A Brief History of Detective Fiction

A Brief History of Detective Fiction

Detective fiction is a distinctly modern creation linked to the development of the legal process; detectives follow clues which lead to evidence, and ultimately a presentation of their case before the law. Solving the crime works to reinstate a social order that believes murder occurs for a determinate number of reasons: passion, money, madness, and that each can be solved by rational, scientific thought.

The First Detective Story

The first detective story is widely considered to be Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and his creation C. Auguste Dupin is still the model for the detective that dominates mystery writing to this day. Dupin’s eccentric personality and his relationship to his two foils (the nameless and naïve narrator and the professional investigator Monsieur G) are clearly recognizable in Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Like Holmes and Poirot, Dupin’s detective skills are both creative and scientific. In Poe’s story, the world contains both reason and unreason; the murders are committed by an orangutan, an explanation both logical and bizarre revealing the presence of irrational, natural forces in the modern world but which can be uncovered through rational thought.

For Dupin, science, logic, and reason are all marks of civilization, while nature which is allied with disorder, barbarity and animal urges, is threatening. A similar thought pattern is found in Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and Freud’s work on the unconscious, for example, and is till the basis for much contemporary mystery writing.

Reading Detective Fiction

Another approach to reading detective fiction is to examine its structure. In The Poetics of Prose (1971), the Bulgarian critic Tzvetan Todorov wrote what he calls “The Typology of Detective Fiction” in which he divides the genre into 3 types: The “Whodunit”, The “Thriller”, The “Suspense”. Todorov further claims that within these three types there are esstentially two stories.

In the “Whodunit”, the first story is that of the murder which is completed at the beginning or before the second story begins. The second story is the investigation and this takes up the greater part of the novel or story. While the reader may know who committed the crime, the focus is on the detective’s ability to uncover the murderer. Contemporary examples of this type include popular TV series such as CSI or Law and Order.

In the “Thriller” the murder, or first story is suppressed and the novel focuses on the second story which is the investigation. The crime does not come before the action but coincides with it. This narrative form looks forward rather than back, but unlike the Whodunit, the detective may face danger as he/she unravels the clues. Good examples of this type include The Rockford Files and novels by John Grisham.

In the “Suspense” type, the first story of the murder and the second story of the investigation are maintained, but, in the second story the detective is also vulnerable to danger and may even be a suspect. What makes these stories suspenseful is a delay or roadblock in the way of the solution. There may also be an ambiguity between the detective and the criminals. Good examples of this include Raymond Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe.

Modern detective stories are often a combination of all three types with numerous, interweaving stories. But Todorov’s theory allows for a useful approach to reading contemporary detective fiction and mystery writing. So the next time you are enjoying your favourite detective author or watching your favourite TV series, keep Poe and Todorov in mind.

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