History of Detective Fiction

Posted by Anthony North on January 20, 2011

The detective story began with the creation of Poe’s Dupin in a trilogy of stories in the 1840s. Revolving around the solving of a puzzling crime, such fiction soon found favour with the reader. Dupin was a lonely, rational figure, a theme soon to be taken up by Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes, from 1887.
Variations of the personality of the detective came with Chesterton’s Father Brown, still analytical, but an amiable priest. By this time, the main ingredients of the detective story were firmly in place. First of all you have a crime to grip the reader. But there is much more, for the personality of the detective must also feature large to be successful. As to that personality, the best detectives are those who reflect the times. Holmes and Father Brown may be different characters but they share an understanding of late Victorian eccentricity.
This point is clear with the arrival of American detective fiction. Typical is Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, a wise-cracking, tough, but lonely man who seems to stumble through events to a solution. He perfectly symbolised the chaotic, almost paranoid American mind-set of the 1940s.
By this point, the detective story has moved from the short story to the novel, best seen in Christie. Her central characters, Poirot and Miss Marple, are again different, but similarly analytical and eccentric. Again we find success through apeing the times. Christie offers her crimes in a seemingly perfect middleclass, genteel world. It is the shock of the undercurrents of crime in this idealic setting that capture the imagination.
The detective story has advanced by this time away from merely solving a puzzle. Now, the Whodunnit has been created, the principal angle being the misdirection of the reader. This detective form survives to this day, constantly challenging the reader to solve it before the detective does.
The detective himself remains stereotypical. Dexter’s Morse is a flashback to Holmes, but he only works in a definte Oxford, reflecting back to him values that appear ancient. Variations come in Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, one a modern cop, the other a dinosaur, bouncing personalities off each other. Whilst in Wingfield’s Frost, we have a fool who, nonetheless, stumbles to a conclusion, similar to the earlier American model.
This invasion of the American again shows detective fiction reflecting the times back to us. Rankin’s Rebus could walk the streets of New York. And as society changes, detective fiction also moves on. Today, successful detectives must be TV friendly, and are just as likely to be a psychologist or pathologist. The best detectives may no longer be policemen, but the tradition marches on.


by Anthony North
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  1. Liz Rice-Sosne (Raven) said on March 25, 2013

    I enjoyed this but what of Jane? What of Monsieur? They are my favorite after all. When I watch TV … it is British Detective all the way. Non of this ghastly American TV. Your detectives get me through long cold winters!

  2. Anthony North said on March 26, 2013

    Hi Liz, many thanks. I think the British version of the whodunit is preferred worldwide. Agatha Christie is our best selling novelist of all time.

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