The detectives/investigators/police offices in these stories may be amateurs or professionals. Usually, they are looking into murders or other serious crimes. The genre began around the mid-19th century and is extremely popular to this day. It has expanded into film and television as well as theatre and various audio formats.
The genre is usually written with adult readers in mind but, there are numerous examples written for younger audiences. For example, the Nancy Drew books written by Carolyn Keene and The Hardy Boys written by Franklin W. Dixon and David L. Robbins.
Detective stories date back, in some form, to ancient and religious texts, for example, in the Old Testament and in Oedipus Rex. The latter includes the investigation of the death of King Laius. Another early western example was Zadig by Voltaire. But, today, the first true detective story is usually cited as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe.
Explore Detective Stories
Detective Story Definition
Detective stories are based around a crime and someone’s investigation of it.
The investigator, who may be a professional detective or an amateur, looks for clues as to who committed the crime and usually catches the criminal by the end of the story. They can be written as individual short stories or as longer novels. Often, writers choose to pen several stories with the same main character investigating different crimes.
The detectives that feature in these stories are usually clever and able to put together clues that other people are not. They might have an unusually high IQ or, as in Sherlock Holmes’s case, the ability to see what others miss. The genre is widespread, with variations written in countries around the world.
Elements of Detective Stories
Throughout the 20th century, and to today, detective stories feature some or all of the following elements:
- Red herrings
- The idea of an “inside job”
- “Least likely” suspect
- Locked room murder
- Reconstruction of the crime scene
- Twists and surprises in the plot
Many of these elements were first seen in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.
Examples of Detective Stories
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a famed work of fiction by Edgar Allan Poe. It is a short story that was first published in 1841 in Graham’s Magazine. The story follows C. Auguste Dupin in Paris as he attempts to solve the brutal murder of two women. Clues include hair that doesn’t appear to be human, an unknown overheard language, and more. Poe’s Dupin shares many characteristics with other detectives, like Poirot and Holmes. Here is a quote from the story:
I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by a the elaborate frivolity of chess.
Other Edgar Allan Poe stories include “The Purloined Letter” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” He referred to these stories as “tales of ratiocination,” or tales of reasoning. The plots were focused on ascertaining the truth, usually through interesting, intuitive logic.
Explore Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Collins, who also wrote The Moonstone, is sometimes referred to as the “grandfather of English detective fiction.” His novel The Woman in White falls under the genre of both a mystery novel and detective novel. It is also often described as a sensation novel. Here is a quote from the novel:
I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.
The protagonist, Walter Hartright, uses various detective techniques, many of which are seen throughout later novels. He encounters a woman dressed entirely in white in the middle of the night. She’s lost in the streets of London, and he gives her directions. He later learns that she escaped from an asylum.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
One of Doyle’s best-known novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, follows Sherlock Holmes as he investigates a seemingly supernatural crime. The book is often featured on lists of the best stories ever written. Here is a quote from the novel:
Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.
Famous Fictional Detectives
- Sherlock Holmes
- C. Auguste Dupin
- Hercule Poirot
- Nancy Drew
- Miss Marple
- Alex Cross
- The Hardy Boys
In these stories, readers will find various conventions. Such as the idea of the “perfect crime,” a suspect who has been wrongly accused, and the use of greater powers of observation (on the part of the detective) to put together the clues.
Themes often include the triumph of good over evil, the search for something valuable, the value of human life, and the importance of paying close attention to one’s surroundings.
Yes, crime fiction is a genre. It is often utilized alongside horror, detective fiction, thriller, and more. One is likely to find elements of many other genres as well, including romance and perhaps even science fiction or the paranormal.
A few types of detective fiction include historical mystery, serial killer mystery, police procedural, and locked-room mystery.
Related Literary Terms
- Thriller: a genre of fiction that is defined by its wide variety of sub-genres. They range from crime to science fiction.
- Hero: the principal or primary character of a work.
- Picaresque Novel: a genre of prose fiction that depicts a roughish hero who experiences episodic adventures.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Watch: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
- Listen: Classical vs. Hardboiled Detective Fiction
- Listen: How to make your writing suspenseful