Genre of novel or short story in which a mystery is solved mainly by the action of a professional or amateur detective. Where the mystery to be solved concerns a crime, the work may be called crime fiction. The traditional formula for the detective story starts with a seemingly irresolvable mystery, typically a murder, features the astute, often unconventional detective, a wrongly accused suspect to whom the circumstantial evidence points, and concludes with a startling or unexpected solution to the mystery, during which the detective explains how he or she solved the mystery.
The earliest work of detective fiction as understood today was ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) by Edgar Allan Poe, and his detective Dupin became the model for those who solved crimes by deduction from a series of clues. The first English literary approach to detective fiction was made by Wilkie Collins in Poor Miss Finch (1872) and The Law and the Lady (1875). Arthur Conan Doyle created perhaps the most popular fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in A Study in Scarlet (1887). The ‘golden age’ of the genre was the period from the 1920s to the 1940s, when many fictional detectives became household names. Leading writers were Agatha Christie (creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple), Dorothy L Sayers (whose works feature Lord Peter Wimsey), Georges Simenon (who created Inspector Jules Maigret), and Margery Allingham.
Types of detective fiction include the police procedural, where the mystery is solved by detailed police work, as in the work of Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo; the inverted novel, where the identity of the criminal is known from the beginning and only the method or the motive remains to be discovered, as in Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles; and the ‘hard-boiled school’ of private investigators begun by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which became known for its social realism and explicit violence. More recently, the form and traditions of the genre have been used as a framework within which to explore other concerns, as in Innocent Blood (1980) and A Taste for Death (1986) by P D James, The Name of the Rose (1983) by Umberto Eco, and the works of many women writers who explore feminist ideas, as in Murder in the Collective (1984) by Barbara Wilson. There has also been a great deal of interest in themed detective writing, often using a Roman or medieval setting, as seen in the work of Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, and Ellis Peters. Ruth Rendell has contributed significantly to the genre, writing more than a dozen novels of police procedure featuring Reginold Wexford and his ponderous associate Mike Burden. Novel approaches to detective fiction include Marion Mainwaring's Murder in Pastiche (1955), written in the styles of nine famous writers, and Dennis Wheatley's Murder Off Miami (1936), a dossier containing real clues such as photographs, ticket stubs, and hairpins for the reader to use in solving the mystery; the solution was in a closed envelope at the back of the book.
Many works of this genre have been adapted to cinema and television with great success.
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