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Detective Story

Updated on May 5, 2010

A Detective Story is a novel or short story in which a detective solves a crime by observing, assembling, and logically interpreting the available evidence or clues. The clues consist of the circumstances surrounding the crime and the motives of all the characters involved in it. Since the reader is free to discover and interpret the clues himself, he can follow the detective's thought process and often tries to beat him to the solution. The presence of the detective and his use of reason to solve the crime distinguish the detective story from other kinds of mystery stories.

The forerunners of the detective story were the Gothic novels, or tales of terror, popular in the late 18th century. Modern detective fiction originated in the 1840's with the work of the American author Edgar Allan Poe. In his stories The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, and The Mystery of Marie Roget, Poe introduced the amateur detective Auguste Dupin. By brilliant deductive reasoning, Dupin solved crimes that had baffled the police.

Poe's statement of the problem at the outset of the story and his step-by-step solution of the mystery became the conventional form of the detective story. His practice of revealing the criminal as the least suspected person and of solving the crime in the least likely place was adopted by later writers of detective fiction. They also followed his technique of having one detective, usually someone more clever than the police force, as the hero of a continuing series.

The first full-length detective novel was The Lerouge Affair (L'Affaire Lerouge), by the French author Emile Gaboriau, published in 1866. Two years later the English novelist Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone, which T. S. Eliot has called "the first, longest, and best of English detective novels." Perhaps the greatest of all detective-story writers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the master detective Sherlock Holmes. Doyle wrote approximately 60 stories about Holmes, which established the detective as a type of literary hero.

Since World War I the detective story has been one of the most popular forms of reading entertainment in both England and the United States. Perhaps the best-known of contemporary detective-story writers is the English author Agatha Christie, famous for her surprise endings and for her detective Hercule Poirot. Among her many novels are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and Death on the Nile (1937). Other outstanding English writers of detective fiction include Dorothy L. Sayers (The Nine Tailors, 1934) and Edmund C. Bentley (Trent's Last Case, 1912). A well-known French author of detective stories is Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector Maigret. It is estimated that Simenon has written more than 500 novels.

Most modern European detective stories have been traditional in their tightly constructed plots and their logical, or intellectual, approach to the solution of the crime. In the United States, however, the detective story has been somewhat modified. Since the publication of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930), the American detective story has been one of action, drama, and brisk dialogue. Its hero has become a hard-boiled figure, more ruthless and realistic, although often less intellectual, than his literary predecessors. The leading writer of this tough school was probably Raymond Chandler, whose hero is the detective Philip Marlowe.

Among the other outstanding American writers of detective stories are Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe; Earl Derr Biggers, famous for his stories of the Chinese sleuth Charlie Chan; and Erie Stanley Gardner, whose tales of Perry Mason are noted for their exciting courtroom scenes. Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee are well known by their joint pen name, Ellery Queen. Young readers enjoy such popular detective stories as the Nancy Drew series, by Carolyn Keene.

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