Crime-Mystery-Detective Stories Essay - Critical Essays

Crime-Mystery-Detective Stories


Crime-Mystery-Detective Stories

The following entry presents criticism on crime, mystery, and detective short fiction in world literature.

Mystery Story: Fictional work detailing evidence related to a crime or mysterious event in such a fashion as to allow the reader an opportunity to solve the problem, the author's solution being the final phase of the story. Detective Story: Popular literature focusing on the step-by-step investigation and solution of a crime. Source: Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, 1995.

The crime-mystery-detective story has been a popular genre of fiction for many years. These stories follow the exploits of an amateur or professional detective as he or she solves a crime by interrogating suspects, investigating clues, and tracking down criminals. Commentators trace the enduring appeal of crime-mystery-detective fiction to its fascinating protagonists, exciting and often ingenious plots, the fight between good and evil, and the satisfaction of solving crimes. Although critics debate its exact origins, most agree that the birth of the modern crime-mystery-detective story can be traced back to the 1841 publication of the short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” written by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. In this story, Poe introduced the detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, who solves a series of murders through methods of logical reasoning referred to by Poe as ratiocination. Dupin's scientific method of investigation as well as his eccentric personal habits became the model for most crime-mystery-detective writers that followed. While Poe is generally considered to be the inventor of the modern crime-mystery-detective story, British author Arthur Conan Doyle is credited with creating the prototype of the detective-hero that was to remain dominant throughout the twentieth century. Doyle created perhaps the best-known and best-loved hero of the genre, Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in the novel A Study in Scarlet in 1887. His first short story featuring Holmes was published in 1891, and was followed by a series of short story collections featuring Holmes and his loyal friend, Dr. John Watson. The Holmes series proved incredibly popular and exerted a profound influence on the genre.

During the first half of the twentieth century, sometimes referred to as the golden age of the crime-mystery-detective story, the genre evolved along two distinct lines: the classical and hard-boiled styles. The classical style is represented by several English authors whose stories revolve around their lovable amateur detective-heroes: G. K. Chesterton and his protagonist, the detective-priest Father Brown; Dorothy Sayers and her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey; and Agatha Christie, who created two detective-heroes, Miss Jane Marple and detective Hercule Poirot. These stories feature highly complex and ingenious mysteries that are solved by methodical and clever detective work. The hard-boiled crime-mystery-detective story, in contrast to the classical style, was developed by American authors who made their careers publishing short stories in the popular pulp fiction magazines. The hard-boiled detective-hero differs from the classic detective-hero in his rough, urban, working-class milieu, his predilection for physical violence, and his distinctive narrative voice characterized by tough, masculine tones. Black Mask was the most influential pulp magazine in developing the hard-boiled style. It is remembered for publishing many classic short crime-mystery-detective stories by authors whose names have become synonymous with the genre, such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. As the popularity of pulp magazines decreased around the time of World War II, police procedurals gained popularity. These stories focused on actual police work and featured fallible, ordinary police detectives who solve crimes.

In recent decades, the crime-mystery-detective genre has diversified, featuring stories written by minority, gay and lesbian, and feminist authors. This diversity is also reflected in the protagonists of these stories; recent crime-mystery-detective fiction has included African American, Native American, Jewish, and gay and lesbian detective-heroes. Although the novel continues to be the dominant medium of the crime-mystery-detective narrative, short stories by these contemporary authors may be found in numerous anthologies of the genre published during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Representative Works

Anthologies of Short Fiction
Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror 1928
My Best Detective Story: An Anthology of Stories Chosen by their own Authors 1931
A Century of Detective Stories 1935
101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories, 1841-1941 1941
The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from ‘Black Mask’ Magazine, 1920-1951 1977
Finale 1989
A Woman's Eye 1991
The New Mystery: The International Association of Crime Writers' Essential Crime Writing of the Late 20th Century 1993
Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories 1995
Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction 1995
Lethal Ladies 1996
Women on the Case 1996
The Best of Sisters in Crime 1997
Master's Choice: Mystery Stories by Today's Top Writers and the Masters Who Inspired Them 1999
The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century 2000
Criminal Kabbalah: An Intriguing Anthology of Jewish Mystery and Detective Fiction 2001

James M. Cain
The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction 1981

Raymond Chandler
The Simple Art of Murder 1950
Killer in the Rain 1964

G. K. Chesterton
The Innocence of Father Brown 1911
The Wisdom of Father Brown 1914
The Incredulity of Father Brown 1926
The Secret of Father Brown 1927
The Scandal of Father Brown 1935
The Father Brown Omnibus [includes The Innocence of Father Brown, The Incredulity of Father Brown, The Scandal of Father Brown, The Wisdom of Father Brown, The Secret of Father Brown, The Vampire of the Village] 1951
Father Brown Crime Stories: Twenty-Four Short Mysteries [includes The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown] 1990

Agatha Christie
The Underdog and Other Stories 1923
Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories 1976
Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories 1985
The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories 1986
The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories 1997

Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 1892
Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes 1894
The Return of Sherlock Holmes 1905
The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes 1927
The Complete Sherlock Holmes. 2 vols. 1930

Dashiell Hammett
The Adventures of Sam Spade 1944
The Continental Op 1945
The Big Knock-Over: Selected Stories and Short Novels 1966

Sara Paretsky
Windy City Blues 1995

Edgar Allan Poe
Tales 1845
The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe 1902
The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 3 vols. 1969

Ellery Queen
The Adventures of Ellery Queen 1934
The New Adventures 1940

Dorothy Sayers
Lord Peter Views the Body 1928
Hangman's Holiday 1933
In the Teeth of the Evidence 1939

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Dorothy L. Sayers (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Sayers, Dorothy L. “The Omnibus of Crime.” In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft, pp. 71-109. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1928 as the introduction to the anthology Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (published in the U.S. as the first Omnibus of Crime, 1929), Sayers provides an overview of the history and major developments of the crime-mystery-detective story.]

The art of self-tormenting is an ancient one, with a long and honourable literary tradition. Man, not satisfied with the mental confusion and unhappiness...

(The entire section is 14811 words.)

Gertrude Stein (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: Stein, Gertrude. “Why I Like Detective Stories.” In How Writing is Written, edited by Robert Bartlett Haas, pp. 146-50. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1937, Stein utilizes her experimental style of writing to capture the essence of the crime-mystery-detective story and the nature of its appeal to the reader.]

Life said Edgar is neither long nor short, and anybody knows that the only detective stories that anybody can read are written by Edgar. When Gerald Berners was here and his chauffeur William they both wanted detective stories, I gave William Edgar Wallace, he wanted Edgar Wallace, I cannot say...

(The entire section is 2178 words.)

Ellery Queen (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Queen, Ellery. “The Detective Short Story: The First Hundred Years.” In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft, pp. 476-91. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.

[In the following essay, Queen provides an overview of the development of the crime-mystery-detective story from the 1840s to the 1940s.]


The first violent crime of literature was a murder, complete with victim, criminal, motive, and—inferentially—weapon; for although Chapter 4 of Genesis merely remarks: “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him,” we may assume the instrument to have been a...

(The entire section is 5070 words.)

Thomas M. Leitch (essay date autumn 1983)

SOURCE: Leitch, Thomas M. “From Detective Story to Detective Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 29, no. 3 (autumn 1983): 475-84.

[In the following essay, Leitch compares a number of crime-mystery-detective novels to the short stories from which they were expanded.]

The detective story, with its persistent emphasis on the one correct solution of a crime, is the most resolutely end-oriented of narrative modes. Given the financial pressures of writing, however, it is hardly surprising that authors of detective stories should occasionally seek to postpone that end by turning their short stories into novels. What is most interesting in this process is not questioning the...

(The entire section is 4695 words.)

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Muller, Marcia, and Bill Pronzini. Introduction to Detective Duos, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, pp. 3-14. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[In the following introduction to an anthology of crime-mystery-detective stories that focuses on pairs of detective-heroes working together, Muller and Pronzini provide an overview of detective duos created by various authors.]

Fictional characters who work together in one capacity or another to solve a mystery have been a staple of the crime-fiction genre since Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first detective story in the early 1840s. Such characters may be amateur or professional or a combination of the...

(The entire section is 5871 words.)

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth. “‘Subject-Cases’ and ‘Book-Cases’: Impostures and Forgeries from Poe to Auster.” In Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism, edited by Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, pp. 247-69. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Sweeney discusses crime-mystery-detective short stories in which the protagonist is faced with his or her own double, contending that these stories address themes of identity crisis and the validity of the written text.]


… we suppose a case, and put ourselves into...

(The entire section is 10250 words.)

Tony Hillerman (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Hillerman, Tony. Introduction to The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, edited by Tony Hillerman, pp. xiv-xviii. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

[In the following essay, Hillerman provides a brief overview of the development of the crime-mystery-detective story over the course of the twentieth century.]

If I, alone, were stuck with the Herculean task of selecting the best mystery stories of the twentieth century, I'm afraid they would be clustered in periods. I'd give you a lot of tales from the years between the wars when thousands of good writers were supporting their families with yarns spun for the pulps. I'd pick out a dozen or so from those...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)

Criticism: Origins And Early Masters Of The Crime-Mystery-Detective Story

Stephen Knight (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Knight, Stephen. “‘… Some Men Come Up’—The Detective Appears.” In The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory, edited by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe, pp. 267-98. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

[In the following essay, Knight traces the origins and development of the modern crime-mystery-detective story.]

At the center of modern crime fiction stands an investigating agent—an amateur detective, a professional but private investigator, a single policeman, a police force acting together. Specially skilled people discover the cause of a crime, restore order, and bring the criminal to account. This function has been...

(The entire section is 12821 words.)

LeRoy Lad Panek (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Panek, LeRoy Lad. “Turn-of-the-Century Writers.” In An Introduction to the Detective Story, pp. 96-119. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Panek discusses a number of authors of crime-mystery-detective stories who wrote during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.]

When Doyle prematurely killed Holmes in 1894, The Strand Magazine announced in desperation that a new batch of Sherlock Holmes stories “will commence in an early number.” Knowing this was unlikely, the editors kept their collective foot in the door Doyle had opened by promising, “meanwhile, powerful detective...

(The entire section is 11396 words.)

Martin Priestman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Priestman, Martin. “The Detective Whodunnit from Poe to World War I.” In Crime Fiction: From Poe to the Present, pp. 5-18. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1998.

[In the following essay, Priestman provides an overview of the development of the crime-mystery-detective story from the 1840s to World War I.]

The detective whodunnit focuses primarily on identifying the perpetrator of a crime which for most of the story or novel already lies in the past. As Tsvetan Todorov has pointed out in his useful essay ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’, this placing of the major event in a concealed ‘first story’ which has taken place prior to most of the...

(The entire section is 5870 words.)

Criticism: Hard-Boiled Crime-Mystery-Detective Fiction

David Geherin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Geherin, David. “Birth of a Hero.” In The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction, pp. 1-25. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985.

[In the following essay, Geherin traces the development of hard-boiled crime-mystery-detective fiction from its roots in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle.]

Although it is an American writer, Edgar Allan Poe, who is generally credited with inventing the detective story in 1841 with the publication of his tale, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it was eighty years before another American writer—actually a pair of American writers, Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett—created the first authentic American...

(The entire section is 8792 words.)

Erin A. Smith (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Smith, Erin A. “The Hard-Boiled Writer and the Literary Marketplace.” In Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, pp. 18-42. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Smith investigates the pulp magazines, such as Black Mask, that developed the hard-boiled detective story.]

Into this underworld of literature most of us never dive unless, like Mr. Hoover's Committee on Recent Social Trends, we are curious about the literary preferences of those who move their lips when they read.

Vanity Fair, June 1933

It is not...

(The entire section is 12981 words.)

Lee Horsley (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Horsley, Lee. “Hard-Boiled Investigators.” In The Noir Thriller, pp. 23-44. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

[In the following essay, Horsley provides an overview of hard-boiled crime-mystery-detective fiction as it developed through the short stories and serialized novels of pulp fiction magazines.]

At the end of The Maltese Falcon (1930), Brigid O'Shaughnessy asks Sam Spade whether he would have treated her differently if he had received his share of the money from the sale of a genuine falcon. ‘“Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be,”’ Spade replies. ‘“That kind of reputation might be good business—bringing in high-priced...

(The entire section is 10202 words.)

Criticism: Diversity In The Crime-Mystery-Detective Story

Michael Nava (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Nava, Michael. Introduction to Finale, edited by Michael Nava, pp. 7-10. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1989.

[In the following introduction to an anthology of crime-mystery-detective stories by gay and lesbian authors, Nava provides an overview of the selections included in the volume.]

Though it is the bastard child of literature, the mystery has always attracted first-class writers. I came to mysteries in college through Jorge Luis Borges, whose ficciones frequently employed the conventions of the mystery for metaphysical ends. Indeed, one of the first mystery writers I read was G. K. Chesterton, to whose Father Brown stories Borges acknowledged his...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Victoria A. Brownworth (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Brownworth, Victoria A. Introduction to Out for Blood: Tales of Mystery and Suspense by Women, edited by Victoria A. Brownworth, pp. ix-xiv. Chicago: Third Side Press, 1995.

[In the following introduction to an anthology of crime-mystery-detective stories written by women, Brownworth considers the contributions of female authors to the development of the genre, and provides an overview of selections included in the volume.]

I have always, since I was a young child, loved mysteries—suspense, detective stories, ghost tales. The first mystery I ever read was The Ghost of Blackwood Hall by Carolyn Keene; at eight, it was my introduction to Nancy Drew and...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)

Priscilla L. Walton (essay date May 1998)

SOURCE: Walton, Priscilla L. “Form and Forum: The Agency of Detectives and the Venue of the Short Story.” Narrative 6, no. 2 (May 1998): 123-39.

[In the following essay, Walton argues that the short story anthology is an ideal medium through which lesser-known women crime-mystery-detective authors can gain a popular readership in an industry that often favors male authors.]

Long shot at that jumping sign,
Visible shivers running down my spine;
Cut to the baby taking off her clothes,
Close up of the sign that says “we never close.”
You snatch a tune and you match a cigarette;
She pulls their eyes out with a face like a magnet,
I don't know how much more of this I...

(The entire section is 8417 words.)

Laurie R. King and Lawrence W. Raphael (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: King, Laurie R., and Lawrence W. Raphael. Forward and Introduction to Criminal Kabbalah: An Intriguing Anthology of Jewish Mystery & Detective Fiction, edited by Lawrence W. Raphael, pp. 7-8; 11-16. Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001.

[In the following forward and introduction to a Jewish crime-mystery-detective anthology, King and Raphael define the term kabbalah and discuss the connections between Jewish mystical thought and the crime-mystery-detective genre.]


Criminal Kabbalah, the Kabbalah of crime—what does an esoteric form of mysticism have to do with common lawbreakers?...

(The entire section is 2455 words.)

Further Reading


Bleiler, Richard. Reference Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1999, 391 p.

Bibliography of crime-mystery-detective fiction, as well as reference books about crime-mystery-detective fiction.


Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. New York: Berkeley Books, 1977, 529 p.

Agatha Christie's autobiography.

Coren, Michael. Gilbert, the Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton. New York: Paragon House, 1990, 304 p.

Biography of Gilbert Keith, who wrote under the pseudonym G. K. Chesterton....

(The entire section is 419 words.)