Detective Fiction

What do Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Jack Reacher, and Mma Ramotswe share in common? They're all detectives, of course! These detectives have entertained millions of people through books, films, and television series. So what exactly makes a great detective story? Read on to find out!

Detective Fiction Detective Fiction

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Contents
Table of contents

    Detective Fiction: definition

    A narrative can be qualified as detective fiction if it involves the solving of a mystery. The investigation into the matter is usually led by one figure, the detective, who may be a professional in the field or an amateur sleuth and who may or may not have an assistant or sidekick. Towards the end, the reader's curiosity is sated, and the mystery is solved. The detective explains how the crime was committed, who committed it, and what the motive of the crime was.

    Detective fiction, detective, studysmarterA classic image of a detective

    Detective fiction: a narrative that is marked by a character who is an amateur or a professional detective and solves crime in a fictional setting.

    • Detective fiction with a professional detective: Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie.
    • Detective fiction with an amateur detective: Nancy Drew: The Mysterious Mannequin (1970) by Carolyn Keene.

    History of Detective Fiction

    Scholars are divided on what the first work of detective fiction is. One Thousand and One Nights (eighth–fourteenth century), Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' (1884), and Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) are all strong contenders for being the first. Although the origins of the genre remain a mystery, these narratives, along with many others, have shaped what remains a favourite genre for readers across the world.

    Detective Fiction: genre

    It is becoming increasingly difficult to relegate a fictional story to any single genre. A fictional narrative typically blends elements of many genres, with some more being prominent than others. This is also true for detective fiction.

    Detective fiction tales can often be combined with other genres, such as supernatural or fantastical narratives, to deliver an exciting read. Some examples of detective fiction tales blending with other genres include:

    1. Supernatural genre: Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker.
    2. Urban fantasy genre: The Nightside Series (2003–12) by Simon R. Green.
    3. Romance genre: The Fiona Mahoney Mysteries (2019–present) by Kerrigan Byrne.
    4. Historical fiction genre: Brother Cadfael series (1977–94) by Ellis Peters.

    Detective Fiction: characteristics

    Although it is impossible to generalise features of all detective fiction narratives, here are some characteristics usually found in these types of stories:

    • The novel features a professional or amateur detective. They do not need to be formally recognised as a detective or investigator to take on the task of solving the mystery.
    • The story typically begins with a crime being committed for the detective to solve.
    • Characters from various law enforcement agencies also feature in detective fiction.
    • There are various suspects who the detective may interview to solve the mystery.
    • The criminal identified at the end is usually brought to justice and punished for the crime they committed.

    Detective Fiction: examples and types

    Over the years, detective fiction as a genre evolved and became an umbrella genre for numerous types of detective fiction, such as 'whodunits', police procedurals, serial killer thrillers, child(ren) detectives, cosy mysteries, and Sherlock Holmes narratives.

    'Whodunits'

    Whodunits or whodunnits are a type of detective fiction wherein the detective leads the investigation, collecting evidence, examining clues, and, most importantly, questioning witnesses. While the reader knows about the crime from the beginning, the detective uncovers a hidden narrative throughout the investigation that, in the end, helps the detective and the reader to identify the perpetrator of the crime.

    For this reason, whodunits are said to have a double narrative, with one being the narrative that the reader is given from the beginning of the crime committed, and the other which is gradually uncovered as the perpetrator and their crime is revealed and explained.

    • Strong Poison (1930) by Dorothy L. Sayers.
    • The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie.

    Police procedurals

    Police procedural detective fiction, as the title suggests, features one or more detectives who are employed in the police force and are solving an investigation in an official capacity. Typically, detectives tend to break into crime scenes or bend rules to get ahead in the investigation, but police detectives are inclined to be on the right side of the law during their investigations.

    • Cover Her Face (1962) by P. D. James.
    • Still Life (2005) by Louise Penny.

    Serial killer thriller

    Usually, serial killers are investigated by law enforcement agents, making these types of narratives closely related to the police procedural detective fiction. In a serial killer thriller, a perpetrator commits multiple murders, usually forming a pattern that the detective deciphers to catch the murderer.

    Hannibal Lecter (1981–2006) series by Thomas Harris.

    Child(ren) detectives

    Child or Children detectives are often featured in children's mystery novels. As the title suggests, these detectives are children, often a group of them, who band together to solve a mystery. In television cartoons, The Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated (2010) belongs to this genre.

    • The Famous Five series (1942-1962) by Enid Blyton.
    • The Hardy Boys series (1927-2005) by Franklin W. Dixon.

    Cosy mysteries

    Cosy mysteries almost always guarantee a happy ending where everything is set right and the criminal apprehended. They serve as a light read in the sense that they do not emphasise violence, gore, or abuse. Instead, they drive the plot forward through character interactions that are often characterised by humour and wit.

    • Henry Gamadge series (1940–60) by Elizabeth T. Daly.
    • Miss Marple series (1927–76) by Agatha Christie.

    Sherlock Holmes

    Although detective fiction is a treasure trove of bestsellers and prize-winning narratives, Arthur Conan Doyle's consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, continues to remain a favourite across the globe. Inspired by Doyle's mentor at the University of Edinburg School of Medicine, Joseph Bell, Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet in 1887. The character continues to be adapted in television shows and films and is a fan-favourite for cosplay, role-play and fan fiction.

    Fun fact: the Conan Doyle Estate granted permission to author Anthony Horowitz to write books featuring the character of Sherlock Holmes as a continuation of Conan Doyle's work. Horowitz's books include The House of Silk (2011) and Moriarty (2014).

    Detective Fiction today

    Detective fiction remains a widely-read genre today, and it has become increasingly sophisticated, evolving into long-standing bestseller series and prize-winning stand-alone novels. They provide the chance for justice to be served, and they engage with social commentary, often commenting on the state of society and law enforcement. Detective fiction invites audiences to solve crimes by piecing together clues of puzzles and offering them the thrill of decoding a mystery from their armchairs.

    Detective Fiction - Key takeaways

    • Detective fiction is a fictional narrative featuring a professional or amateur sleuth who solves a crime or mystery and typically reveals the culprit at the end.
    • Detective fiction is often blended with other genres such as supernatural, fantasy, romance, and historical fiction, among others.
    • Types of detective fiction include whodunits, police procedurals, serial killer thrillers, child(ren) detectives, and cosy mysteries.
    • Some of the most influential fictional detectives are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Detective Fiction

    What is detective fiction?

    A work of detective fiction is marked by a character, who is an amateur or a professional detective and solves a crime in a fictional setting.

    How to write detective fiction?

    To write detective fiction, determine the type of detective you would like, such as a child detective, a police inspector, or a personal investigator. Set the premise by determining the crime that has been committed, who committed it, and what their motive was. Add some complex and plausible suspects to the mix and let your detective get to work!

    Who are the famous fictional detectives?

    Famous fictional detectives include Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Armand Gamache etc.

    What are the characteristics of a crime detective fiction?

    In a crime detective fiction, a crime is typically committed at the start, which the detective then solves by collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and piecing the puzzle together. Usually, the crime that is committed is murder.

    What are the 3 types of detective fiction?

    3 types of detective fiction include:

    whodunits, serial killer thrillers, and cosy mysteries.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of character is central to detective fiction?

    True or False: Sherlock Holmes is among the most famous fictional detectives in the world

    Which of the following series features child detectives?

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