While crime has always been with us, detective fiction is reasonably recent. Most people agree that the first detective stories were written in Britain in the late nineteenth century. By this time, the development of a stable police force allowed people to assume that criminals would in fact be caught. These are stories where the detective sets out to solve a mystery – who has committed the crime, or sometimes, how has the crime been committed? Many of the early stories were simply puzzles, without much more to recommend them. How could a murder be committed in a locked room? Elementary! There must be a secret passage known only to the murderer!
Today, detective fiction has become far more sophisticated and the best has not only clever plots, but realistic situations, rounded characters and satisfying outcomes.
Sherlock Holmes is the best known of the early detectives. Very much in the ‘puzzle’ tradition, Conan Doyle’s stories are nevertheless still very enjoyable because of the cleverness of the puzzles, the lively melodrama, and their imagination and style. Many other writers imitated Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, his rather bumbling off-sider.
The 1920s and 1930s have been called the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction. Most of the ‘Golden Age’ writers created detectives who shared Sherlock Holmes’ cleverness in finding evidence or motives overlooked by others. In most of these stories, it is this cleverness, and the cleverness of the puzzle that attract us. The writers create suspense with false scents and diversions. They make us wait for the final revelation of which character from a group of people, all with some motive for the crime, actually did it. This means that the characters have to serve the needs of the plot, rather than being drawn in much detail. They are often somewhat two dimensional, because if we knew their inner thoughts, we’d know the answer to the puzzle. The middle class setting and static nature of the plot is the reason some of these stories are called ‘vicarage’ murders, named for Agatha Christie’s 1930 The Murder at the Vicarage, the first of her Miss Marple novels. There were also quite a lot of ‘gang’ stories written, but these were more adventure stories than strictly detective stories. Some of the stories of this period express attitudes that now seem outdated or even silly, but many can still be appreciated as very clever puzzles, and also as pictures of an earlier social order.
The post war years were dominated by American crime writers. Though some of the ‘Golden Age’ writers, such as Agatha Christie, continued writing during and after World War II, Americans took detective fiction in new directions. Beginning in the 1930s, Dashiell Hammett had mixed the old ‘puzzle’ formula with the underworld and gangsters. He was followed in the 1940s by Raymond Chandler with his laid-back wise-cracking Phillip Marlow stories, which also usually involved organised crime. Rex Stout’s detective duo Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, seen recently in a series on ABC TV, are also in this tradition.
Some post-war American writers moved in the direction of solving their cases with violence, rather than clever detection. Some of these, like Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, verge on the sadistic and are pretty well unreadable today. Others like both Ross Macdonald and John MacDonald, (no relation to each other) wrote stories where the detective is hired to find what has happened, perhaps to a missing person or object. These detectives could be seen as being on a quest rather than solving a puzzle with a closed circle of suspects. Murder was still central to the plot, as was finding out which of a possible range of suspects was guilty, but there was greater freedom of action than in the older ‘vicarage’ stories. John MacDonald in particular wrote stories where the psychology of characters was important, and crime often grew from dysfunctional family relationships. American writers often drew on the wisecracking tradition of Phillip Marlow, and the stories of Robert Parker, writing in the 1980s and 1990s, are of this kind. Peter Corris, who has written eighteen Cliff Hardy detective stories, is an Australian version of the same phenomenon.
Whereas the earlier detectives were mostly private, a tradition of police detectives also developed, most strongly in Britain. These are often called ‘police procedurals’, and have the common elements of a crime being committed or discovered, the police called in to investigate, the collection of evidence and suspects, and a resolution revealing the criminal. In some ways the early versions were similar to the ‘Golden Age’ private detectives, working out ‘who done it’ from a complex array of suspects. Michael Innes’s Inspector Appleby stories, published mostly in the 1960s, are of this kind. There are now a number of writers who have established a police detective hero, including Elizabeth George, an American with an English policeman hero, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and most recently, Ian Rankin, as well as host of lesser writers. These stories involve a crime and a range of suspects and are plot driven, but allow for much fuller development of all characters, including the police themselves, as the cleverness of the puzzle is not the only issue. Some of the weaker ones have very little ‘detection’ at all, the writer allowing the villain to be unmasked by events or even to confess voluntarily. In the better ones, the detective usually makes some connection that others have missed; often the reader, who has been offered the same evidence, can come to the same conclusion – though not usually before the detective!
The settings for detective stories have also now become much more diverse. There seem to be private detectives operating out of most major cities in Great Britain and the United States, and local colour is often used to good effect. Ian Rankin’s policeman, John Rebus, experiences his city, Edinburgh, almost as a living presence – beautiful on the outside, but rotten within. V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s heroine, has much the same experience of Chicago – though with less of the beauty. There are also detectives who operate in historically distant time, as with Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peter’s monk/detective, and a whole crop of 19th century private eyes.
Another marked change in detective writing is the presence of female detectives. There have always been female detective story writers, but the 1990s has seen the emergence of a number of female detectives – mostly private, with a few policewomen rising in the ranks, but still usually off-siders to more senior male colleagues. Agatha Christie’s female detective character, Miss Marple, is a little old lady, not a professional detective, who solves crimes through her domestic observations. Her more recent cousins are mostly independent young women for whom detection is a job, who can cope with violence if they have to, but who achieve their aims more through personal interaction. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is a good example of this.
A lot of detective fiction has been and is being written. The trouble is, as Edmund Wilson pointed out back in 1945, there aren’t really enough very clever plots to go round. Many detective stories have to rely on something else – horror, human interest, atmosphere or whatever. Some do this very well. A good example is Foyle’s War, a series seen recently on ABC TV about an English policeman during World War II. The early days of the war are beautifully recreated. Major themes such as anti-Semitism and conscientious objection and major events like Dunkirk are integrated into the stories. But there is precious little actual detection – we rarely find out how the detective finds the solution, we are just presented with it. It is perhaps easier to get away with this on TV than it is in books.
With the increasing complexity of law enforcement, there are now a number of crime writers who have a main character who is not a detective, but works in a crime-related area. These include forensic pathologists, psychological profilers, lawyers and journalists. These characters often engage in detection, but because they are not detectives, they have not been included in this detective fiction category.
Most modern detective stories aspire to be more than just a clever puzzle. Character and setting are important, and we are shown the feelings and beliefs of many of the characters. Some are as well written as more conventional novels. But in the end, no amount of good writing or thoughtful characterisation can make up for a poor plot. Detective stories need to pose an exciting, or at least interesting problem for the detective, who must come up with a satisfying solution. This is the real test of a good detective story.