Innovations in Mystery and Detective Fiction Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Edgar Allan Poe is generally credited with inventing the fictional form that focuses primarily on crime and its investigation. His early 1840’s short stories featuring the detective C. Auguste Dupin—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter”—set the fundamental pattern that would become the basis of detective fiction over the next century. Poe called these works “tales of ratiocination” to emphasize how analytical reasoning helped drive their plots and to distinguish them from his gothic tales of suspense and horror. Several innovative features in Poe’s Dupin stories influenced future works of detective fiction. These included using as a protagonist a brilliant, if eccentric, amateur detective who articulates a particular method of analyzing evidence. Another was employing as a sidekick a friend of less intelligence than the protagonist who tells the protagonist’s story and assists him, and policeman whose proposed solutions of crimes invariably prove incorrect. Poe’s other inventions included arrays of false leads (later known in the genre as “red herrings”) and apparent anomalies and climactic scenes in which the detectives’ solutions are fully explained and perpetrators are identified. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe introduced the locked-room mystery in which a murder occurs within a space sealed off from the outside world, making it appear impossible for a killer to have entered or left the space. This kind of anomaly would become a staple of the so-called British Golden Age mysteries...

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Early Variations on Detective Heroes

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Sherlock Holmes and his imitators, such as Austin Freeman’s Dr. John Evelyn Thorndike, Jacques Futrelle’s “Thinking Machine”, and S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, continued to repeat the popular formula of the super-rational, infallibly brilliant sleuth. In reaction, G. K. Chesterton and E. C. Bentley began to experiment with variations in the formula that prepared the way for that high-water mark of the formal detective novel known as the Golden Age.

Chesterton was an exceptionally prolific writer who produced more than one hundred books. His detective fiction represents only a small part of that total; his fifty-one Father Brown stories where collected in five volumes, beginning with The Innocence of Father Brown (1911). Those stories are by far his most popular works. Father Brown departs from the scientific approach to detection championed by Holmes in that. Nevertheless, despite his innocent appearance, his theological training and deep awareness of human depravity endow him with remarkable insights into the minds—even the souls—of criminal suspects. His investigations are grounded in intuition and divine inspiration more than on the logical analysis of material evidence. Indeed, Chesterton’s fiction leans toward romance instead of realism, relying on a sort of exaggeration and surface simplification in order to focus more forcefully on the ideas underlying the story. Such fiction has the quality of moral fable or...

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Formal Detective Novels of the Golden Age

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

British mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers was a great admirer of Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, which she saw as a revolutionary work that liberated and opened up the genre to new possibilities. Like Bentley, she wanted her own writing to be less like conventional detective stories and more like novels. She especially wanted to write books like those known as comedies of manners, in which the customs, conventions, and habits of a definite social class at a particular time and place are focal points of interest, and witty dialogue, intellectual banter, clever intrigues, and mocking treatments of certain stock character types are parts of the mix. Additionally, beginning with her fifth novel, Strong Poison (1930), Sayers introduced a love interest—something she had criticized in her famous Omnibus of Crime essay (1928) as usually detracting from the main focus of a detective story, the criminal investigation.

The fact that Sayers changed her mind and decided to introduce a romantic element in her novel reflects the influence of Bentley; it also indicates her desire to develop and humanize her series character, Lord Peter Wimsey, who, she felt, had remained basically static since his first case and had become merely what she called “a repository of tricks and attitudes.” The challenge presented by this change would be to find an effective means of integrating the love plot into the detective plot, as Bentley had done so well in Trent’s Last Case. Sayers’s solution was to make the detection of the crime a means for realizing the love. That is, if Wimsey can exonerate Harriet Vane, a writer of murder mysteries who finds herself charged with murder, the way will be clear for him to court her. However, although Wimsey clears Vane, their romance is left hanging over the course of several novels and is not finally resolved until the last title in the Wimsey series, Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), with its revealing subtitle: A Love Story with Detective Interludes.

Sayers’s choice of a titled aristocrat for her detective marks another departure from the Dupin-Holmes tradition of detectives from ordinary backgrounds. One benefit of this innovation is that it gives her protagonist easy access to aristocratic homes and establishments that are often unwelcoming to the official police. Wimsey also has the leisure and the material resources to pursue detective work “for fun,” as he whimsically puts it, rather than depending on it for a living. On the other hand, the aloofness and frigidity often associated with the British aristocracy would seem to present an obstacle to Wimsey’s involvement in the life of those beyond his own circle. Sayers attempts to surmount this obstacle by, for example, having Peter dissent occasionally from the values he has inherited with his title. His brother, the duke of Denver, and his sister-in-law the duchess uphold aristocratic standards and...

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Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Most of the best formal detective novels and stories of the Golden Age were produced in Great Britain. British stories reflected a comparatively stable society with prescribed class distinctions in which social codes and rules were analogous to the rule-bound formula of the detective fiction that was so popular during the 1920’s and 1930’s, even as British society itself began to undergo gradual change. This is why there is such a pronounced nostalgic or elegiac quality to much Golden Age fiction, conveyed by the fantasy of a “return to Eden” or innocence which, according to W. H. Auden in his famous essay “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948), this fiction implicitly offered its readers. As one whose investigative efforts restore order to a community temporarily threatened by the anarchical act of murder, the English sleuth is largely defined within, and is a champion of, the existing social order. He (or, less frequently, she) preserves and defends the status quo and is a part of it.

In contrast, the school of writing known as “hard-boiled” is distinctly American in origin and frame of reference. Its beginnings are usually traced to popular pulp magazines appearing during the 1920’s, particularly Black Mask, which published stories by such writers as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Cornell Woolrich, and Raymond Chandler. The “tough” style favored by these writers made use of idiomatic, clipped language, laconic “smart aleck” dialogue, and graphic accounts of violent action and sexual encounters. The worlds in which hard-boiled heroes functioned were anything but static and orderly, and private investigators often had to contend with the gritty struggles of society’s alienated victims as well as the gaudy excesses of those who have risen to the top, by whatever means.

Again unlike the formal detective story, the hard-boiled story generally used an “open” form. That is, the criminal events (and typically there were more than one, often in fact a series of crimes of escalating seriousness) would keep recurring during the investigation, and the detective would be more directly involved in the main plot events, not merely in their interpretation after the fact. As Ian Ousby puts it, “the adventures which yield discovery are usually confrontations, often physical ones, deliberately sought out and provoked by [the detectives]. Stirring things up rather than thinking things out is always their method.” Accordingly, the narrative focus changes from...

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Hard-Boiled Refinements

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Perhaps more than other factor, it was Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, who has inspired generations of followers and imitators of varying degrees of success. Among the many examples are Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Stephen Greenleaf’s John Marshall Tanner, and Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole. Like Marlowe, all these characters are professional investigators, working on their own, answering to no one but themselves. This mandatory independence often brings them into conflict with the official police, who are typically viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. Like Marlowe, all can defend themselves as readily with clever quips as with...

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Later Appropriations of the Detective Novel

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The hard-boiled legacy of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald has been sustained and even enriched by successive generations of crime fiction writers. The subgenre of the police procedural developed as a highly successful variation on the hard-boiled model. In the hands of practitioners such as Ed McBain, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, and Joseph Wambaugh, procedurals continue the exploration of urban mean streets but focus primarily on the methodology of law-enforcement teams in solving crimes, with emphasis on questions of how, rather than of who or why.

Another subgenre, crime thrillers, focuses on criminals rather than detectives. Stories center on the commissions of murders, or series of...

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Historical Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mosley’s novels also exemplify another recent trend: the setting of mystery stories in earlier historical periods. James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet series offers an apposite example. For its part, the formal detective novel has also been successfully adapted to represent earlier historical periods. Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) is a well-known work of this type, and Ellis Peters’s Cadfael novels and Stephanie Barron’s series featuring Jane Austen as the detective demonstrate that the cozy also is capable of breaking new ground.

Perhaps the most ambitious work of historical crime fiction is Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983), set in a...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Incisive and thorough examination of formula fiction and its cultural functions by a leading critic of genre literature.

Cawelti, John G. Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Stimulating collection of essays on a wide variety of aspects of popular culture, including innovations in mystery fiction.

Horsley, Lee. Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Ambitious and remarkably deft...

(The entire section is 366 words.)