Overview

detective Fiction


Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Crime has been a staple of storytelling since its beginnings, and misdirection of the reader, for example about facts (Tom Jones's parentage) or emotions (in Emma or Much Ado about Nothing), has equally had its special position, leading to striking revelations at a late crisis point. The classic English detective novel marries the two elements. Its particular form owes its greatest debt to Poe, whose three or four detective stories written in the 1840s strikingly anticipate many of the genre's main features. In particular, English writers followed him in creating detectives who were remote from the common herd, creatures of pure ratiocination, emotional hermits who observed but did not participate in the hurly‐burly of life around them. The fact that the steely logic of Poe's detective Dupin often leads him to conclusions that border on the absurd does not seem to have worried most readers.

Around mid‐century there were other detectives, such as Dickens's Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1853) and W. Collins's Sergeant Cuff (The Moonstone, 1868), who were apparently more homely and engaging. But after the triumphant debut of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887) it was Poe's model which won the day, and traces of the stereotype can be found in figures such as Baroness Orczy's Old Man in the Corner, Agatha Christie's Poirot, P. D. James's Dalgliesh, and Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse.

Conan Doyle was the master of the short story, packing each one with observation, conflict, and sharply dramatized character types. His success attracted hordes of followers and imitators, notably Arthur Morrison and G. K. Chesterton. The most engaging of the figures produced in reaction to Holmes's intellectuality and near‐inhumanity was E. W. Hornung's gentleman burglar Raffles. Holmes and Raffles, both quintessential late Victorian figures, contrast oddly: Raffles, nominally the social outcast, has for the most part perfectly conventional social attitudes, whereas Holmes, who frequently acts for the existing social order, is an outsider who is often contemptuous of the people he represents.

After the First World War, public taste shifted away from the short story to the novel‐length tale. The so‐called Golden Age is often said to have been inaugurated by Trent's Last Case (1913) by E. C. Bentley, but it was led by Agatha Christie, D. Sayers, M. Allingham, and N. Marsh, supported by numerous figures such as R. Austin Freeman (1862–1943) and John Dickson Carr (1906–77). Christie in particular produced a stream of ingenious puzzles whose solutions left her readers feeling agreeably fooled. The genre as she moulded it is a highly artificial one; its social attitudes were surprisingly conventional, and its characters drawn largely from the gentry and professional classes. A phenomenon of the period was the ‘silly ass’ detective, initiated by Sayers's amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. It even crossed the Atlantic in the form of the outrageous aesthete Philo Vance, the detective of S. S. Van Dine (1888–1939). Meanwhile, in America, during the 1920s and 1930s, the private eye novel had emerged in the pulp magazine Black Mask (1920–36) and in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain (1892–1977). Tough, fast‐moving, and set in harsh urban backgrounds, this realistic ‘hardboiled’ fiction was more violent than the classic detective story and has remained the dominant form in the USA. It has been followed by a host of successors, including Ross MacDonald (1915–83), and became the basis of film noir.

[...]

Subjects: Literature.


Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »


Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.