Mysteries and their solutions have always been used in fiction, but detective fiction as a recognisable genre first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite detective fiction becoming one of the most popular of literary genres of the twentieth century, disputes over the point at which a story containing detection becomes a detective fiction story continued. In its most obvious incarnation detective fiction is to be found under the heading "Crime" in the local bookstore; it includes tales of great detectives like Holmes and Dupin, of police investigators, of private eyes, and little old ladies with a forensic sixth sense. But detective fiction can also be found disguised in respectable jackets, in the "Classic Literature" section under the names Dickens and Voltaire. Within detective fiction itself, there are many varieties of detectives and methods of detection; in its short history, the genre has shown itself to be a useful barometer of cultural conditions.
Defining detective fiction, then, is fraught with problems. Even its history is in dispute, with critics claiming elements of detective fiction in Ancient Greek tragedies, and in Chaucer. Part of the problem is that while the category "Crime Fiction" includes all fiction involving crime, and, very often, detective work as well, "Detective Fiction" must be restricted only to those works that include, and depend upon, detection. Such a restrictive definition leads inevitably to arguments about what exactly constitutes "detective work," and whether works that include some element of detection, but are not dependent on it, should be included. Howard Haycraft is quite clear on this in his book Murder for Pleasure (1941), when he says, "the crime in a mystery story is only the means to an end which is—detection."
Perhaps the first work in English to have its entire plot based around the solution to a crime is a play, sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, called Arden of Faversham. The play was first published in 1592, and is based on the true story of the murder of a wealthy, and much disliked landowner, Thomas Arden, which took place in 1551. Arden's body is discovered on his land, not far from his house. The fact that the body is outside points to his having been murdered by neighbouring farmers and labourers, jealous at Arden's acquisition of nearby land. What the detective figure, Franklin, sets out to prove is that Arden was murdered in his house, by his adulterous wife, Alice, and her lover. He manages to achieve this by revealing a clue, a piece of rush matting lodged in the corpse's shoe, which could only have found its way there when the body was dragged across the floor of the house.
Although the plot of Arden of Faversham revolves around the murder of Thomas Arden and the detection of its perpetrators, Julian Symons suggests that the purpose of the play itself lies elsewhere, in characterization, and, among other things, the moral issues surrounding the allocation of land following the dissolution of the monasteries. Because the element of crime and detection is merely a vehicle for other concerns, the place of Arden of Faversham in the canon of detective fiction remains marginal. But this is a debatable point. As Symons says, the exact position of the line that separates detective from other fiction is a matter of opinion. Nevertheless, early detective stories such as this play, and others, by writers such as Voltaire, certainly prefigure the techniques of detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance.
What critical consensus there is on this topic suggests that the earliest writer of modern popular detective fiction is Edgar Allan Poe.In three short stories or "tales," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (1843), and "The Purloined Letter" (1845), Poe established many of the conventions that became central to what is known as classical detective fiction. Perhaps reacting to the eighteenth-century idea that the universe is a mechanical system, and as such can be explained by reason, Poe devised a deductive method, which, as he shows in the stories, can produce seemingly miraculous insights and explanations. This deductive method, sometimes known as "ratiocination," goes some way in defining the character of the first "great detective," C. Auguste Dupin, whose ability to solve mysteries borders on the supernatural, but is, as he insists to the narrator sidekick, entirely rational in its origins. The third important convention Poe established is that of the "locked room," in which the solution to the mystery lies in the detective's working out how the criminal could have left the room unnoticed, and leaving it locked from the inside.
Other writers, such as Wilkie Collins and Emile Gaboriau, began writing detective stories after Poe in the mid-nineteenth century, but rather than making their detectives aristocratic amateurs like Dupin, Inspectors Cuff and Lecoq are professionals, standing out in their brilliance from the majority of policemen. Gaboriau's creation, Lecoq, is credited with being the first fictional detective to make a plaster cast of footprints in his search for a criminal. Perhaps the most famous of the "great detectives," however, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation Sherlock Holmes, whose method of detection, bohemian lifestyle, and faithful friend and narrator, Watson, all suggest his ancestry in Poe's creation, Dupin, but also look forward to the future of the genre. Although Conan Doyle wrote four short novels involving Holmes, he is best remembered for the short stories, published as "casebooks," in which Holmes's troubled superiority is described by Watson with a sense of awe that the reader comes to share. Outwitting criminals, and showing the police to be plodding and bureaucratic, what the "great detective" offers to readers is both a sense that the world is understandable, and that they themselves are unique, important individuals. If all people are alike, Holmes could not deduce the intimate details of a person's life from their appearance alone, and yet his remarkable powers also offer reassurance that, where state agents of law and order fail, a balancing force against evil will always emerge.
While Holmes is a master of the deductive method, he also anticipates detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe by his willingness to become physically involved in solving the crime. Where Dupin's solutions come through contemplation and rationality alone, Holmes is both an intellectual and a man of action, and Doyle's stories are stories of adventure as well as detection. Holmes is a master of disguise, changing his appearance and shape, and sometimes engaging physically with his criminal adversaries, famously with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.
The Poe-Gaboriau-Doyle school of detective fiction remained the dominant form of the genre until the late 1920s in America, and almost until World War II in England, although the influence of the short story gradually gave way to the novel during that time. Many variations on the "great detective" appeared, from G. K. Chester-ton's priest-detective, Father Brown, solving crime by intuition as much as deduction, through Dorothy L. Sayers's return to the amateur aristocrat in Lord Peter Wimsey, Agatha Christie's unlikely detective Miss Marple, and her eccentric version of the type, Hercule Poirot. In Christie's work in particular, the "locked room" device that appeared in Poe occurs both in the form of the room in which the crime is committed, and at the level of the general setting of the story; a country house, an isolated English village, a long-distance train, or a Nile riverboat, for example. This variation of the detective story became so dominant in England that classical detective fiction is often known as the "English" or "Country House" type.
However, detective fiction of the classical type was very popular on both sides of the Atlantic and the period from around 1900 to 1940 has become known as the "Golden Age" of the form. In America, writers like R. Austin Freeman, with his detective Dr. Thorndike, brought a new emphasis on forensic science in the early part of the twentieth century. Both Freeman and Willard Huntingdon Wright (also known as S. S. Van Dine), who created the detective Philo Vance, wrote in the 1920s that detective fiction was interesting for its puzzles rather than action. Van Dine in particular was attacked by critics for the dullness of his stories and the unrealistic way in which Philo Vance could unravel a case from the most trivial of clues. Nevertheless, huge numbers of classical detective stories were published throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including, in the United States, work by well-known figures like Ellery Queen (the pseudonym for cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee), John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson), and Erle Stanley Gardner, whose series detective, Perry Mason, has remained popular in print and on screen since he first appeared in 1934. Elsewhere, the classical detective story developed in the work of writers such as Georges Simenon, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. While all of these writers have their own particular styles and obsessions—Carr is particularly taken by the locked room device, for example—they all conform to the basic principles of the classical form. Whatever the details of particular cases, the mysteries in works by these writers are solved by the collection and decoding of clues by an unusually clever detective (amateur or professional) in a setting that is more or less closed to influences from outside.
Just as the classical form of the detective story emerged in response to late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century beliefs in the universe as rationally explicable, so hard-boiled detective fiction appeared in the United States in the 1920s perhaps in response to doubts about that view. Significantly, just as the influence of the short story was declining in the classical form, early hard-boiled detective fiction appeared in the form of short stories or novellas in "pulp magazines" like Dime Detective and Black Mask. These magazines were sold at newspaper stalls and station bookstores, and the stories they published took a radical turn away from the sedate tone of classical detective fiction.
Hard-boiled detective stories, as they became known, for their clipped, unembroidered language, focus not on the detective's intellectual skill at interpreting clues, but on his—and, since the 1980s, her—experiences. This type of detective fiction encourages the reader to identify with the detective, rather than look upon him/her as a protective authority; it champions the ability of "ordinary" people to resist and combat the influences of crime and corruption on their lives. As part of their rejection of the puzzle as a center for their narratives, hard-boiled detective stories are also concerned with the excitement generated by action, violence, and sex. So graphic did their description of these things seem in the 1920s that some stories were considered to border on the pornographic. The effect of this on detective fiction as a genre, however, was profound for other reasons. Hard-boiled detective stories described crimes taking place in settings that readers could recognize. No longer was murder presented as a remote interruption to genteel village life, but something that happened to real people. Crime was no longer the subject of an interesting and challenging puzzle, but something with real human consequences, not only for the victim, but for the detective, and society at large. This new subject matter had limited impact within the restricted space of the short story, but came to the fore in the hard-boiled detective novels that gained popularity from the late 1920s onwards.
Carroll John Daly is usually credited with the invention of the hard-boiled detective, in his series character Race Williams, who first appeared in Black Mask in 1922. But Dashiell Hammett, another Black Mask writer, did the most to translate the hard-boiled detective to the novel form, publishing his first, Red Harvest, in 1929. The longer format, and the hard-boiled form's emphasis on the detective's actions, meant that Hammett's detectives, who include the famous Sam Spade, could confront, more directly than classical detectives, complex moral decisions and emotional difficulties. Raymond Chandler, who also began his career writing for Black Mask in the 1930s, took this further, creating in his series detective, Philip Marlowe, a sophisticated literary persona, and moving the focus still further away from plot and puzzle and on to the detective's inner life. Chandler is also well known for his realistic descriptions of southern California, and his view of American business and politics as underpinned by corruption and immorality.
Other writers picked up where Hammett and Chandler left off; some began using their work to explore particular issues, such as race or gender. Ross MacDonald, whose "Lew Archer" novels are generally considered to follow on from Chandler in the 1950s and 1960s, addresses environmental concerns. Mickey Spillane, who began publishing in the late 1940s, and has continued into the 1990s, took the sub-genre further by having his detective, Mike Hammer, not only confront moral dilemmas but take the law into his own hands. Sara Paretsky, writing in the 1980s and 1990s, reinvents the masculine hard-boiled private eye in V.I. Warshawski, a female detective whose place in a masculine environment enables her to explore feminist issues, while Walter Mosley uses a black detective to explore problems of race. While hard-boiled detective fiction shifts the focus from the solution of the problem to the search for that solution, and in doing so is able to address other topics, it remains centred on the idea of the detective restoring order in one way or another. Hard-boiled detectives do, in most cases, solve mysteries, even if their methods are more pragmatic than methodical.
In the 1920s, hard-boiled detective fiction was considered a more realistic approach to crime and detection than the clue-puzzles of the classical form. Since the early 1970s, however, the idea that a single detective of any kind is capable of solving crimes has seemed more wishful than realistic. In the three decades since then, the police-procedural has become the dominant form of detective fiction, overturning the classical depiction of the police as incompetent, and the "hard-boiled" view of them as self-interested and distanced from the concerns of real people. Police-procedurals adapt readily for TV and film, and come in many forms, adopting elements of the classical and hard-boiled forms in the police setting. They range from the tough "precinct" novels of Ed McBain, to the understated insight of Colin Dexter's "Inspector Morse" series, or P. D. James's "Dalglish" stories. The type of detection ranges from the violent, chaotic, and personal approach of the detectives in James Ellroy's L.A. series, to the forensic pathology of Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwell's work. What all of these variations have in common, however, is that the detectives are backed up by state organization and power; they are clever, unusual, inspiring characters, but they cannot operate as detectives alone in the way that Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe can.
This suspicion that detectives are not the reassuring figures they once seemed is explored in a variation of the classical form known as "anti-detective" fiction. In the 1940s, Jorge Luis Borges produced clue-puzzle detective stories whose puzzles are impossible to fathom, even by the detective involved. At the time, the hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were also challenging the idea that the detective could know or fathom everything, but Borges's work undermines even the very idea of finding truth through deductive reasoning. In one well-known story, "Death and the Compass" (1942), Borges's detective unwittingly deduces the time and place of his own murder. In the 1980s, Paul Auster's New York Trilogy (1988) explored contemporary theories about language and identity to produce detective stories with no solution, no crime, and no detective. Anti-detective fiction provides an interesting view of detection, and a comment on the futility of trying to understand the universe, but it is of limited scope and popular appeal.
Detective fiction in the 1990s remains highly popular in all its forms. It has also begun to be appreciated in literary terms; it appears as a matter of course on college literature syllabuses, is reviewed in literary journals, and individual writers, like Conan Doyle and Chandler, are published in "literary" editions. Much of that academic attention might seem to go against the popular, commercial, origins of the form. But whatever its appeal, detective fiction seems to reflect society's attitudes to problems of particular times. That was as true for Poe in the 1840s, exploiting his culture's fascination with rationality and science, as it is for the police-procedural and our worries about state power, violence, and justice at the end of the twentieth century.
Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Mystery Story. New York, Appleton-Century, 1941.
Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. Urbana and Chicago, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Knight, Stephen. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. London, Macmillan, 1980.
Messent, Peter, editor. Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel. Chicago, Illinois, Pluto Press, 1997.
Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. London, Faber and Faber, 1972; revised, 1995.
Winks, Robin W., editor. Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Woodstock, Vermont, Foul Play Press, 1988.