Other Free Encyclopedias » Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern Fiction » Encyclopedia of Literature: Walter John De La Mare Biography to Hilda Doolittle Biography

detective fiction

Bleak House, The Moonstone, A Study in Scarlet, Monsieur Lecoq, Trent's Last Case

novel crime story police

Among the most enduring and widely read styles of popular writing in the twentieth century, the detective novel is a formulaic and conventionalized strand of crime fiction, emphasizing the ‘puzzle’ element. Within a restricted setting (often a country house or isolated rural community), a terrible crime is committed. There are several suspects, all variously plausible as the culprit. After a number of carefully stage-managed ‘red herrings’ and surprises, the mystery is eventually unravelled. The perpetrator is identified through a combination of deduction and intuition, in the person of the detective, who may be an amateur, and order is once again restored. The interest of such stories lies partly in the characterization and setting, partly in the reassuring sense that crime is soluble and manageable, but perhaps most importantly in the elaborate game of teasing and misleading the reader, who is encouraged to enter into a contest of wits with the detective, only to be thwarted by his or her superior ingenuity.

Precedents for the figure of the detective had been established in the nineteenth century, in Dickens's Bleak House (18523) and in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868), but the real progenitor of the detective story is commonly agreed to have been Edgar Allan Poe's ‘Chevalier Dupin’ stories (‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, 1841, and others). While The Moonstone has been claimed to be the first full-length detective novel in England, this title should in truth be given to A. C. Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1888). Drawing on Poe and Emile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq (1869), Doyle created the brilliant but unstable Sherlock Holmes and his unimaginative but loyal assistant Dr Watson, constructing a paradigm for the genre much imitated by later writers. He also established the short story as the dominant form: in the hands of writers such as Chesterton, Freeman, and Bramah, it maintained its ascendancy until E. C. Bentley published Trent's Last Case (1913), which introduced in a full-length novel more characterization and the gentlemanly amateur detective with powers of ratiocination markedly inferior to those of Holmes and his successors, thus setting a pattern for the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s.

By the 1920s, rules of fair play between author and reader were formulated. In Monsignor Ronald Knox's ‘Decalogue’ (1928), the ten commandments for the detective writer, these conventions were listed and codified. Leading authors of the Golden Age were Agatha Christie, whose Hercule Poirot, though obviously a metamorphosis of Holmes, also owes something to A. E. W. Mason's Inspector Hanaud; Rhode, H. C. Bailey, Berkeley, Michael Innes (pseudonym of J. I. M. Stewart), Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of C. Day Lewis); Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham, both of whom turned the gentlemanly detective into an aristocrat; Ngaio Marsh, who made him a policeman as well; Crofts, who kept closer to reality by creating the prototype of the solid police inspector who achieves results through attention to detail rather than deduction; and the Americans J. D. Carr, S. S. Van Dine, and Ellery Queen, whose ever more ingenious and abstruse puzzles abandoned any pretence of characterization or realism.

Meanwhile in America the private eye novel, which differs from the classic detective story in that it is more violent, dynamic rather than static, and often does not follow the classic rule that the criminal must be introduced at the beginning of the story, had emerged in the 1920s and 1930s from the pulp magazine Black Mask (192036) and in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, who have been followed by a host of successors, most notably by R. Macdonald. This ‘Hard-boiled’ fiction has been the dominant form in the USA since the 1930s, and after the Second World War began to establish itself in Britain, though attempts to transplant the genre generally failed. At the same time some British writers turned away from the snobbishness and nostalgia of the Golden Age and began writing increasingly realistic crime and spy novels which presented a less one-sided view of the conflict between justice and criminal and more interest in criminal psychology and social concerns. Writers who have remained more or less faithful to the classic detective novel, such as Edmund Crispin, Michael Gilbert, Elizabeth Ferrars, H. Keating, Ellis Peters, and P. D. James, have mostly abandoned the traditional amateur sleuth who is frequently replaced by a more plausibly drawn police officer, and exotic settings and realistic characterization have become more prevalent. In America, though Rex Stout remained true to the Holmesian model, the scene has been dominated by the private eye novel, together with a variant on this type which might be called the tough police novel, exemplified by the work of authors such as Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford. During the 1950s a new sub-genre, that of the ‘police procedural’, appeared in America under the influence of radio and television police series such as Dragnet. These novels portray a complete police unit investigating concurrently a series of separate crimes: chief exponents of the type are, in America, Ed McBain, Hillary Waugh, and Elizabeth Linington; in Britain it has largely remained the preserve of television, though John Creasey's J. J. Marric stories imitate the method. See Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1942); Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime (1971, revised 1989); Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, A History (1972, revised 1985); Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, Encyclopaedia of Mystery and Detection (1976); John M. Reilly (ed.), Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1980, 2nd edition 1985); and T. J. Binyon, ‘Murder Will Out’: The Detective in Fiction (1989).

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

almost 6 years ago

If you like Holmes 'Classic'…

Sherlock Holmes And The Dead Boer At Scotney Castle

Never before had Holmes and Watson come up against a brotherhood like the Kipling League. Dedicated to their Patron Rudyard Kipling, the Poet of Empire, the League’s sole allegiance was to England’s civilising mission. Its members would allow nothing to get in their way.

Tim Symonds' new novel Sherlock Holmes And The Dead Boer At Scotney Castle will be published March 19 by MX Publishing, known for their Sherlock Holmes' authors.

Holmes and Watson take the train to address the mysterious Kipling League at Crick's End, a Jacobean mansion in deepest Sussex. A body is found in a wagon pond at nearby Scotney Castle - but why the wagon pond and not the moat? And why unclad? What is the meaning of the pair of shiny dark glasses clutched in one hand? And that hatband - could it really be from the skin of a yellow and brown spiny snake?

www.amazon.co.uk/Sherlock-Holmes-Dead-Scotney-Castle/dp/1780920911 Review copies - Steven Emecz mxpublishing@btinternet.com
Also at Foyle's Online www.foyles.co.uk/item/Fiction-Poetry/Sherlock-Holmes-and-the-Dead-Boer-at-Scotney-Castle,Tim-Symonds-9781780920917
North America www.mxpublishing.com/brand/Tim+Symonds



Excerpt - the action commences…

‘Late Extra! Dead Body at Scotney Castle,’ the boy sang, his face turned upwards, his apron displaying the bold headline black upon yellow on a poster.
‘Heavens, Holmes,’ I called over, amused. ‘Fame indeed. Scotney Castle has found its way into the Evening London Standard!’

I anticipated my companion would wave aside the small beseeching newspaper vendor. Had he declined to make the purchase, I would have followed suit while offering the boy a ha’penny in compensation. Thereby we may never been hurled into the extraordinary matter of the dead Boer at Scotney Castle.

Rather than waving the boy away, Holmes stared down at him and demanded ‘What did you say?’

‘Dead Body at Scotney Castle,’ the vendor sang out once more, pushing a copy into my companion’s outstretched hand and taking three-halfpence in return.

Holmes unfolded the newspaper and turned to an inside page as directed. He read for a moment and glanced up.

‘Watson, listen to this. ‘LATE EXTRA. From our local Correspondent by wire’.’

The report commenced with the curiously garbled sub-heading ‘Well-Dressed Unclad Body Discovered At Lamberhurst’ and continued, ‘To-day, at around 4pm near the village of Lamberhurst, on the Kent and Sussex border in the Valley of the River Bewl, in the undertaking of his rounds, James Webster, woodman on the Scotney Castle Estate, came across the unclad body of a man lying mostly submerged in the wagon pond, off the old Carriage Drive at Kilndown Wood, believed drowned. Age is estimated around 50.
Gentlemen’s clothes of a good quality and condition lay at a short departure from the verge, neatly piled, and topped by a crimson hat like a bowler out of a Mexican sombrero, bearing a hatband made from the skin of a yellow and brown spiny snake. Death is estimated to have taken place within the previous hour as the arms and legs were still supple. It was noticeable the dead man’s chest was unusually seared by the sun in a triangle to a point some five inches above the navel, with similar ruddiness of arms right to the armpit, and the legs from above the calf to just below the knee. Exact details are few but no traces of struggle or nearby disturbance have been reported. A man in this garb was seen standing at the edge of the wagon pond in the middle of the afternoon, around three o’ clock, by Lord Edward Fusey, owner of the Estate, whose house overlooks the valley from the top of a nearby hill.
While suicide is a possibility, the empty pockets of the clothing and weathered condition of the skin incline the Lamberhurst constable to agree with Lord Fusey’s suggestion the body is most likely that of a passing tramp, who, having stolen a gentleman’s clothing, felt obliged to bathe in the wagon pond and consequently drowned.’’

Turning to me with an air of excitement, Holmes demanded, ‘Well, Watson, what do you make of it?’

‘What do you make of it, Holmes?’ I parried. He was on a hot scent but as yet I could not in the least imagine in what direction his inferences were leading him. Without responding to my own query, he returned to the Standard and continued, ‘‘A pair of shiny dark glasses was discovered between finger and thumb, but identifying papers or other memoranda are lacking. The old smugglers’ track is a favoured route of indigents and vagabonds overnighting in the castle ruins on their way to London. No further action is expected’.’

Holmes lowered the newspaper. ‘‘The body is most likely that of a passing tramp?’’ he repeated. ‘How could this be?’

He raised the paper again and continued reading out loud. ‘'The probability remains that the deceased has been the victim of an unfortunate accident which should at the very least have the effect of calling the attention of the Estate owner to the parlous condition of the wagon pond verges’.'

Once more Holmes lowered the newspaper, frowning. ‘Again, Watson, I ask, what do you make of it?’

‘Apart from the sensationalistic prose, Holmes, what should I make of it?’ I replied evasively. ‘Any self-inflicted death or accident is a sad event.’

He cocked his head. ‘'Self-inflicted death or accident’ you have already decided?’ he demanded. ‘Is it not obvious to you this matter strikes rather deeper than you think?’