Detective Stories

Type of popular Literature dealing with the step-by-step investigation and solution of a crime, usually murder.

The traditional elements of the detective story are: (1) the seemingly perfect crime; (2) the wrongly accused suspect at whom circumstantial evidence points; (3) the bungling of dim-witted police; (4) the greater powers of observation and superior mind of the detective; and (5) the startling and unexpected denouement, in which the detective reveals how the identity of the culprit was ascertained. Detective story frequently operate on the principle that superficially convincing evidence is ultimately irrelevant. Usually it is also axiomatic that the clues from which a logical solution to the problem can be reached be fairly presented to the reader at exactly the same time that the sleuth receives them and that the sleuth deduce the solution to the puzzle from a logical interpretation of these clues.

The first detective story was "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe, published in April 1841. The profession of detective had come into being only a few decades earlier, and Poe is generally thought to have been influenced by the Mémoires (1828–29) of François-Eugène Vidocq, who in 1817 founded the world's first detective bureau, in Paris. Poe's fictional French detective, C. Auguste Dupin, appeared in two other stories, "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1845) and "The Purloined Letter" (1845). The detective story soon expanded to novel length.

The French author Émile Gaboriau's L'Affaire Lerouge (1866) was an enormously successful novel that had several sequels. Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) remains one of the finest English detective novels. Anna Katharine Green became one of the first American detective novelists with The Leavenworth Case (1878). The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) by the Australian Fergus Hume was a phenomenal commercial success.

The greatest of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, along with his loyal, somewhat obtuse companion Dr. Watson, made his first appearance in Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) and continued into the 20th century in such collections of stories as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894) and the longer Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). So great was the appeal of Sherlock Holmes's detecting style that the death of Conan Doyle did little to end Holmes's career; several writers, often expanding upon circumstances mentioned in the original works, have attempted to carry on the Holmesian tradition.

The early years of the 20th century produced a number of distinguished detective novels, among them Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1908) and G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (1911) and other novels with the clerical detective. From 1920 on, the names of many fictional detectives became household words: Inspector French, introduced in Freeman Wills Crofts's The Cask (1920); Hercule Poirot, in Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), and Miss Marple, in Murder at the Vicarage (1930); Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L. Sayers' Whose Body? (1923); Philo Vance, in S.S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case (1926); Albert Campion, in Margery Allingham's The Crime at Black Dudley (1929; also published as The Black Dudley Murder); and Ellery Queen, conceived by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929).

In a sense, the 1930s was the golden age of the detective story, with the detectives named above continuing in new novels. The decade was also marked by the books of Dashiell Hammett, who drew upon his own experience as a private detective to produce both stories and novels, notably The Maltese Falcon (1930) featuring Sam Spade. In Hammett's work, the character of the detective became as important as the "whodunit" aspect of ratiocination was earlier. The Thin Man (1932), with Nick and Nora Charles, was more in the conventional vein, with the added fillip of detection by a witty married couple. Successors to Hammett included Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, who also emphasized the characters of their tough but humane detectives Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, respectively. At the end of the 1940s, Mickey Spillane preserved the hard-boiled crime fiction approach of Hammett and others, but his emphasis on sex and sadism became a formula that brought him amazing commercial success beginning with I, the Jury (1947).

The introduction of the mass-produced paperback book in the late 1930s made detective story writers wealthy, among them the Americans Erle Stanley Gardner, whose criminal lawyer Perry Mason unraveled crimes in court; Rex Stout, with his fat, orchid-raising detective Nero Wolfe and his urbane assistant Archie Goodwin; and Frances and Richard Lockridge, with another bright married couple, Mr. and Mrs. North. In France, Georges Simenon produced novel after novel at a rapid-fire pace, making his hero, Inspector Maigret, one of the best-known detectives since Sherlock Holmes. Other writers who carried out the tradition of Holmes or broke new ground included Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of the poet C. Day-Lewis), Michael Innes, Dame Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr), and P.D. James. After 1945, writers such as John Le Carré adapted the detective-story format to the increasingly popular spy novel.

The Mystery Writers of America, a professional organization founded in 1945 to elevate the standards of mystery writing, including the detective story, has exerted an important influence through its annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards for excellence. See also mystery story; hard-boiled fiction.

Additional reading

Notable works on the detective story include Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure, enlarged ed. (1968); and Jacques Barzun and Wendell H. Taylor, Catalogue of Crime (1971).


Nellie Bly

The high point of Cochrane's career at the World began on November 14, 1889, when she sailed from New York to beat the record of Phileas Fogg, hero of Jules Verne's romance Around the World in Eighty Days.

The World built up the story by running daily articles and a guessing contest in which whoever came nearest to naming Cochrane's time in circling the globe would get a trip to Europe. There were nearly one million entries in the contest. Cochrane rode on ships and trains, in rickshas and sampans, on horses and burros.

On the final lap of her journey, the World transported her from San Francisco to New York by special train; she was greeted everywhere by brass bands, fireworks, and like panoply. Her time was 72 days 6 hours 11 minutes 14 seconds. The stunt made her famous.

Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in Seventy-two Days (1890) was a great popular success, and the name Nellie Bly became a synonym for a female star reporter.


William Shakespeare - The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew (1593?) was first published in the First Folio in 1623. This comedy contrasts the prim and conventional Bianca, who grows willful and disobedient over the course of the play, with the shrewish Katherine, who is finally tamed by Petruchio, her suitor and, finally, husband. Yet Katherine and Petruchio are clearly well matched in style and temperament, and Katherine’s speech at the end on the importance of obedience may be delivered with an obvious sense of how far this is from what she believes or even from what Petruchio really wants. Kiss Me Kate (1948), a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, proved popular on stage, as did a motion-picture version of William Shakespeare's play in 1953 with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. However, unless the action is played with its possible ironies clearly apparent, audiences today will likely find the play’s ostensible values difficult to take, especially the belief in the need to tame a wife.


Charles Darwin - Voyage of the Beagle

Voyage of the Beagle

Charles Darwin's job as naturalist aboard the Beagle gave him the opportunity to observe the various geological formations found on different continents and islands along the way, as well as a huge variety of fossils and living organisms. In his geological observations, Darwin was most impressed with the effect that natural forces had on shaping the earth’s surface.

At the time, most geologists adhered to the so-called catastrophist theory that the earth had experienced a succession of creations of animal and plant life, and that each creation had been destroyed by a sudden catastrophe, such as an upheaval or convulsion of the earth’s surface (see Geology: History of Geology: Geology in the 18th and 19th Centuries). According to this theory, the most recent catastrophe, Noah’s flood, wiped away all life except those forms taken into the ark. The rest were visible only in the form of fossils. In the view of the catastrophists, species were individually created and immutable, that is, unchangeable for all time.