The Detective Story Analysis

Historical Background

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Though Edgar Allan Poe generally is considered the father of detective fiction, some historians of the genre go as far back as ancient Greece and Herodotus’s tale of King Rhampsinitus or to the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders for the origins of this popular literary form. These putative sources share elements with mystery fiction—natural cunning, the cross-examination of witnesses, false clues—but lack major essentials. The same can be said about many other claimants, such as the popular crime narratives and rogue pseudomemoirs of eighteenth century England and also Voltaire’s Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; originally as Memnon: Histoire orientale, 1747; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749), in a chapter in which the hero uses analytical deduction to reach conclusions about things he has not seen. François-Eugène Vidocq’s Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de la police de sûreté jusqu’en 1827 (1828-1829; Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827, 1828-1829; revised as Histoire de Vidocq, chef de la police de sûreté: Écrite d’après lui-même, 1829), however, is a forerunner that was a direct influence on Poe and his successors. A former criminal who became the first head of the French police, Vidocq later set himself up as a private detective.

Edgar Allan Poe

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—which takes place in Paris, as do his other mystery stories—is the seminal work from which all subsequent detective fiction descends. It is, first of all, the archetypal locked-room mystery, a subgenre in which a body is discovered in an apparently sealed room. Second, C. Auguste Dupin, the first fictional private detective, solves crimes that perplex the police and is the prototype of many later brilliant men (including Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, and Hercule Poirot), whose activities are described by admiring chroniclers. Third, in this and the other two stories in which he appears (“The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”), Dupin reaches solutions through what Poe called ratiocination, the process of logical and methodical reasoning. Finally, in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Dupin is a prototypical armchair detective, working from newspaper accounts to deduce a solution. In two other detective tales—“The Gold Bug” and “Thou Art the Man”—Poe also introduces devices that would become commonplace in the genre: false clues, the use of ballistics, a deciphered code, the detective as narrator, and the least likely suspect as culprit.

In the decades following the publication of these innovative stories, crime and detection were favorite subjects of the popular press in England, notably the sensational “penny dreadfuls” periodicals and Charles Dickens’s Household Words articles about the London police detective department, particularly its Inspector Field, who was the inspiration for Inspector Bucket of Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853). Another detective department member, Inspector Jonathan Whicher, is the source of Sergeant Cuff, Wilkie Collins’s methodical sleuth in The Moonstone (1868), the first English detective novel. Similar to Cuff is American Anna Katharine Green’s city detective Ebenezer Gryce, who debuted in The Leavenworth Case: A Lawyer’s Story (1878). These works and other crime literature soon were overshadowed by Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890), whose success led editor Herbert Greenhough Smith of London’s new Strand Magazine to ask Doyle for six Holmes stories, the first of which, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” appeared in July, 1891. They were so popular that Smith commissioned another series, and three mass-circulation American periodicalsMunsey’s Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, and McClure’s Magazine—also began to publish them.

Sherlock Holmes

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

With Dr. John Watson’s casebook of Sherlock Holmes, the detective story finally came into its own as a distinct genre. Building upon the example of Poe, a debt he acknowledged, Arthur Conan Doyle created the genre’s indelible pattern: a crime attempted or committed, a sleuth either working independently or aiding the baffled police, and a solution arrived at by the detective. Significantly, he added a vital element. Whereas Poe’s Dupin is an undeveloped, shadowy figure, Doyle’s Holmes is a real person, and in his fifty-six stories, Doyle presents a myriad of information about the character, whose activities add details to his persona. A Nietzschean superman, Holmes not only acts superior to others but also actually is so. He is an intriguing eccentric, uses drugs, plays the violin, is a master of disguise, is almost passionless, is an expert in anatomy, chemistry, the law, and mathematics, and has written many scholarly monographs on such varied topics as bees, tobacco, and the Cornish language. Holmes puts his far- ranging intellect to practical use in the stories, which tends to personalize the narratives. Also serving this function is the narrator, Dr. Watson, Holmes’s obsequious physician friend. An honest, likable man of average intellect, he is one with whom the reader can identify. While some tales, particularly later ones, are marred by improbabilities, contradictions, and inexplicable lapses in Holmes’s deductive acuity, the detective’s mythic personality and the...

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In the Wake of Holmes

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Holmes’s popularity spawned other sleuths who either share some of his major traits or are almost polar opposites. Among the supermen-detectives, for example, is Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, the creation of Jacques Futrelle, an American from Georgia. Van Dusen, an eccentric genius with many university degrees, is the omniscient sleuth in two collections, The Thinking Machine (1907; also known as The Problem of Cell Thirteen) and The Thinking Machine on the Case (1908; also known as The Professor on the Case). Futrelle’s best-known story is “The Problem of Cell Thirteen,” a locked-room mystery in which Van Dusen escapes from prison, disproving the challenge that “no man can think himself out of a cell.” Another superman in the same mode is Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah’s blind detective, who relies not only upon his deductive skills but also upon his superior sensory perception. For instance, he can tell that someone is wearing a false mustache because he smells adhesive and can read newspaper headlines by an acute sense of touch that enables him to distinguish areas of printer’s ink. Carrados also has what Bramah labels an elusive sixth sense, actually just a keen understanding of human psychology. In the Doyle pattern, Bramah provides a myriad of details about Carrados’s life, so he is a convincingly credible character, and the extent to which he has overcome the limitations of his affliction makes him engaging and likable. Accompanied on rounds by his Watson, Louis Carlyle, a private investigator who refers cases to him, independently wealthy Carrados epitomizes the gentleman sleuth, choosing problems that interest him and refusing fees. Like Holmes, Carrados sometimes solves cases before they cross the line to serious criminality, including at least one (“The Clever Mrs. Straithwaite”) that is little more than a domestic farce embellished by an alleged jewel theft and phony insurance claim. Unlike most of his peers, Bramah sometimes used contemporary issues as the linchpin of his stories, such as “The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem” (anti-British feelings in India) and “The Missing Witness Sensation” (an Irish Sinn Fein kidnapping). Also atypical is the fact that few of Carrados’s cases involve murder. Ellery Queen described Bramah’s first collection of mysteries, Max Carrados (1914), as “one of the ten best volumes of detective shorts ever written,” and they remain eminently readable.

Holmes Contemporaries and Successors

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In deliberate contrast with the Holmes pattern, Arthur Morrison, a Doyle contemporary who also published in The Strand Magazine, wrote eighteen stories featuring law clerk Martin Hewitt, a determinedly ordinary man whose cases a journalist friend narrates. G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown also seems to be unexceptional but proves to be otherwise in fifty witty stories (published from 1911 to 1935) that are constructed around paradoxes. A prototype for later clergymen-sleuths, Father Brown relies on intuition and insight more than on deduction and clues, but like Holmes is a keen observer, trying to get inside the mind of a suspect and noticing what others overlook, as in “The Invisible Man,” in which the culprit disguises himself as a mailman, someone so familiar that people disregard him. Sympathetic toward criminals, the priest sometimes lets them go free so they can repent their sins and reform. Another detective who, like Father Brown, appears to be unexceptional, is M. McDonnell Bodkin’s Paul Beck, who also was deliberately conceived as the opposite of Holmes. Beck claims to muddle his way through cases, and other professionals scorn him, but his native wit serves him well. Similar to Holmes as a master of disguise but otherwise very different is A. J. Raffles, a gentleman burglar, safecracker, amateur cricketer—the brainchild of E. W. Hornung, Doyle’s brother-in- law. Supposedly created as an intentional contrast with Holmes (Hornung unequivocally describes his sleuth as a villain), Raffles is crime fiction’s first antihero and was so popular that for a half century after Hornung’s death, Barry Perowne produced almost two dozen more volumes of Raffles stories and novels. Sherlock Holmes often used his extensive scientific knowledge as a tool to solve cases, and following in these procedural footsteps is Dr. John Evelyn...

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American Pulp Magazines

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

During the decades covered thus far of the developing crime fiction genre, the short story was the dominant form, though most authors also wrote novels. Novels became the preferred form after World War I because of social, economic, and other developments, not the least of which was the rise of lending libraries in the United States and Great Britain, but many magazines in both countries continued to provide outlets for mystery stories.

Among them were the American “pulps,” which flourished between the world wars and published all kinds of popular fiction. The first crime fiction pulp magazine, Detective Story, debuted in 1915, and by the 1930’s many different pulps were devoted solely to the genre....

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Guilty Vicarage Crime Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

While Daly, Hammett, Chandler, and their pulp peers were honing a distinctively American innovative approach to crime fiction, most American whodunit writers were still producing stories and books in the so-called Guilty Vicarage mold, basically English in setting and attitude, with detectives and plots that were almost as eccentric and aristocratic as those of Doyle and his followers. The phenomenally successful Philo Vance books by S. S. Van Dine, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s equally popular novels, and the early Ellery Queen are prime examples. In Great Britain, the successful old formula remained the order of the day, though with significant variations.

A landmark event in British crime fiction was the 1913 publication of E. C. Bentley’s Trent and the Last Case, which he intended as a gentle burlesque of detective conventions. It introduced the fallible sleuth and ironically is widely considered to have inaugurated the golden age of the English detective novel. (John Franklin Carter, a 1930’s journalist and White House official who wrote such mysteries as “Diplomat,” called Bentley the father of the contemporary detective story.) As Bentley explained his approach, it wasa more modern sort of character-drawing. The idea at the bottom of it was to get as far away from the Holmes tradition as possible. Trent does not take himself at all seriously. He is not a scientific expert; he is not a professional crime investigator. He is an artist, a painter, by calling, who has strayed accidentally into the business of crime journalism. He is not superior to the feelings of average humanity; he does not stand aloof from mankind, but enjoys the society of his fellow creatures and makes friends with everybody. He even goes so far as to fall in love. He does not regard the Scotland Yard men as a set of bungling half-wits, but has the highest respect for their trained abilities. All very unlike Holmes.

Another departure from what Bentley saw as the artificiality and sterility of the Holmes pattern is his adherence to the fair- play doctrine, with the reader being given all of the evidence, taken into Trent’s confidence, and learning what he thinks. Trent Intervenes (1938) is a gathering of stories about Philip Trent in which these principles are at work, a dozen tales generally more complex than most detective short stories. Among the best are “The Genuine Tabard,” “The Sweet Shot,” and the humorous “The Inoffensive Captain.”

Peter Wimsey and Mr. Fortune

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Dorothy L. Sayers said that she based her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, in part on Philip Trent, and in fact, both are friendly, tactful, and gently humorous human beings. Historian and critic as well as practitioner of the craft, Sayers is considered by some to be a stellar writer of detective fiction, with imaginatively conceived, carefully wrought plots, and original means of murder; but to others she is verbose, writes peripheral and lengthy dialogues, and has a pompous snob, Lord Peter Wimsey, as her detective. Indeed, some of her stories and novels are more manners narratives than whodunits. Wimsey appears in twenty-one short stories, most of which proceed more briskly than do the novels, and in the later ones he is less a...

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Agatha Christie

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Agatha Christie, a Bailey and Sayers contemporary, began writing when Sherlock Holmes took “his last bow” in 1917. The world’s most widely read whodunit writer, and one of the most prolific, she turned out more than eighty novels and short-story collections. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Detective Story, was published in 1920; four more novels plus a Hercule Poirot collection of stories followed in the next five years, and in 1926, she produced The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was both widely popular and highly controversial since the Watson-like narrator turns out to be the murderer. Although Christie built most of her narratives for half a century upon a standard template, she often...

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Ellery Queen

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

During the height of Christie’s popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, Ellery Queen became the best known American name in the genre as both a crime fiction sleuth and the pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. As Queen, they wrote novels and stories; in 1941 founded Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), which rejuvenated detective short fiction and remains an indispensable outlet for novice and established writers; edited anthologies that helped shaped the canon; and served as the genre’s unofficial bibliographers. Created in imitation of Philo Vance, an American Peter Wimsey, the Queen character (in his early manifestations) is a pseudosophisticate and pseudointellectual dandy with a...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Ross Macdonald

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Also transcending the limits of the genre, but very differently from Ellin, is Ross Macdonald, whose career ran from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. Having begun as a spy novelist, Macdonald in 1947 published Blue City (as Kenneth Millar), his first hard-boiled novel in the Hammett-Chandler tradition. In it and his later works, the fully realized characters and atypically complex plots are vehicles for such recurring themes as the Oedipal search for a father and variations on how people corrupt the American dream by greed and lack of vision. Each Macdonald novel is a tragedy wherein destruction is wrought from within the characters, who unleash avenging furies whose disastrous forces endure through generations. Through the...

(The entire section is 291 words.)

Macdonald Followers

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Indebted though he was to Hammett and Chandler, Macdonald moved beyond their influence, shaping more complex plots that exemplified his moral and social themes, writing in a more polished and allusive style, and muting the hard-boiled traits of his compassionate and introspective private eye. Among Macdonald’s descendants in the hard-boiled Hammett-Chandler tradition are Robert B. Parker, Bill Pronzini, and Lawrence Block. Of the trio, only Pronzini has produced volumes of short stories, Casefile (1983) and Graveyard Plots: The Best Short Stories of Bill Pronzini (1985), both of which feature a private eye known as Nameless who first appeared in a 1968 Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story,...

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Dick Francis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In the last third of the twentieth century, EQMM was one of the few remaining general circulation magazine outlets for crime short stories, and because the economics of publishing favored the novel over the shorter form, most major writers of the period—such as Dick Francis, P. D. James, Elmore Leonard, Martha Grimes, Tony Hillerman, and Ed McBain—produced relatively few stories. Francis, for instance, began as a novelist in 1962 (Dead Cert), and produced thirty-five more before publishing his first story collection, Field of Thirteen, in 1998. Eight of the stories date from 1975 to 1980 and five previously unpublished ones Francis calls “recent.” Like the novels, all have horse-racing backgrounds...

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Rumpole of the Bailey

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The surprise twists with which Francis wraps up his carefully wrought plots also are standard devices in John Mortimer’s stories featuring London barrister Horace Rumpole, whose international popularity rivals that of Holmes. Since his first appearance in Rumpole of the Bailey (1978), the self-described Old Bailey hack has demonstrated his wit, compassion, knowledge of William Shakespeare and William Wordsworth, and sometimes even legal acumen in dozens of stories (and a short novel) gathered in ten collections and dramatized for television. In “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” which opens the 1978 book, he introduces himself in the following manner:“I, who have a mind full of old murders, legal anecdotes, and...

(The entire section is 897 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper and Row, 1989. A classic compendium by two voracious readers of crime writing, this book is more useful as a bibliography than as a guide to its authors’ likes and dislikes.

Frank, Lawrence. Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence: The Scientific Investigations of Poe, Dickens, and Doyle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Provides the framework for the development of the genre of detective fiction.

DeAndrea, William L. Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. New York: Prentice Hall, 1994. Not as comprehensive as...

(The entire section is 315 words.)