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Detective fiction

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A branch of crime fiction, detective fiction is the fictional genre centered around an investigation by a detective, usually in the form of the investigation of a murder.

A common feature is that the investigator is usually unmarried, with some source of income other than a regular job, and frequently has an assistant, who is asked to make all kinds of apparently irrelevant inquiries, and acts as an audience surrogate for the explanation of the mystery at the end of the story.

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Whodunnit? The most widespread subgenre of the detective novel is the whodunnit (usually spelled whodunit in the US), where great ingenuity is usually exercised in revealing the basic method of the murder in such a manner as to simultaneously conceal it from the readers, until the end of the book, when the method and culprit are revealed.

An early archetype of these types of story were the three Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allan Poe: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, and The Mystery of Marie Roget[?]. Poe's detective stories have been described as ratiocinative tales. In tales such as these, the primary concern of the plot is ascertaining truth, and the usual means of obtaining the truth is through a complex and mysterious process combining intuitive logic, astute observation and perspicacious inference. Oddly enough, the implication here is that the crime itself is secondary to the efforts taken to solve it. The Mystery of Marie Roget is particularly interesting, as it is a scarcely fictionalized analysis of the circumstances around the real-life discovery of the body of a young woman named Mary Rogers, in which Poe expounds his theory of what actually happened. The style of the analysis, with its attention to forensic detail, makes it a precursor of that most famous of all fictional detectives, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, who set the style for many, many others in later years, including pastiches such as August Derleth's Solar Pons[?].

Another early archetype of the whodunnit is found as a sub-plot in the vast novel Bleak House[?] (1853) by Charles Dickens. The conniving lawyer Tulkinghorn is killed in his office late one night and the crime is investigated by Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan force. Numerous characters appeared on the staircase leading to Tulkinghorn's office that night, some of them in disguise, and Inspector Bucket must penetrate these mysteries to identify the culprit.

Dickens' protege, Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), is credited with first great mystery novel The Woman in White[?]. He is sometimes referred to as the 'grandfather of English detective fiction'. His novel The Moonstone was descibed by T. S. Eliot as "the first and greatest of English detective novels" and by Dorothy L. Sayers as "probably the very finest detective story ever written". Although technically preceded by Charles Felix[?]'s The Notting Hill Mystery[?] (1865), The Moonstone can claim to have established the genre with several classic features of the twentieth-century detective story:

  • A country house robbery
  • An 'inside job[?]'
  • A celebrated investigator
  • Bungling local constabulary
  • Detective enquiries
  • False suspects
  • The 'least likely suspect'
  • A rudimentary 'locked room' murder
  • A reconstruction of the crime
  • A final twist in the plot

Police Procedural Many detective stories have policemen as the main characters. Of course these stories may take many forms, but many authors try to go for a realistic depiction of a policeman's routine. A good deal are whodunnits, in others the criminal is well known and it is a case of getting enough evidence.

Some typical features of these are:

  • The detective is rarely the first on the crime scene - it will be milling with uniform, paramedics and possibly members of the public.
  • Forensic reports - and the wait for them.
  • Rules and regulations to follow - or not.
  • Suspects arrested and kept in custody - sometimes wrongly.
  • Pressure from senior officers to show progress.
  • A large investigating team - two, three or four main characters, plus other officers to order about.
  • Pubs - places to discuss or think about the case-especially in the Inspector Morse mysteries.
  • Informants - to lean on.
  • Political pressure when the suspects are prominent figures
  • Internal hostility from comrades when the suspects are fellow police officers
  • Pressure from the media (tv, newspapers) to come up with an answer.

Other subgenres There is also a subgenre of historical detectives. See historical whodunnit for an overview.

Famous fictional detectives The full list of fictional detectives would be immense. The format is well suited to dramatic presentation, and so there are also many television and film detectives, besides those appearing in adaptations of novels in this genre. Fictional detectives generally fall within one of four domains:

  • the amateur or dilettante detective (Holmes);
  • the private investigator (Marlowe, Spade, Rockford);
  • the police detective (Ironside, Kojak, Morse);
  • more recently, the medical examiner, criminal psychologist, forensic evidence expert or other specialists (Scarpetta, Quincy, Cracker, CSI).

Notable fictional detectives and their creators include:

Albert Campion[?] - Margery Allingham
Kinky Friedman - Kinky Friedman
Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Miss Marple - Agatha Christie
Simon Templar aka "The Saint" - Leslie Charteris
Philip Trent[?] - E.C. Bentley
Lord Peter Wimsey - Dorothy L. Sayers
Nero Wolfe - Rex Stout

Private eyes:
Mike Hammer - Mickey Spillane
Philip Marlowe - Raymond Chandler
Ellery Queen
Sam Spade[?] - Dashiell Hammett

Police detectives:
Roderick Alleyn[?] - Ngaio Marsh
Martin Beck[?] - Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö[?]
Harry Bosch[?] - Michael Connelly[?]
Maigret - Georges Simenon
Inspector Morse - Colin Dexter
Hercule Poirot (note - later became a private eye) - Agatha Christie
Inspector Rebus - Ian Rankin[?]
Dick Tracy - Chester Gould
Inspector Wexford[?] - Ruth Rendell[?]

Medical examiners, etc.:
Dr. Temperance Brennan[?] - Kathy Reichs[?]
Dr. Kay Scarpetta[?] - Patricia Cornwell
Perry Mason (lawyer) - Erle Stanley Gardner

And for younger readers:
Encyclopedia Brown - Donald J. Sobol[?]
The Hardy Boys[?] - Franklin W. Dixon[?]
Nancy Drew - Carolyn Keene
The Famous Five and Secret Seven[?] - Enid Blyton

Marcus Didius Falco (the Roman Empire of the 1st century A.D.) - Lindsey Davis
Brother William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose (1327) - Umberto Eco
Judge Dee[?] (18th century China) - Robert van Gulik
Brother Cadfael (11th century England and Wales) - Ellis Peters
Gordianus the Finder[?] in the Roma sub rosa series (the Roman Republic of the 1st century B.C.) - Steven Saylor[?]

Other notable authors in this genre include:

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