyle thus set the pattern for the "great detective" and was largely responsible for the subsequent popularity of the detective short story. Among his more distinguished followers in England were Arthur Morrison, who invented Investigator Martin Hewitt; Baroness Orczy, who created the nameless logician known as the Old Man in the Corner; R. Austin Freeman, who introduced the first genuine scientific detective, Dr. John Thorndyke, and originated the inverted story in which the reader knew every detail of the crime; Ernest Bramah, whose character Max Carrados was the first blind detective; and M. McDonnell Bodkin, who created the first detective family. Bodkin's Paul Beck (1897) was followed by Dora Myrl, The Lady Detective (1900); then The Capture of Paul Beck (1909), which concludes with the marriage of the two sleuths; and then Young Beck (1912), which recounts the cases of their son.

One of the most distinguished detective-fiction writers of the age was G. K. Chesterton of England. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, in particular the first two collections, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911) and The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914), contain some of the most ingenious detective puzzles ever devised. Chesterton’s premises are often fantastic, but once accepted, stories such as "The Queer Feet," "The Hammer of God," and "The Dagger That Flew" are perfect examples of their kind.

Except for Anna Katharine Green, there were no notable American detective-story writers between Poe and the beginning of the 20th century. The last part of the 19th century was dominated by the fictionalized memoirs of Allan Pinkerton, beginning with The Expressman and the Detective (1874). In 1882, a steady stream of dime-novel detective adventures began appearing, featuring such characters as Old Sleuth, Old King Brady, and Nick Carter. After 1900 several significant series of short detective stories were written by Americans. Jacques Futrelle wrote two volumes about Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, better known as the Thinking Machine. These works, almost of Chestertonian ingenuity, also introduce the most uncompromisingly omniscient detective in fiction. Whether beating the world chess champion after only a few lessons or escaping from a prison death cell to win a bet, Professor Van Dusen finds all problems absurdly easy to solve. Melville Davisson Post's Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries (1918) is similar to Chesterton's stories, especially in its quasi-religious atmosphere. Uncle Abner, who lives in the western part of Virginia before the American Civil War (1861-1865), sees crime and detection in moral terms. Although rarely read today, the most popular American writer of this period was Arthur B. Reeve, whose stories are filled with an astonishing array of scientific or pseudoscientific gadgets.

Still within the Holmes tradition but somewhat removed from the field of detection are the adventures of Raffles, "the amateur cracksman," invented by E. W. Hornung, Doyle's brother-in-law. Hornung defied Doyle's stern observation that "you must not make the criminal a hero." The Arsène Lupin stories of Maurice Leblanc resemble the Raffles adventures but are without the snobbishness that gives Raffles his special flavor. The unintentionally hilarious stories about Hamilton Cleek (the "Man of the Forty Faces"), by Thomas W. Hanshew, begin with Cleek as a burglar who, influenced by a pure woman's love, turns his talents to solving rather than committing crimes.

Mary Roberts Rinehart…became known as the creator of the "Had I But Known" school.

Many of the short stories written during the period ranging roughly from the appearance of Sherlock Holmes to the end of World War I (1914-1918) can be read with pleasure today. With very few exceptions this cannot be said of the novels. The stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart, Carolyn Wells, and Marie Belloc Lowndes, although best-sellers in their own day, look very old-fashioned now. Rinehart became known as the creator of the "Had I But Known" school because at some point her narrator would usually say, "Had I but known on that beautiful May morning of the horrors that…." Lowndes's The Lodger (1913), an interpretation of the Jack the Ripper murders, was also successful as a stage play and a motion picture.

Among the mystery novels of this period that continue to be notable are those of A. E. W. Mason featuring Inspector Hanaud, the bulky detective from the S?reté. Mason's At the Villa Rose (1910) was a detective novel far ahead of its time, and the later Hanaud stories, in particular The House of the Arrow (1924), were even better. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1909) by Gaston Leroux remains one of the most ingenious locked-room puzzlers ever devised. E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913) was one of the first in which the detective was recognizable as a human being, rather than a reasoning machine. Indeed, Trent actually falls in love with the main suspect. The book is also notable for introducing the multiple-solutions theme that would become important during the next decade.
D New Faces, New Approaches

Agatha Christie English novelist and playwright Agatha Christie is one of the best-known 20th-century writers of mystery stories. She published more than 75 books during her career, which started in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE

World War I brought a marked change in the nature of the detective story. Magazines, such as the famous Strand that had printed so many of the Holmes stories, declined in popularity. The short story was no longer the predominant form and had few specialist practitioners, although H. C. Bailey's character Reggie Fortune was a skillful newcomer. The novel was thought to give more scope for plot development and surprise, and in what is often called the Golden Age—lasting from 1918 to 1939—dozens of new great detectives arose, several of whom were created by women.

In 1920 the first book by English novelist Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduced the masterful detective Hercule Poirot. Three years later Lord Peter Wimsey, created by Dorothy Sayers, appeared on the scene. And three years after that S. S. Van Dine's immensely erudite and wonderfully languid Philo Vance began to delight and infuriate readers. ("Philo Vance / Needs a kick in the pance," wrote American humorist Ogden Nash.) The honors list is a long one and includes in the 1920s Freeman Wills Crofts (who created the character Inspector French), Ellery Queen (detective Ellery Queen), Anthony Berkeley (Roger Sheringham), and Philip Macdonald (Anthony Gethryn). A second wave during the 1930s includes John Dickson Carr (Dr. Gideon Fell) and Carr's pseudonym Carter Dickson (Sir Henry Merivale), Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason), Margery Allingham (Albert Campion), Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn), Michael Innes (John Appleby), Nicholas Blake (Nigel Strangeways), and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe). Other writers wrote detective fiction but did not create lasting characters, including Englishman A. A. Milne (The Red House Mystery, 1922), Frances Noyes Hart (The Bellamy Trial, 1927), and Englishman C. P. Snow (Death Under Sail, 1932). All were British or American writers, for on the European continent the detective story had not fulfilled the promise of Gaboriau and Leroux. The only notable European detective story writer of the post-World War I era was Georges Simenon, whose Inspector Maigret stories began to appear in the late 1920s. Simenon's work is remarkable for the skill with which he renders places and people and for the air of verisimilitude in Maigret's investigations.

In this deluge of detective stories all kinds of tricks were played. Books were filled with maps of the murder scene, timetables, and lists of clues. Some writers concentrated on showing how unbreakable alibis could be broken; others, on locked-room murders; and still others, on devices aimed at deceiving the reader. The most ingenious of these deceptions, as practiced by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), provoked a storm of protest among her fellow practitioners. They accused the author of not playing fair with the reader when Dr. Sheppard, the story's Watson-like narrator, turned out to be the murderer. Detective-story writers were now taking the rules of their craft very seriously, and two of them, Monsignor Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine, wrote rules to be obeyed by detective-story writers. The most important of these was that, as soon as the sleuth discovers a clue, it must be revealed to the reader. This became the guiding principle of the Detection Club, founded in 1930 in London by Anthony Berkeley. Chesterton was the club’s first president.

Georges Simenon Belgian-French author Georges Simenon is best known for a series of detective novels featuring the character Inspector Maigret. These books are noted for their high degree of psychological insight .Robert Doisneau / RAPHO

As the years passed, the great detective, that egocentric amateur, became slightly more human, and the attendant Watson-like character almost vanished. But it was firmly believed that, in the words of Dorothy Sayers, there was "a great difficulty about letting real human beings into a detective story" and "the less love in a detective story, the better." Thus, although the classical detective story, seen at its purest in the early books of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and S. S. Van Dine, produced masterpieces of watertight plotting, its rigid exclusion of realistic characterization became in the end unsatisfying to many readers. Sayers foresaw that the form might come to an end "simply because the public will have learnt all the tricks," and her own last book about Lord Peter, Busman's Honeymoon (1937), is called "a love story with detective interruptions." Anthony Berkeley also abandoned the strict puzzle, declaring that the detective story would develop into a novel, "holding its readers less by mathematical than by psychological ties." He demonstrated what he meant in two brilliant murder stories written under the pseudonym of Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932).

Finally, the convention of the great detective, the supreme amateur who knew much more than the foolish police, was shattered by the advent of the American hard-boiled school, founded in the pages of the pulp magazine Black Mask. The first hard-boiled writer was Carroll John Daly, whose most important detective was Race Williams, but the outstanding figures in this genre were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe are both private investigators doing a job for money—and not much money at that. They are honest but have a strong streak of ruthlessness. In The Maltese Falcon (1930), Spade refuses to allow his love for a murderess to interfere with the course of justice. Although a gentler character, Marlowe is almost equally implacable in his pursuit of social good. Both Hammett and Chandler began by writing for the magazine Black Mask, but their stories far surpass the ordinary pulp magazine bang-on-the-head level of fiction. In Europe, and somewhat less in the United States, both were recognized as serious novelists possessing great narrative skill.

Although Hammett and Chandler have had hundreds of imitators, only two showed anything like their perceptiveness of the social scene or possessed more than a fragment of their sharp intelligence. One was Jonathan Latimer, whose early Bill Crane stories are filled with sardonically funny dialogue, and the other and more notable was Ross Macdonald, Chandler's true successor, whose work radiates human sympathy and understanding.

After Hammett and Chandler, it was impossible that any more great detectives, arrogant and omniscient, should be born. Christie, Allingham, and Queen greatly modified their central characters while retaining them in far more loosely constructed tales than the classical detective stories of the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, few classic puzzlers are now written. The spy thriller and the crime novel have taken their place.


Graham Greene English author Graham Greene wrote in many different genres. A Gun for Sale (1936) and The Third Man (1950) were two of his famous spy thrillers. Gilbert Nencioli /Liaison Agency

Spy thrillers usually spin tales of international intrigue rather than describing local crimes. But they are similar to detective stories in that the reader's attention is directed toward the commission of a crime and the capturing of the criminal.

Ian Fleming British novelist Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond series of espionage novels, including Dr. No (1958) and Goldfinger (1959). The series became the basis of numerous successful films. Hulton Deutsch

English writers were among the first to write spy thrillers. The most prominent included Erskine Childers with The Riddle of the Sands (1903), John Buchan with his Richard Hannay stories, W. Somerset Maugham with Ashenden (1928), and Graham Greene with A Gun for Sale (1936). In the United States, Sanctuary (1931) by William Faulkner, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain, and No Pockets in a Shroud (1937) by Horace McCoy were novels with strong thriller elements. In the five novels he published before World War II (1939-1945), Eric Ambler brought an air of realism to the political thriller by the casually factual manner of his storytelling. His gripping A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) is a masterpiece of intricate construction.

John Le Carré British author David Cornwall, writing under the name John Le Carré, gained popularity through the publication of a series of spy novels about the British secret service. He taught and worked for the British foreign service before the success of his novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) encouraged him to write full-time.Snowden/Camera Press/Globe Photos, Inc.

The real development of the spy thriller, however, came in the 1950s with the James Bond novels written by English writer Ian Fleming. In a sense, Bond can be called the successor to the great detective. He is not omniscient, but he is immortal, capable of emerging unscathed from a variety of dangers and tortures, and eager for the next woman and the next fight. Bond's success must be attributed largely to the fact that he is a particularly modern fantasy figure. He is a British agent but shows no obvious patriotism; he is prepared to kill on instruction; and his total lack of moral feeling goes with a finicky insistence about the precise time in which his eggs are boiled or his toast is done—or about the revolver he uses. The literary merits of the Bond books were less important to their success than were their aura of potency and violence.

John Le Carré’s antihero spies Alex Leamas and George Smiley are guilt-ridden and unglamorous.

A much more realistic approach to spying characterizes the works of British writers John Le Carré and Len Deighton. Le Carré's greatest contribution was the implicit question behind every turn of the plot: "What is going on in the heart of the democracies that allows for such inhumanity in the name of humanity?" His antihero spies Alex Leamas and George Smiley are guilt-ridden and unglamorous; the half-world in which these half-beings operate is one of continual deceptions, some of which are practiced on them. Le Carré uses espionage as a symbol for the corruption of modern society. Deighton does not quite do this, although the anonymous narrator of his early novels and master spy Bernard Samson of the Game, Set, Match trilogy have several chips on their shoulders concerning the abuses and hypocrisy of authority.

If the rule is accepted in thriller fiction that there are no rules except that there must be a so-called maze, then Robert Ludlum, in such early novels as The Chancellor Manuscript (1977), The Bourne Identity (1980), and The Parsifal Mosaic (1982), mastered this lesson as well as anyone. Ludlum pits an innocent civilian against a conspiracy of almost universal proportions. This paranoid theme became the model for many thrillers from the 1970s on, in which international terrorism is a favored motif. Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File (1972) made the Odessa (the organization of former Nazi SS officers) a household word, while The Dogs of War (1974) brought the mercenaries who populated paperbacks into hardcover. Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol (1984) derives its suspense from Cold War politics, and The Fist of God (1994) has the Persian Gulf War as its backdrop.


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