Detective Story

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mystery

mystery or mystery story, literary genre in which the cause (or causes) of a mysterious happening, often a crime, is gradually revealed by the hero or heroine; this is accomplished through a mixture of intelligence, ingenuity, the logical interpretation of evidence, and sometimes sheer luck.

History

Although some critics trace the origins of the genre to such disparate works as Aesop's fables, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the Apocrypha, most agree that the Western mystery, complete with all its conventions, emerged in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” This and all of Poe's “tales of ratiocination” feature the chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, a brilliant amateur detective, who, by a keen analysis of motives and clues, solves crimes that are baffling to the police.

The first full-length mystery novels were probably Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which continued Poe's concept of the brilliant detective—although Collins's rose-growing Sergeant Cuff is a policeman—and added an emphasis on the sleuth's idiosyncrasies. Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) is a detective novel that is both intriguing and frustrating because, since the novel is unfinished, its crime is never solved. In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle published “A Study in Scarlet,” which introduced Sherlock Holmes, destined to become the most famous of all literary detectives. This vain and aloof amateur sleuth, with a fondness for pipes, violins, and cocaine, solves crimes through extraordinarily perceptive recognition and interpretation of evidence.

Like Conan Doyle, subsequent mystery writers often featured the same detective in several works. Especially popular have been G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, E. D. Biggers's Charlie Chan, S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret, Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, Leslie Charteris's “The Saint,” Robert van Gulick's Magistrate Dee, Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small, Emma Lathan's John Putnam Thatcher, Ellery Queen in the works of Frederic Dannay and M. B. Lee, P. D. James's Adam Dalgleish, Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, and the various Washington, D.C. private eyes (private investigators) in the novels of George Pelecanos.

Types of Mysteries

Many authors incorporate the conventions of the mystery into the novel, producing works that are warm, witty, often erudite, and filled with interesting characters and atmosphere. Such authors include Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, Josephine Tey, Nicholas Blake, Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh, Philip McDonald, Anna K. Green, Carolyn Wells, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Elizabeth Daly, Peter Dickinson, and Hilda Lawrence. Some detective novels focus on the actions of the police in solving a crime; notable police-procedural novelists are Freeman Wills Crofts, George Bagby, Ed McBain, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and Andrea Camilleri.

Dashiell Hammett initiated the hard-boiled detective genre, featuring tough, brash, yet honorable private eyes living on the seedy criminal fringe and involved in violent and incredibly complex crimes. Other writers in this genre are Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Ross Macdonald, and Elmore Leonard and, adding lurid sex and brutality, James Hadley Chase and Mickey Spillane. There has been a resurgence of interest in hard-boiled stories, such as those by Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

An extension of the detective novel is the espionage tale, which became very popular in the 1960s. Usually convoluted in plot, these novels emphasize action, sex, and innovative cruelty and sometimes stress the moral ambiguity of the spy's world. Noted authors of espionage novels are Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John le Carré, Alan Furst, and Tom Clancy.

In the subtle and perceptive works of writers such as Georges Simenon and Nicholas Freeling the psychological reasons behind a crime are often emphasized more than the crime's solution. Other writers, notably Julian Symons, have extended this emphasis, maintaining that early mysteries, with their country-house settings and aristocratic characters, are snobbish and escapist. Attempting to be contemporary and meaningful, these authors probe the psychological and sociological aspects of a crime, often producing grim and uncomfortable conclusions. The courtroom drama has also been popular, as seen in the success of Erle Stanley Gardner's many Perry Mason books, Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent (1987), The Pelican Brief (1992) and other thrillers by John Grisham, and other tales of legal suspense.

Despite its conventions, good writers can make the mystery novel their own. For example, Agatha Christie is noted for her clever plots, John Dickson Carr for his ingenious “locked room” mysteries, Dick Francis for his depiction of the horse-racing world, Ruth Rendell for her novels combining character and atmosphere with absorbing police procedure, perceptive sociological and psychological analysis, and a sense of life's tragedy, and Sweden's Stieg Larsson for a dark, wintry world of violence, sex, and international skulduggery. Other popular detective novelists include Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Amanda Cross (all of whom feature heroines) and the often humorous Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and Gregory Mcdonald. In the 21st cent. an outstanding novelist specializing in contemporary detective mysteries is Tana French, whose linked works feature a series of partners, all of whom are members of Ireland's Dublin Murder Squad.

See also Gothic romance.

Bibliography

See H. Haycroft, The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1984), J. Barzun and W. H. Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime (rev. ed. 1985) J. Symons, Bloody Murder (1986), B. A. Rader and H. G. Zettler, ed., The Sleuth and the Scholar (1988), T. J. Binyon, Murder Will Out (1989), S. Oleksiw, A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1989), T. Hillerman, ed., The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (2000), and O. Penzler, ed., The Great Detectives (1978) and The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives (2009); W. Albert, ed., Detective and Mystery Fiction: An International Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1985); P. D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction (2009).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Detective Story

 

a literary genre that includes fiction works whose plots center on the resolution of a mysterious crime, usually by a logical analysis of the facts. The basis of the conflict is most often the clash between justice and lawlessness, climaxing in the triumph of justice.

The originator of the genre is the American writer E. Poe (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841, and other stories). The detective story assumed its familiar form by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century in the works of W Collins (Great Britain), E. Gaboriau and G. Leroux (France), A. K. Green (USA), and especially A. C. Doyle (Great Britain), who created the popular private detective Sherlock Holmes. Two basic types of detective story plots developed: the intellectual, deriving from Poe and stressing the process of solving the problem, and the adventure, deriving from Collins and constructed on the build-up of dramatic episodes and often including new crimes.

The works of the British writers E. Wallace and D. L. Sayers, among others, played an important role in the further development of the detective story, as did those of G. K. Chesterton, who created the character of the “intuitive detective,” Father Brown. In most works of the first quarter of the 20th century, however, artificial situations and standard plots prevailed—R. A. Freeman and F. W. Crofts of Great Britain and S. S. Van Dine (pseudonym of W. Wright) and J. D. Carrof the USA.

Realistic elements and literary mastery characterize A. Christie’s (Great Britain) novels about the amateur detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and G. Simenon’s (France) stories about Inspector Maigret. D. Hammett introduced realistic motifs in the American detective story; he was followed by R. Chandler and R. Macdonald of the so-called hard-boiled school, which is not averse to sharp social criticism. Under their influence a type of “dynamic story” developed in the detective stories of the 1930’s and 1940’s, which combined realistic moments with plot clichés. Writers exemplifying this type include E. S. Gardner, R. Stout, E. Queen (the pseudonym of F. DanneyandM. B. Lee), and P. Quentin (the pseudonym of a group of writers) of the USA; J. Tey and M. Innes of Great Britain; and N. Marsh of New Zealand.

After World War II a great number of anti-intellectual detective stories emerged, devoid of social content. They are grouped in the so-called black school—the works of M. Spil-lane and C. Adams (USA) and I. Fleming’s (Great Britain) series about the superman-spy James Bond, glorifying violence and sex. In the mid-20th century, variations of the detective story became widespread. These include the crime novel (F. lies [pseudonym of A. Berkley] and J. G. Symons of Great Britain and P. Highsmith of the USA); the spy thriller (E. Ambler and J. Le Carre [pseudonym of D. Cornwell] of Great Britain); and the police novel (E. McBain of the USA). In addition, detective plots in a science fiction setting emerged (I. Asimov of the USA).

The founders of the Soviet detective story were A. N. Tolstoy (The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin) and M. Shaginian (Mess-Mend). The spy theme prevailed at first. After the war, works about militiamen (A. Adamov, Iu. Semenov) and counterintelligence workers (R. Kim) and science fiction stories with detective plots emerged alongside the detective story proper (L. Sheinin).

The best detective stories are characterized by a realistic treatment of daily life, psychology, social relations, and conflicts; by a romanticized presentation of events and characters; and by absorbing intellectual play. They are based on the rationalistic conviction of the power of reason and affirm the triumph of law and order over social evil.

REFERENCES

Toman, N. “Chto takoe detektivnaia literatura?” In the collection O fantastike i prikliucheniiakh. O literature dlia detei, fasc. 5. Leningrad, 1960.
“Detektiv: i sotsial’nost’, i khudozhestvennost’.”; Literaturnaia gazeta, Jan. 19, 1972.
Hay croft, H. Murder for Pleasure. New York-London, 1943.
Pfeiffer, H. Die Mumie im Glassarg. Rudolfstadt, 1960.
Maver, W. Krimi und Crimen. Halle [1967].
Škvorecky, I. Nápady čtenaře detektivek. Prague, 1965.
Rainov, V. Cherniiat roman. Sofia, 1970.
Barzun, J., and W. H. Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. New York, 1971.

R. E. NUDEL’MAN

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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