detective story

detective story
a mystery involving a crime and the gradual discovery of who committed it, esp. a highly formalized one in which a detective, often a private detective, solves a crime, usually a murder, by means of careful observation and logical reasoning: also detective novel

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(also detective novel) n
a story in which there is a murder or other crime and a detective who tries to solve it. The best-known British writers of detective stories include Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. The older type of British detective story is often set in a large country house, and typically includes the discovery of a murder at the beginning, a small group of characters who are all suspected of having committed the murder, and a surprising solution at the end. In the US, detective stories more often involve the police or the adventures of a ‘private eye’ (= private detective), and are often more violent and realistic. Famous US writers of such stories include Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard. Detective stories are also known as ‘detective fiction’ or ‘crime fiction’ and informally as ‘whodunnits’ (or ‘whodunits’).

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Type of popular literature dealing with the step-by-step investigation and solution of a crime, usually murder.

The first detective story was Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841). The genre soon expanded to novel length. Sherlock Holmes, the first fictional detective to become a household name, first appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887). The 1930s was the golden age of the detective novel, exemplified by the books of Dashiell Hammett. The introduction of mass-produced paperback books in the late 1930s made detective stories readily accessible to a wide public, and well-known fictional detectives were created by G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Georges Simenon. Among present-day mystery writers P.D. James and Dick Francis rank high.

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▪ narrative genre
      type of popular literature in which a crime is introduced and investigated and the culprit is revealed.

      The traditional elements of the detective story are: (1) the seemingly perfect crime; (2) the wrongly accused suspect at whom circumstantial evidence points; (3) the bungling of dim-witted police; (4) the greater powers of observation and superior mind of the detective; and (5) the startling and unexpected denouement, in which the detective reveals how the identity of the culprit was ascertained. Detective stories frequently operate on the principle that superficially convincing evidence is ultimately irrelevant. Usually it is also axiomatic that the clues from which a logical solution to the problem can be reached be fairly presented to the reader at exactly the same time that the sleuth receives them and that the sleuth deduce the solution to the puzzle from a logical interpretation of these clues.

      The first detective story was “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe (Poe, Edgar Allan), published in April 1841. The profession of detective had come into being only a few decades earlier, and Poe is generally thought to have been influenced by the Mémoires (1828–29) of François-Eugène Vidocq (Vidocq, François), who in 1817 founded the world's first detective bureau, in Paris. Poe's fictional French detective, C. Auguste Dupin, appeared in two other stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1845) and “The Purloined Letter” (1845). The detective story soon expanded to novel length.

      The French author Émile Gaboriau's L'Affaire Lerouge (1866) was an enormously successful novel that had several sequels. Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) remains one of the finest English detective novels. Anna Katharine Green became one of the first American detective novelists with The Leavenworth Case (1878). The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) by the Australian Fergus Hume was a phenomenal commercial success.

 The greatest of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes (Holmes, Sherlock), along with his loyal, somewhat obtuse companion Dr. Watson, made his first appearance in Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle (Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur)'s novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) and continued into the 20th century in such collections of stories as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894) and the longer Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). So great was the appeal of Sherlock Holmes's detecting style that the death of Conan Doyle did little to end Holmes's career; several writers, often expanding upon circumstances mentioned in the original works, have attempted to carry on the Holmesian tradition.

      The early years of the 20th century produced a number of distinguished detective novels, among them Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1908) and G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (1911) and other novels with the clerical detective. From 1920 on, the names of many fictional detectives became household words: Inspector French, introduced in Freeman Wills Crofts's The Cask (1920); Hercule Poirot, in Agatha Christie (Christie, Dame Agatha)'s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), and Miss Marple, in Murder at the Vicarage (1930); Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L. Sayers' Whose Body? (1923); Philo Vance, in S.S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case (1926); Albert Campion, in Margery Allingham's The Crime at Black Dudley (1929; also published as The Black Dudley Murder); and Ellery Queen, conceived by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929).

 In a sense, the 1930s was the golden age of the detective story, with the detectives named above continuing in new novels. The decade was also marked by the books of Dashiell Hammett (Hammett, Dashiell), who drew upon his own experience as a private detective to produce both stories and novels, notably The Maltese Falcon (1930) featuring Sam Spade. In Hammett's work, the character of the detective became as important as the “whodunit” aspect of ratiocination was earlier. The Thin Man (1934), with Nick and Nora Charles, was more in the conventional vein, with the added fillip of detection by a witty married couple. Successors to Hammett included Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, who also emphasized the characters of their tough but humane detectives Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, respectively. At the end of the 1940s, Mickey Spillane (Spillane, Mickey) preserved the hard-boiled crime fiction approach of Hammett and others, but his emphasis on sex and sadism became a formula that brought him amazing commercial success beginning with I, the Jury (1947).

      The introduction of the mass-produced paperback book in the late 1930s made detective-story writers wealthy, among them the Americans Erle Stanley Gardner, whose criminal lawyer Perry Mason unraveled crimes in court; Rex Stout, with his fat, orchid-raising detective Nero Wolfe and his urbane assistant Archie Goodwin; and Frances and Richard Lockridge, with another bright married couple, Mr. and Mrs. North. In France, Georges Simenon produced novel after novel at a rapid-fire pace, making his hero, Inspector Maigret, one of the best-known detectives since Sherlock Holmes. Other writers who carried out the tradition of Holmes or broke new ground included Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of the poet C. Day-Lewis), Michael Innes, Dame Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr), and P.D. James. After 1945, writers such as John le Carré adapted the detective-story format to the spy novel, in which he addressed the mysteries and character of the Cold War.

      The Mystery Writers of America, a professional organization founded in 1945 to elevate the standards of mystery writing, including the detective story, has exerted an important influence through its annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards for excellence. See also mystery story; hard-boiled fiction.

Additional Reading
Notable works on the detective story include Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure, enlarged ed. (1968); and Jacques Barzun and Wendell H. Taylor, Catalogue of Crime (1971).

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Universalium. 2010.

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