Detective fiction: A brief overview

From Sherlock Holmes to WWI

Holmes - Silver Blaze.jpg

The modern detective story is generally considered to have begun in 1887, when the immortal Sherlock Holmes appeared in A Study in Scarlet.  The work wasn’t a success, but the long series of short stories, beginning in 1891 with “A Scandal in Bohemia”, made Holmes, and his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, household names.  A slew of imitators followed.

In the early Edwardian period, two separate schools took the genre in a new direction.  One emphasized realism and scientific detection, the other imaginative storytelling.

Dr Thorndyke.jpgR. Austin Freeman (1907) led the scientific approach.  His detective, the formidable Dr. Thorndyke, lecturer in medico-legal jurisprudence, is a polymath, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Egyptology, medicine, engineering, natural history, and arts and crafts.  Freeman believed the detective story should be an intellectual exercise, demonstrating the sleuth’s reasoning powers.  He made detection, rather than mystery, central.  Freeman’s approach led in the 1920s to the pure detective story, the genre at its most intellectual, which, at its most arid, emphasized abstract reason over storytelling.  Freeman invented a new sub-genre, the two-part inverted story, which shows the criminal committing the crime, and then how the detective solves it.  Many of his plots turn on points of law, substitution of corpses, the disposal of the corpse, or what Mike Grost terms the “breakdown of identity” plot.

Another group of Edwardian writers thought the detective story should be more literary.

Mason - They Wouldn't Be Chessmen.jpgSome believed that detective fiction should be more naturalistic. Tellingly, one of A.E.W. Mason‘s novels featuring the French policeman Hanaud is called They Wouldn’t Be Chessmen.  The suspects aren’t puzzle pieces that behave according to the plot’s demands, but human beings whose relations drive the plot.  At the Villa Rose (1910), the first Hanaud novel , first shows the investigation and then the murder from the criminals’ perspective.

Sherlock Holmes was famous for his indifference to the fair sex; love was “abhorrent…to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind”.  E.C. Bentley (1913) turned his detective from a superior reasoning machine into a fallible human being, capable of falling in love or getting the solution wrong.

Chesterton - Wisdom Pan.jpgG.K. Chesterton (1911) and H.C. Bailey (late 1910s) used the detective story as a vehicle for ideas; they commented on social issues and criticized philosophies and ideologies.  Each of Chesterton’s dazzlingly clever Father Brown stories makes an intellectual point.  Chesterton’s stories are imaginative, fantastical, and often involve impossible crimes (murders that apparently break the natural laws) or inexplicable situations.  Only the detective has the insight, and imaginative sympathy, to understand the true significance of events.

Bailey’s detective stories (first collected 1920) feature Reggie Fortune, drawling, indolent medical advisor to Scotland Yard.  Many are social satires that show how big business, politics, and the law exploit the ordinary working man.  Others are powerful studies of morbid psychology.

The 1920s: The Golden Age

Christie - Styles.jpgThe “Golden Age” of the detective story is often thought to have begun in 1920, the year Agatha Christie‘s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published.  While Christie achieved a remarkable success in 1926 with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she did not come into her kingdom as Queen of Crime until the mid-1930s.

Most critics of the 1920s would have considered The Cask (also 1920), Freeman Wills Crofts‘ first novel, a more significant début.  Crofts, a disciple of Freeman’s, introduced realistic police detection and the unbreakable alibi (the murderer couldn’t have done it because he was elsewhere) to the genre.

Other members of the Freeman-Crofts school included G.D.H. and M. Cole (1923), John Rhode (1924), J.J. Connington, and Henry Wade (both 1926).  These writers dominated British detective fiction well into the 1930s.

Van Dine - Benson.jpgIn America, S.S. Van Dine (1926), an art critic who took up mystery writing while recovering from a nervous breakdown, invented the puzzle plot.  This is what most people think of as a detective story: a baffling and bizarre murder, a brilliant detective, a closed circle of suspects, and an ingenious solution.  Van Dine argued that the detective story was an elaborate puzzle, but that, instead of emphasizing detection (as in Freeman and Crofts), the form should emphasize fair play and a battle of wits.  One of Van Dine’s greatest followers, Ellery Queen (1929), laid down a formal Challenge to the Reader, daring him to solve the mystery before the sleuth.

In Britain, at the same time, Anthony Berkeley (1926) and Dorothy L. Sayers (1923) revolted against the dominance of the pure detection school.  They believed the detective story should be more literary, and more concerned with character.  Sayers’ novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey became gradually longer, moving in the direction of the comedy of manners, while Berkeley, as Francis Iles, wrote straight crime novels from the murderer’s and victim’s perspective.


The 1930s and 1940s: The late Golden Age

Freeman and Crofts’s approach, once seen as exciting and modern, was now quaint and boring.  The pure form fell into neglect, as the Van Dinean puzzle plot, the Sayersian comedy of manners, and the Ilesian crime study dominated.  Some writers in the Freeman-Crofts school, particularly Henry Wade, developed more interest in characterization.

Agatha Christie really hit her stride, with a series of ingenious mysteries starring Hercule Poirot, the diminutive Belgian with the egg-shaped head and little grey cells.  Once WWII broke out, her stories deepened, and she became increasingly concerned with how murder affected the innocent, and with the problem of evil.

Many of the younger writers looked to Christie as an example of how the detective story should be structured.

Blake - Head of a Traveller.jpgThe New Zealander Ngaio Marsh (1934) and Nicholas Blake (1935; pseudonym of future Poet Laureate C. Day-Lewis) were staunch traditionalists in form, who humanized the detective story.  Marsh, now often underrated, was a stylish, sophisticated writer, with an artist’s eye for places, and a theater director’s ear for dialogue.

Blake’s great achievement was to add psychological and emotional depth to the scrupulously plotted formal detective story, often drawing on his own life for inspiration.  Nigel Strangeways, his series detective, is one of the most likeable sleuths in the genre.

Carr - Unicorn Murders.jpgJohn Dickson Carr (alias Carter Dickson) (1930) was one of the few writers to equal, if not surpass, Christie.  He’s just as tricky, and arguably plays fairer.    He was the master of the impossible crime – the victim stabbed in a room locked and bolted on the inside, or strangled on a muddy beach without a footprint in sight; the murderer who vanishes into thin air.  He was a terrific storyteller: vivid and lively with an American exuberance and a love of Britain, and able to make your flesh creep or have you helpless with laughter – while a cavalcade of clues passes by.  A lover of adventure in the grand manner, and increasingly dissatisfied with the post-war world, his later books were historical novels, many set in the Restoration or the Regency.

Other writers were more experimental, with mixed results.

Allingham - Dancers.jpgMargery Allingham (1928) never wrote the same book twice, while her detective, Albert Campion, is something of a chameleon.  Her admirers praise her for her characterization, style, and moral concerns, but her plots are eccentric, and sometimes hard to grasp.

Gladys Mitchell (1929) was one of the Big Three women detective writers of the 1930s, while her detective, the reptilian, witch-like psychiatrist Mrs. Bradley, has often been called the best woman detective in fiction.  She’s a sturdier writer than Allingham; her plots are imaginative and often complex, but the narrative is clear and sensible.  I love her to bits, wrote my undergrad thesis on her, and edited a collection of her short stories, but acknowledge that she’s an acquired taste.


Michael Innes (1936) was the donnish detective writer nonpareil, founder of a school whose books are fantastical and abound in literary allusions.  He wrote half a dozen brilliantly rich and imaginative works, and then churned out a long series of artificial, formulaic, self-indulgent books in which style is an end in itself.  His early books, though, are stunning.

Edmund Crispin (1944), who took his name from an Innes character, is a delight.  He combined Innes’ wit, Mitchell’s imagination, and Allingham’s zest with Carr’s puzzle plots.  The books are high-spirited, burst with good humor and invention, and the plots are ingenious, if gimmicky.  They also have the endearing Gervase Fen, Professor of English at Oxford.


After World War II

Symons - Bloody Murder.jpgThe detective story hit a low point for several decades after WWII.  The genre seemed played out.

Many writers continued to produce detective stories, but the crime novel became the main form.  Mystery and detection, while they may be present, are not paramount; instead, the crime novel often deals with social issues, abnormal psychology, or the detective’s personal problems.  Julian Symons (1945) and H.R.F. Keating (1959) claimed that the crime novel was not merely different, but vastly superior to, the detective story.

Some writers such as P.D. James (1961) continued to write detective novels in the 1930s manner of Blake, albeit with a more serious tone, and at much greater length.

Ruth Rendell (1964) alternated between cleverly plotted mysteries featuring Inspector Wexford, and often squalid non-series crime novels.  Of late, earnest social commentary loomed too large.

Others, like Colin Dexter (1975), creator of Inspector Morse, wrote brilliant formal detective stories, with multi-faceted clues and multiple solutions, often hinging on unbreakable alibis or impersonations.

Hill - Wood Beyond.jpgProbably the most successful writer was Reginald Hill (1970).  Hill’s Dalziel & Pascoe novels are in the line of Bailey or Sayers: as exuberantly clever as Innes or Crispin – literate, playful, often bawdy – while addressing historical and contemporary events and serious themes such as war, religion, love, and grief.  His best books are hyper-ingenious; one novel hides the murderer’s name in the first sentence, another on the title page.

For the most part, though, the detective story suffered.  Bookshelves were full of “crime novels”, often dreary Scandinavian novels about a policeman’s ulcers and problems raising his kids, American stories about pathologists and serial killers, and grim novels in which the culprit was the bourgeoisie.

Recently, however, the tide has changed.  The internet has made available many long out-of-print writers, particularly thanks to the efforts of Curtis Evans and Martin Edwards; and fans have set up blogs to discuss the form.

In true mystery style, something thought dead may just come to life and surprise us all.

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