Classic Detective Fiction Formulas
Classic detective fiction was born out of the scientific materialism of the second half of the nineteenth century. Opposed to superstition and belief in the supernatural, it is based on the assumption that all occurrences, even the most bizarre ones, have rational and logical explanations for which irrefutable material evidence can be found. Moreover, the classic detective story sets its action in something like a preindustrial utopian society. It is, at heart, a benevolently feudal society from which large, industrial areas are absent. Within this nearly ideal society, serious crime is so rare as to be considered extraordinary. It therefore cannot be tackled by the developing police forces, made up of lower-class plodders. Police investigators serve largely as comic relief. Extraordinary crimes, which are committed mostly for personal reasons and with great ingenuity, can be solved only by extraordinary detectives. Crime is never random or gratuitously violent; indeed, most victims in classic detective stories die as consequences of applied poetic justice; their deaths and the methods by which they are dispatched are appropriate punishments for transgressions they themselves have committed. The involvement of detective heroes is for the most part cerebral, with a minimum of physical violence, primarily seen as an intellectual challenge, without consideration of financial rewards, and motivated mostly by attempts to prevent wrongful condemnation of friends or acquaintances. Acts of physical violence are left to the police and less cerebral sidekicks, except in cases of self-defense.
The attraction of the classic detective story to readers is based largely on a form of nostalgia similar to that evoked by classic Westerns. It evokes illusions of bygone Great Good Places—to borrow the poet John Donne’s phrase—and of pastoral societies with clear social hierarchies, administered by benevolent squires, in which all crime is rare and sordid crime is nonexistent. Moreover, such rare and extraordinary crimes as do exist are solved by private, highly talented and self-motivated persons, not by functionaries of the state. The genteel detectives provide logical solutions and explanations for even the most mysterious events, sufficient to withstand the scrutiny of the developing scientific laws of evidence in criminal cases. The consequent eradication of crime by amateur, upper-class intellectuals restores edenic society to perfection after temporary disturbances.