Mystery and Detective Fiction

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"If I have any work to do," W. H. Auden wrote in "The Guilty Vicarage" (1948), "I must be careful not to get hold" of a detective novel. "For, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it" (p. 400). Given the popularity of the genre from its earliest incarnations to the present, many readers would wholeheartedly agree. The related genres of mystery and detective fiction have captured the American reading and writing imagination as no others have. From waiting rooms to airplanes to classrooms, millions spend their reading time mesmerized by criminals who commit mundane and unthinkable crimes and by the detectives who chase them. Auden likened his love of detective stories to "an addiction, like tobacco or alcohol," and it is evident from the now more than 150-year history of the genre in the United States that other readers are likewise consumed.

Despite the countless manifestations of mysteries, criminals, and detectives that have appeared since this genre came into being, the narratives remain predictably comfortable yet still intellectually exciting. Mystery narratives require hidden secrets, which over the course of the text are revealed or discovered. Detective fiction is related in that it too narrates the investigation and solution of a crime, but with one important addition. According to John Cawelti's study of the genre, "The classical detective story requires four main roles: (a) the victim; (b) the criminal; (c) the detective; and (d) those threatened by the crime but incapable of solving it" (p. 91).

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 as armchair detectives matching wits with the best fictional minds. Indeed, one crucial balance detective fiction must achieve is to temper ratiocination with mystification. As Cawelti notes, "A successful detective tale . . . must not only be solved, it must mystify" (p. 107). Writers also must temper ingenuity, often in the form of questioning suspects, with action, so as not to overwhelm the reader with interrogatory detail (pp. 107–109). Perhaps readers are drawn to finely wrought characters such as C. Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes, grittier examples such as Mickey Spillane's mid-twentieth-century Mike Hammer, or Patricia D. Cornwell's medical examiner–detective Kay Scarpetta, who burst on the scene in 1990. Perhaps readers prefer their imaginative world to be populated by characters who are smarter than they are, able to piece together the most minute clues and eventually track down the criminal. Heta Pyrhönen argues that crime, particularly as articulated in fiction, "brings into play, as if automatically, moral considerations" and that it is "by definition, a breach of the boundary of what is socially and morally permitted" (pp. 50, 51). By engaging in the criminal investigation, readers and writers can safely walk on the moral wild side, knowing full well that, as Julian Symons avers, "those who [try] to disturb the established social order" will be "discovered and punished" (p. 11), social orderings will be reassured, and the armchair aficionado will take comfort in a criminal discovered and a mystery solved.


In the United States, the work of detection began to resemble its recognizable form of the early twenty-first century with the publication of "The Rifle" (1828) by William Leggett. However, it is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) that is often considered the first text of detection. In homage to the influence of the French criminal turned detective François Eugène Vidocq, Poe (1809–1849) sets this and his other stories of deduction, "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842–1843) and "The Purloined Letter" (1844), in Paris. In "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin, sets the standard for the long line of detectives to follow with his disconnection from ordinary civil society, his quirky habits, his interest in studying the seemingly insignificant details of the crime, and his insistence that the thinking process of deduction rather than physical prowess yields success in ferreting out the criminal. Interestingly Poe did not use the term "detective"—rather his stories were tales of "ratiocination."

According to Dorothy L. Sayers, a famous English practitioner of the detective genre and creator of the suave detective Lord Peter Wimsey, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" constitutes in itself an almost complete manual of detective theory and practice. "Poe's three detective tales proper are remarkable in many respects," Harold Haycraft concurs. "Not their least extraordinary feature is the almost uncanny fashion in which these three early attempts, totaling only a few thousands words, established once and for all the mould and pattern for the thousands upon thousands of works of police fiction which have followed" (Art of the Mystery Story, p. 165).


Creating mystery and detective fiction from real-life scenarios continued in the United States with the publication of the Pinkerton detective series, written by Allan Pinkerton (1819–1884). These stories were based on the cases of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which was formed in 1850 and is still recognizable with its motto, "We Never Sleep," under a large, unblinking eye; the term "private eye" is derived from this logo. Pinkerton's agency was known for compiling huge files on suspects, creating the first rogues' gallery, using photographs to identify criminals, and undertaking meticulous surveillance. Pinkerton's detective stories were known for their embellishment of those cases, as he carefully admits in his first novel, The Expressman and the Detective (1874): this story is "all true . . . transcribed from the records in my offices. If there be any incidental imbellishment [sic], it is so slight that the actors in these scenes would never detect it; and if the incidents seem to the reader at all marvelous or improbable, I can but remind him, in the words of the old adage, that 'Truth is stranger than fiction'" (n.p.). Pinkerton's influence is substantial: not only does his detective agency set the standard for all other agencies to come, but his literary influences can be seen in Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and later Dashiell Hammett, who had once been a private investigator for the Pinkerton Agency.

In addition to Pinkerton's stories, eager readers of mystery and detective fiction, particularly adolescents, turned in the late nineteenth century to dime novels, so called because they were inexpensive publications aimed at quick sales. Originating in the mid-nineteenth century, early dime novels tended to be intensely patriotic and featured Civil War and Wild West tales, among them stories of one of the earliest frontier "detectives," Deadwood Dick, and others that followed the exploits of the James brothers (Goulart, p. 64). Nick Carter, however, was the most famous and widely read of all characters to appear in dime novels and is considered to be one of the most published characters in all of American literature, a club that includes the detectives Dixon Hawke and Sexton Blake. He first appeared in "The Old Detective's Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square" in the 18 September 1886 issue of New York Weekly, then he continued through 1990 in various detective magazines, radio shows, comic books, and more than 250 novels. Ormond G. Smith, the son of one of the founders of Street & Smith, outlined "The Old Detective's Pupil," and John Russell Coryell, a dime novelist, wrote it. Nick Carter stories, however, were written by more than a dozen writers in order to keep up with demand; "Chickering Carter," the pseudonym of Frederic van Rensselaer Dey (1861–1922), wrote the most Nick Carter stories.

Carter is described as an "all-American" detective with a special talent for disguise, running the gamut from a sweet old woman to ugliest ruffian. Like many detectives, Carter often was assisted by others—"Chick" Carter, a teenage ranch hand; his butler, Peter; M. Gereaux, acting chief of the Paris secret police; and Talika, a geisha girl who also was a detective, to name a few—although Carter clearly was the brains and brawn of each operation. In some remarkable plot structuring, he also was teamed with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Teddy Roosevelt. And like other fictional detectives, Carter faced extraordinary villains, some of whom he met with repeatedly over the course of the series, like the six Dalney brothers, who were given to vivisection and collecting people's skeletons by ripping them from their bodies.

The second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century witnessed an explosion of the mystery and detective genre, providing the sleuthing world with reluctant amateur detectives, mundane criminals, and social worlds that resembled the everyday realities of many readers. Building on the same qualities that Nick Carter and other early detectives embodied but then employing a twist according to their political times, authors such as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Anna Katharine Green, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Pauline Hopkins created memorable female sleuths and criminals who, as Catherine Ross Nickerson points out, had direct lineage from the women's and African Americans' rights movements and ideologies.

Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876–1958) subscribed to the American school of "scientific" detection 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. Rinehart wrote her first three mystery novels and numerous short stories, most notably The Man in Lower Ten (1906) and The Circular Staircase (1908), during the pulp period of 1904–1908. In the 1906 novel Rinehart presents the reader with an unwilling detective, Lawrence Blakeley, a lawyer who is assisted along the way by a well-meaning amateur detective, Hotchkiss, described by the narrator as a "cheerful follower of Poe."

Rinehart's novels have attracted the attention of critics, who read the settings of her texts as being peppered with male symbols—the train and steel mills in The Man in Lower Ten—and female symbols, such as the circular staircase, which takes prominence in her 1908 novel of the same name. In this mystery the position of the unwilling detective is occupied by a "maiden aunt," Rachel Innes. In this historical prelude to the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Innes serves as a model for women to lead active, intellectual lives instead of the dull, domestic lives they were expected to lead.

Anna Katharine Green (1846–1935) was an enormously successful author. Her stories emphasized detectives with highly developed characters—most notably Ebenezer Gryce, a low-key, middle-aged New York police officer turned detective—and detailed the deduction process in meticulous detail so that readers could watch the detectives solve the mysteries. With this emphasis on process, Green did not create plots with imaginative or surprising solutions (as in Wilkie Collins's tales, for example) but instead drew clear distinctions between the detection by amateurs and that by the police and took care to show the strengths of each. Amateurs and police worked together, each contributing to the solution of the case, as exemplified in her best-known novel, The Leavenworth Case. In this novel Green's careful attention to all elements involved in detection are on display. It includes two floor maps, reproductions of handwritten letters as clues, and a timeline, not to mention long transcriptions of witness testimony during the inquest after Horatio Leavenworth is found murdered in his study. In the novel Ebenezer Gryce remains true to the form of the detective as an outsider, an aloof observer of the case whose mind puts clues together far more deftly than any who surround him.

In Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Joseph E. Chamberlin's "The Long Arm," the dutiful daughter's attempts to find the murderer of her parents:

My father's murderer I will find. Tomorrow I begin my search. I shall first make an exhaustive examination of the house, such as no officer in the case has yet made, in the hopes of finding a clue. Every room I propose to divide into square yards, by line and measure, and every one of these square yards I will study as if it were a problem in algebra.

I have a theory that it is impossible for any human being to enter any house, and commit in it a deed of this kind, and not leave behind traces which are the known quantities in an algebraic equation to those who can use them.

Freeman and Chamberlin, "The Long Arm," p. 390.

Along with Gryce, Green also created the memorable detective Violet Strange, one in a long series of Victorian and Edwardian female detectives who appeared in the wake of Sherlock Holmes's popularity. Strange and other female detectives, such Catherine Louisa Pirkis's Loveday Brooke and George R. Sims's Dorcas Dene, work as professionals and command an extraordinary intellect. Rinehart's spinster sleuth Rachel Innes in The Circular Staircase and, later, the British author Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple are in a line that follows from Green's other well-known woman detective, Amelia Butterworth. Although Green opposed giving women the right to vote, her fiction often focuses on problems facing women. For example, The Leavenworth Case, like the story "The Long Arm" (1895) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Joseph E. Chamberlin, centers on the nightmarish control men exert over women's lives. The women in these stories do not seek political solutions but instead enact their rebellion in their personal lives, to the point of expressing their desires in secret lives.

Women's rights attitudes were not the only civil rights commentary delivered along with the mysteries. The African American writer Pauline Hopkins (1859–1930), in a short detective story, "Talma Gordon" (1900), addresses the nervous concerns in America about racial intermarriage, referred to by her characters as "amalgamation." Stephen F. Soitos, in his study of African American detective fiction, explores what he terms the "blues detective" who practices a method of ratiocination based on African American values, history, and cultural motifs. And Mark Twain (1835–1910), who poked fun at the detective genre in Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), used the genre more seriously in Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). Twain's detective, David Wilson, not only employs fingerprint analysis to solve the mystery, but since he discovers that a white and a light-skinned black boy have been switched at birth, this novel more importantly offers a polemic on the absurdities of judging people according to their skin color and the dangerous path of racial discrimination.


Mystery and detection fiction always has been about more than solving the puzzle. The genre is adept at capturing society's fears, and the crowning of its hero detectives is a telling marker of American values. Early tales of detection, such as Leggett's, were set on the American western frontier, a seemingly lawless land that required the steady hand of moral clarity that a detective, and the solution of a mystery or crime, embodied.

The explosive expansion of industry in the middle of the nineteenth century brought with it an increased 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. The "scientific detective" Dr. John Thorndyke, created by R. Austin Freeman (1862–1943), first appeared in 1907 in The Red Thumb Mark and relied on methods so carefully rendered in fiction that he has the distinction of being the only literary criminologist whose fictional methods were actually put into use by the police. Craig Kennedy, the so-called American Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur B. Reeve (1880–1936), first appeared in the December 1910 issue of Cosmopolitan and predicted many advances in criminology.

It was not just the detectives and their methods that reflected the social attitudes of the country. The most popular villains of the early twentieth century were Chinese and Asian in origin. By the end of the nineteenth century the idea of the "yellow peril" was firmly fixed in the public mind, based partly on China's own increasing military power and its markedly different cultural and religious traditions and practices. Large immigrant populations of Chinese in both the United States and England made them easy material for crime and mystery, the most famous being a Sax Rohmer (1883–1959) creation: Dr. Fu Manchu. Described as one of the "slant-eyed superfiends," Fu had untold wealth and secret forces at his disposal in his quest for world domination; his exploits first appeared in the U.S. magazine Collier's Weekly in 1913.

The first three decades of the twentieth century became known as the "golden age" of crime fiction with the development of the "modern" detective story. Stories became more literate and believable, old-style melodrama disappeared, and detectives and criminals functioned in a more realistic world of human frailty, error, and miscalculation. But however mystery and detective fiction has evolved stylistically over the years, its basic form has remained remarkably stable. Harold Haycraft suggests that a detective story "embodies a democratic respect for law" (Murder for Pleasure, p. 27), while John Cawelti, along with other critics, has argued that "our fascination with mystery represents unresolved feelings about the primal scene" (p. 98). Cawelti suggests that detective fiction was not only a "pleasing artistic form" for nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century readers but also provided a "temporary release from doubt and guilt" generated by overwhelming cultural changes (p. 104). In his "Defence of Detective Stories" (1902), G. K. Chesterton asserted 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" (p. 6). The detective serves as the "agent of social justice," he claimed, and stands alone as the guardian of social order. For whatever reasons, mystery and detective fiction became and remains popular. With its multicultural cast of detectives and villains, its exotic locales, and its crimes of violence and intellect, mystery and detective fiction continues to stem from the seminal work of Poe and his detective C. Auguste Dupin and the insistence on employing the intellect to discover secrets and deliver criminals to justice.

see alsoLaw Enforcement; Science Fiction


Primary Works

Auden, W. H. "The Guilty Vicarage." In Detective Fiction/Crime and Compromise, edited by Dick Allen and David Chako, pp. 400–410. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins, and Joseph E. Chamberlin. "The Long Arm." 1895. In Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Michael Cox, pp. 377–405. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Secondary Works

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

Chesterton, G. K. "A Defence of Detective Stories." 1902. In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft, pp. 3–6. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.

Docherty, Brian. American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Goulart, Ron. The Dime Detectives. New York: Mysterious Press, 1988.

Haining, Peter, comp. Mystery! An Illustrated History of Crime and Detective Fiction. 1977. New York: Stein and Day, 1981.

Haycraft, Harold. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. 1941. New York: Biblo and Tanner, 1968.

Haycraft, Harold, ed. The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.

Klein, Marcus. Easterns, Westerns, and Private Eyes: American Matters, 1870–1900. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Nickerson, Catherine Ross. The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Pyrhönen, Heta. Murder from an Academic Angle: An Introduction to the Study of the Detective Narrative. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

Smith, Erin A. Hard-Boiled: Working Class Readers and Pulp Magazines. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

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

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, a History. New York: Viking, 1985.

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

Laura L. Behling