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detective fiction

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

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Walter John De La Mare Biography to Hilda Doolittle Biography

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).

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