Detective Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

Detective Fiction


Detective Fiction

The following entry provides critical commentary on major themes, authors, and works associated with the detective fiction genre during the nineteenth century.

Crime and detection have been common elements in world literature, as exemplified in the biblical stories of Cain and Abel and Susanna and the Elders, as well as in works by Sophocles, William Shakespeare, and Voltaire. Despite the long history of crime and detection in literature, detective fiction as a full-fledged genre first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century in the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” first published in Graham's Magazine in 1841, and several subsequent “tales of ratiocination,” Poe created the archetypal pattern for stories of detection: a bizarre crime is committed, a brilliant, seemingly omniscient, detective investigates, solves the puzzle with the aid of superior logical reasoning, and the perpetrator is unmasked. The protagonist of Poe's stories, the perspicacious but eccentric C. Auguste Dupin, inspired generations of subsequent sleuths.

Particular political, social, and ideological forces unique to the nineteenth century are often cited by critics as factors contributing to the emergence of the detective fiction genre during this era. With the advent of bourgeois societies, criminals, who in autocratic societies enjoyed, in the popular imagination, the reputation of heroic rebels, eventually became viewed as a menace by a social class interested in safeguarding its property. At the same time the police, regarded in the eighteenth century as an organization dedicated to protecting autocrats, rose in popular esteem. Once maligned as agents of corrupt kings, members of the police force were now valued for the protection they provided, and the figure of the law enforcement officer became an acceptable protagonist in literature. In the intellectual realm, the Enlightenment brought about a profound respect for the power of reasoning, as well as an overwhelming faith in the ability of science to solve social problems. This paved the way for the development of a new literary hero, the detective-scientist. These protagonists were often gentlemen possessed of such admired traits as scientific knowledge and superior intellect, and they elicited much enthusiasm among nineteenth-century readers.

While Poe's tales of ratiocination were relatively unknown in his own country during his lifetime, they strongly influenced the development of detective prose, and literature in general, in France and England during the 1850s and 1860s. Although not exclusively concerned with crime detection, novels by Emile Gaboriau, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins featured, among other elements, the efforts of policemen to solve crimes in much the same manner as Poe's Dupin. The policeman-hero introduced by these writers inspired the growth of the French roman policier and the American police novel, branches of detective fiction that have flourished in the twentieth century. Other novelists of the time—Mary Elizabeth Braddon in England and Anna Katharine Green in America, for example—created the domestic detective novel in which crime investigation is combined with realistic representations of everyday life, a form of detective fiction that further developed in the twentieth century. By the 1890s, the short story form had eclipsed the novel's popularity, and a number of short works established a new standard for detective prose. The Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which feature the deductive powers of an eccentric amateur detective, are the best known examples of these. Having crystallized and popularized certain elements of Poe's stories, Doyle established a narrative form that exerted considerable influence on later detective prose.

Twentieth-century readings of detective fiction revealed the genre's complexity, alerting critics that these texts contained more than brilliant intellectual gymnastics. For example, commentators, particularly scholars analyzing the works of Collins and Dickens, noted a peculiar authorial ambivalence regarding crime. In fact, the shady world of crime came to symbolize a particular shadow in the Victorian psyche: the dark, and often repressed, reality of England's imperialist policies. Crime novels, particularly works by Collins, also shed light on the social problems of Victorian England, including poverty, discrimination, and domestic violence against women. In Collins's works, for example, critics discerned an effort to explain the mechanism whereby social and psychological forces conspire to place women in such desperate situations that crime seems like the only rational solution. Finally, in works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) commentators saw symptoms of a malaise more profound than the Victorian crisis of conscience: the disintegration of the personality.

Freudian readings, from the earliest critical efforts to the Neo-Freudianism of Jacques Lacan, approached detective prose from a clinical point of view. In fact, critics openly likened the process of criminal detection to psychoanalysis, arguing that the analyst, like the sleuth, searches for the truth. However, since the dominant intellectual paradigms underpinning twentieth-century criticism essentially dispensed with the idea of personal identity, this became a problematic interpretation. While in Freud's construct the ego still retained some relevance, albeit controlled by the id's overwhelming power, in Neo-Freudian thought, as exemplified by Jacques Lacan, there is only a linguistic symbolic order, into which a person is born. According to Lacan, a person's unconscious is totally determined by a symbolic order which is imposed on an individual. Taking a cue from the semantic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, who divided the semantic universe into “signifiers” (signs, symbols) and “signifieds” (the realities that these signs denote), Lacan posited that signifiers do not denote anything, thus effectively separating the world of signs, as well as the world of psyche, as a self-referential universe. Lacan used Poe's “The Purloined Letter” (1845) to illustrate his theory. According to Lacan, Poe's remarkable story about an ingeniously misplaced letter shows how a signifier (the letter) exerts enormous power over people without referring to anything in particular. Indeed, there are vague hints about the content of the letter throughout the story, but the reader is constantly focused on the object itself, or more specifically, on the absence of it. Thanks to Lacan, and to his detractors, Poe's stories are among the archetypal texts of twentieth and early twenty-first century literary criticism.

Commentary on the importance of nineteenth-century detective fiction has also concentrated on the cultural significance of the hero and the function of the genre in literary history. The detective of this era was viewed, according to critics, as a kind of prophet of logical reasoning who becomes viewed as a sort of savior for his defense of moral order. At the same time, as Elliot L. Gilbert (see Further Reading) points out, the detective's inevitable failures in an increasingly mechanized and godless society reflect late nineteenth-century awareness of the limitations of the reasoning process. Thus, the genre of detective fiction in the nineteenth century is often viewed as a transition between Romantic faith in the perfectibility of the world and Victorian disillusionment with its harsh realities.

Representative Works

Thomas Bailey Aldrich
The Stillwater Tragedy (novel) 1880

Honoré de Balzac
Illusions perdues (novel) 1843 [Lost Illusions, 1925]

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Lady Audley's Secret (novel) 1862
A Strange World (novel) 1875
An Open Verdict (novel) 1878
Just As I Am (novel) 1880
Wyllard's Weird (novel) 1885

Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Pelham; or, the Adventures of a Gentleman (novel) 1828
Eugene Aram: A Tale (novel) 1832
Night and Morning (novel) 1841

Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White (novel) 1860
The Moonstone (novel) 1868
The Law and the Lady (novel) 1875

Charles Dickens
Bleak House (novel) 1852-53
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (novel) 1870

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A Study in Scarlet (novel) 1887
The Sign of Four (novel) 1890
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (short stories) 1892
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (short stories) 1893
The Hound of the Baskervilles (novel) 1901-02
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (short stories) 1905
The Valley of Fear (novel) 1914-15
His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (short stories) 1917
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (short stories) 1927

Benjamin Leopold...

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Criticism: Overviews

Gerald Gillespie (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Gillespie, Gerald. “The Romantic Discourse of Detection in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” In Fiction, Narratologie, Texte, Genre, edited by Jean Bessière, pp. 203-12. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

[In the following essay, first published in a 1985 French language edition of Fiction, Narratologie, Texte, Genre, Gillespie observes that authorial interest in textual interpretation, evident in nineteenth-century detective stories and related genres, anticipated theories of interpretation developed in the twentieth century.]

My limited purpose in this brief paper is to illustrate only some features of one aspect of the detective story, but an important...

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Ronald R. Thomas (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Thomas, Ronald R. “Minding the Body Politic: the Romance of Science and the Revision of History in Victorian Detective Fiction.” Victorian Literature and Culture 19 (1991): 233-54.

[In the following essay, Thomas suggests that Victorian society's desperate need to distance itself from the world of crime reflects a feeling of collective guilt caused by Britain's imperialist policies.]

Once we happened to speak of Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes. I had thought that Freud would have no use for this type of light reading matter, and was surprised to find that this was not at all the case and that Freud had read this author...

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Ronald R. Thomas (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Thomas, Ronald R. “Victorian Detective Fiction and Legitimate Literature: Recent Directions in the Criticism.” Victorian Literature and Culture 24 (1996): 367-79.

[In the following essay, Thomas asserts that Victorian attitudes toward crime fiction persist in twentieth-century criticism.]

From its first appearance—usually traced to Edgar Allan Poe in America and to Charles Dickens in England—critics have viewed detective fiction with a suspicious eye. Anthony Trollope condemned its unrealistic preoccupation with plots that were too complex and characters that were too simple. Mrs. Oliphant warned about the dangers of its implicit celebration of...

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Criticism: Origins And Influences

Patricia Merivale (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Merivale, Patricia. “Gumshoe Gothics: ‘The Man of the Crowd’ and His Followers.” In Narrative Ironies, edited by Raymond A. Prier and Gerald Gillespie, pp. 163-79. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1997.

[In the following essay, Merivale examines Edgar Allan Poe's “The Man of the Crowd” as a precursor to metaphysical, or postmodern, detective fiction.]

We, reading the detective novel, are an invention of Edgar Allan Poe.

Borges, “The Detective Story,” 21

“An excellent idea, I think, to start from a dead body” said Kobo Abe (Inter Ice Age 4, 47) and Hubert Aquin, similarly,...

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Tony Magistrale and Sidney Poger (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Magistrale, Tony, and Sidney Poger. “Originating Lines: The Importance of Poe.” In Poe's Children: Connections between Tales of Terror and Detection, pp. 11-28. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1999.

[In the following essay, Magistrale and Poger define Edgar Allan Poe as a quintessentially Romantic writer whose detective stories are best understood when examined within the context of his tales of horror.]

Poe's was a master's vision of the terror that stalks about and within us, and the worm that writhes and slavers in the hideously close abyss.

(Lovecraft 54)


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Tony Magistrale and Sidney Poger (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Magistrale, Tony, and Sidney Poger. “Poe's Victorian Disguises: The Hound of the Baskervilles and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In Poe's Children: Connections between Tales of Terror and Detection, pp. 45-55. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1999.

[In the following essay, Magistrale and Poger argue that works such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's ”The Hound of the Baskervilles” and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reflect Edgar Allan Poe's conception of the human psyche as the ultimate mystery.]

Jekyll and Hyde is a pre-Jungian fable, a vivid illustration of the Shadow side of a decent...

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Caroline Reitz (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Reitz, Caroline. “Bad Cop/Good Cop: Godwin, Mill and the Imperial Origins of the English Detective.” Novel 33, no. 2 (spring 2000): 175-95.

[In the following essay, Reitz asserts that the detective genre, as exemplified by William Godwin's novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), which is generally regarded as the earliest detective novel, reflects the crisis of Britain's imperialist culture.]

Our understanding of detective fiction as a strictly domestic genre takes its cue from the standard line of histories of the English police: English police embody, from their beginning, such national values as mild justice and...

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Criticism: Major Authors

Julia A. Kushigian (essay date spring-summer 1983)

SOURCE: Kushigian, Julia A. “The Detective Story Genre in Poe and Borges.” Latin American Literary Review 11, no. 22 (spring-summer 1983): 27-39.

[In the following essay, Kushigian traces connections between the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges, and concludes that the two writers share a unique perception of the world.]

Jorge Luis Borges has remarked that writers create their precursors. This statement suggests that the precursor's text should be read and understood in a unique manner, whereupon a reading of the precursor's text is viewed in the light of the author's (in this situation, Borges') more recent text. Borges has in a sense...

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J. Lasley Dameron (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Dameron, J. Lasley. “Poe's C. Auguste Dupin.” In No Fairer Land: Studies in Southern Literature Before 1900, edited by J. Lasley Dameron and James W. Mathews, pp. 159-71. Troy, N.Y.: The Whitston Publishing Company, 1986.

[In the following essay, Dameron delineates why Edgar Allan Poe's fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin is considered “a major hero in American literature.”]

Edgar Allan Poe's super detective, C. Auguste Dupin, as every English teacher knows, appears in three of Poe's most familiar so-called “detective stories”: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.”1 He is...

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Virginia Morris (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Morris, Virginia. “Mary Elizabeth Braddon: The Most Despicable of her Sex.” In Double Jeopardy: Women Who Kill in Victorian Fiction, pp. 88-104. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

[In the following essay, Morris explains how detective fiction mirrored Victorian attitudes and conventions regarding crime, as writers struggled to move from a stance of empty moralizing to a deeper understanding of the social and psychological roots of criminal behavior, particularly among women.]

The women who shoot, poison, stab, steal, and blackmail their way through the sensation novels of the 1800s changed the nature of crime and criminals in Victorian fiction....

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Virginia Morris (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Morris, Virginia. “Wilkie Collins: No Deliverance but in Death.” In Double Jeopardy: Women who Kill in Victorian Fiction, pp. 105-26. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

[In the following essay, Morris discusses women criminals in the novels of Wilkie Collins, and asserts that Collins portrays criminal behavior among women as a revolt against domestic violence, and by presenting the women characters as intelligent, normal, and rational, rather than simple-minded, deviant, or depraved, Collins undermined traditional Victorian gender roles as well as the established, acceptable motives for murder in Victorian fiction.]

Wilkie Collins, writing in...

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Rosemary Jann (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Jann, Rosemary. “‘Cherchez la femme.’” In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Detecting Social Order, pp. 103-26. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

[In the following essay, Jann analyzes the Victorian perception that female sexuality was dangerous and delineates Arthur Conan Doyle's treatment of women's sexuality and transgressive behavior in his novels.]

In the end, it all boils down to sex and money; these, in varying mixtures, are the chief motivators of crime in the Holmes canon, as in detective fiction in general. I have chosen my chapter title, French for “seek the woman,” to focus attention on assumptions about the problematic nature of...

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Joseph A. Kestner (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Kestner, Joseph A. “‘Real’ Men: Construction of Masculinity in the Sherlock Holmes Narratives.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 29, no. 1 (spring 1996): 73-88.

[In the following essay, Kestner explains how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories influenced Victorian conceptions of masculinity.]

If we understand masculinity as a constant contradictory struggle rather than just the privileged position within a power disequilibrium, we come closer to a full definition of gender studies.

Stearns 108

In Critical Practice, Catherine Belsey describes a theory of...

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Peter Thoms (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Thoms, Peter. “The Stories of Poe's Dupin.” In Detection & Its Designs: Narrative & Power in 19th-Century Detective Fiction, pp. 44-70. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Thoms analyzes Edgar Allan Poe's stories featuring detective C. Auguste Dupin, and asserts that in “the Dupin stories the detective emerges not as the criminal's polar opposite but as an ambiguous figure who shares that transgressor's desire for control.”]

Caleb Williams strips storytelling of its innocuous veneer to expose its sinister motives. In the novel's opening chapters Caleb's narrative appetite, like the reader's curiosity, seems...

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James V. Werner (essay date March 2001)

SOURCE: Werner, James V. “The Detective Gaze: Edgar A. Poe, the Flaneur, and the Physiognomy of Crime.” American Transcendental Quarterly 15, no. 1 (March 2001): 5-21.

[In the following essay, Werner identifies Edgar Allan Poe's detective C. Auguste Dupin as an example of what critic Walter Benjamin termed a “flaneur,” and asserts that Poe's use of this careful observer, who interacts within but still remains apart from the world he surveys, “represents a pivotal influence on Poe's philosophical perspective and fictional aims and strategies.”]

Among the many achievements in the short and difficult life of Edgar A. Poe was the creation of the detective tale...

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Criticism: Freud And Detective Fiction

SOURCE: Thomas, Ronald R. “The Policing of Dreams: Nineteenth-Century Detection.” In Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious, pp. 193-253. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas illustrates the similarities and connections between the investigative techniques employed by detectives in nineteenth-century literature and Freudian methods and theories of dreams and the unconscious.]

Upon the winding up of the tragedy involved in the deaths of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter, the Chevalier dismissed the affair at once from his attention, and relapsed into his old habit of moody revery....

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Further Reading


Barzun, Jacques, and Wendel Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. Revised and enlarged edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1989, 952 p.

Annotated bibliography of more than thirty-five thousand novels, short stories, anthologies, magazines, and dramas of detection, crime, mystery, and espionage, including secondary literature.


Altick, Richard D. “Literature with a Sanguinary Cast.” In his Victorian Studies in Scarlet, pp. 76-85. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1970.

Examination of the subject of murder in the “penny dreadful,” the Newgate novel, and in the...

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