Detective fiction

Detective fiction is a branch of crime fiction that centres upon the investigation of a crime, usually murder, by a detective, either professional or amateur. It is closely related to mystery fiction but generally contains more of a puzzle element that must be solved, generally by a single protagonist, either male or female.

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 who acts as an audience surrogate for the explanation of the mystery at the end of the story.



The most widespread subgenre of the detective novel is the whodunit (or whodunnit), where great ingenuity may be exercised in narrating the events of the crime 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.

Early archetypes of these stories were the three Auguste Dupin tales by Edgar Allan Poe: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogt, and The Purloined Letter. Poe's detective stories have been described as ratiocinative tales. 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. As a consequence, the crime itself sometimes becomes secondary to the efforts taken to solve it. The Mystery of Marie Rogt is particularly interesting, as it is a barely fictionalized analysis of the circumstances of the real-life discovery of the body of a young woman named Mary Rogers, in which Poe expounds his theory of what actually happened. The style of the analysis, with its attention to forensic detail, makes it a precursor of the stories about the most famous of all fictional detectives, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, who in turn set the style for many others in later years, including Holmesian pastiches such as August Derleth's Solar Pons.

Another early archetype of the whodunit is found as 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 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 culprit.

Dickens' protg, Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), is credited with the first great mystery novel The Woman in White. He is sometimes referred to as the "grandfather of English detective fiction." 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 even earlier prototypes for the whodunit, most notably the Old Testament story of Susanna and the Elders (Daniel 13; in the Protestant Bible this story is found in the apocrypha) and the story of the dog and the horse related in the third chapter of Voltaire's Zadig (1747). However, popularity of this genre has only grown in time, and even has made it into the online community (

The Private Eye Novel

An American invention like jazz, the earliest private eye (PI) novels by the likes of Dashiell Hammett were considered novels of the proletariat, exploring "mean streets" and the underbelly of corruption within the United States. Several movies have been based on his work, including three versions of The Maltese Falcon and a series of movies based on The Thin Man.

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 viewpoint. His cadenced dialog and cryptic narrations were musical, evoking the alleys and tough thugs, rich women and powerful men about whom he wrote. Laced with commentary, his books still hold up. Several feature and television movies have been made about the Phillip Marlowe character.

Ross Macdonald, pseudonym of Ken Millar, updated the form again with his detective Lew Archer, while still writing in what is considered the PI's Golden Age, 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. He took the PI novel into people's neighborhoods, exposing the reality that crime can happen next door, not just on the mean streets. The movie Harper starring Paul Newman was based on the Lew Archer character.

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 in the late 1970s and early 1980s were finally published. Each's detective was brainy, physical, and could hold her own. Their acceptance then success caused publishers to seek out other fine female authors.

The PI 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. The premier authors organization of PI writers is the Private Eye Writers of America.

Police procedural

Many detective stories have police officers as the main characters. Of course these stories may take many forms, but many authors try to go for a realistic depiction of a police officer's routine. A good deal are whodunits, in others the criminal is well known and it is a case of getting enough evidence.

Some typical features of these are:

  • The detective is rarely the first on the crime scene - it will be milling with uniform, paramedics and possibly members of the public.
  • Forensic reports - and the wait for them.
  • Rules and regulations to follow - or not.
  • Suspects arrested and kept in custody - sometimes wrongly.
  • Pressure from senior officers to show progress.
  • A large investigating team - two, three or four main characters, plus other officers to order about.
  • Pubs - places to discuss or think about the case - especially in the Inspector Morse mysteries.
  • Informants - to lean on.
  • Political pressure when the suspects are prominent figures
  • Internal hostility from comrades when the suspects are fellow police officers
  • Pressure from the media (tv, newspapers) to come up with an answer
  • Interesting and unusual cars driven by the principal detective

Other subgenres

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

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 cosy 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. On the other hand, who cares for authenticity?

Also, the role and legitimacy of coincidence has frequently been the topic of heated arguments ever since Knox categorically stated that "no accident must ever help the detective" (Commandment No.6). Yet time and again authors resort to that deus ex machina-sort of device. Is it just because they have to meet their publisher's deadline and cannot think of any other ending to their latest novel? Or is it because they are mediocre writers in the first place? Or is one coincidence per novel acceptable now? A special case of illogical plotting seems to be the murderers' reluctance to kill off the hero or heroine of the story: Even serial killers, who normally do not hesitate for a second to kill an innocent bystander if they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, show a lot of scruples when it comes to ridding themselves of their most dangerous -- and ultimate -- enemy, even if he or she is already in their power. Instead of killing him or her right on the spot -- in the manner in which they bumped off all their previous victims --, they keep putting off the execution until it is too late and they are outsmarted by their rival. In many cases, instead of just pulling the trigger, they embark on a lengthy discussion of their criminal record, detailing all their crimes -- no doubt mainly for the reader's benefit, but shouldn't a good author be able to think of other narrative devices that help the reader catch up on what they have missed so far?

Technological progress has also rendered many of plots implausible and antiquated. For example, the use of mobile phones by practically everyone these days has significantly altered the dangerous situations that investigators traditionally find themselves in. A snowbound mansion somewhere in the country, with a murderer at large? A deserted street in a slum area in the middle of the night, with dark figures looming in the distance? Get out your mobile and phone for help. Some authors have not really succeeded in adapting to the changes brought about by modern technology; others, among them Carl Hiaasen (born 1953), have.

Famous fictional detectives

The full list of fictional detectives would be 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 generally fall within one of four domains:

  • the amateur or dilettante detective (Marple, Jessica Fletcher);
  • the private investigator (Holmes, Marlowe, Spade, Rockford);
  • the police detective (Ironside, Kojak, Morse);
  • more recently, the medical examiner, criminal psychologist, forensic evidence expert or other specialists (Scarpetta, Quincy, Cracker, CSI).

Notable fictional detectives and their creators include:


Private eyes

Police detectives

Includes FBI agents, etc.

Medical examiners, etc.


And for younger readers


In chronological order.

In science fiction and fantasy

Other notable authors

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
Brother Cadfael Ellis Peters A Morbid Taste for Bones Brother Cadfael's Penance
Shin'ichi Kudo / Conan Edogawa Gosho Aoyama Detective Conan  
Dave Robicheaux James Lee Burke Neon Rain
Father Brown G. K. Chesterton The Blue Cross
Gordianus the Finder Steven Saylor Roman Blood
Inspector Morse Colin Dexter Last Bus to Woodstock Remorseful Day
Hercule Poirot Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles Curtain
Lord Peter Wimsey Dorothy Sayers Whose Body Striding Folly
Miss Marple Agatha Christie Murder in the Vicarage Sleeping Murder
Nero Wolfe Rex Stout Fer-De-Lance A Family Affair
Owen Archer Candace M. Robb The Apothecary Rose
Roderick Alleyn Ngaio Marsh A Man Lay Dead
Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A Study in Scarlet (in Beeton's Christmas Annual)
Sir John Fielding and Jeremy Proctor Bruce Alexander Blind Justice
Spenser Robert B. Parker The Godwulf Manuscript
Stephanie Plum Janet Evanovich One for the Money
Travis McGee John D. MacDonald The Deep Blue Goodbye The Lonely Silver Rain
V.I. Warshawski Sara Paretsky Indemnity Only
Guido Brunetti Donna Leon Death at La Fenice


  • Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel - A History by Julian Symons ISBN 0571094651

See also

External resources

eo:Krimliteraturo fr:Roman policier he:ספרות בלשית nl:Detectiveverhaal ja:推理小説 pl:Powieść detektywistyczna zh:推理小說


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