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Development Of Western Detective Fiction English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3174 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This paper is focused on the origin and development of western detective fiction and tries to correct the unscientific assertions related to the subject. It involves three aspects: firstly, basic facts of western detective literature before detective fiction arose and the origin of western detective fiction; secondly, features of western detective fiction in different periods; thirdly, representative writers and works.

Key words: western detective fiction; origin; development; writing theory

Chapter One: Introduction

1.1 Background

Detective stories are one of the most popular genres of fiction. In literary form, detective novels are so numerous that publishing companies devote entire labels to the genre and release hundreds of entries per year. Detective narratives have become a major part of television programming, with networks basing their entire primetime schedule around crime-related series.

1.2 Aim

Detective fiction is such an integral part of the current literary landscape that many people have difficulty remembering all its subgenres, popular works, and notable authors. This essay explores the history of detective fiction and the authors who were a major influence on its development.

Chapter Two: Beginning of detective fiction

2.1 In ancient literature

Some scholars have suggested that some ancient and religious texts bear similarities to what would later be called detective fiction. In the Old Testament story of Susanna and the Elders [1] , the story told by two witnesses breaks down when Daniel cross-examines them. The author Julian Symons [2] has commented on writers who see this as a detective story, arguing that “those who search for fragments of detection in the Bible and Herodotus are looking only for puzzles” and that these puzzles are not detective stories. [[] 1] In the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles [3] , the title character discovers the truth about his origins after questioning various witnesses. Although “Oedipus’s enquiry is based on supernatural, pre-rational methods that are evident in most narratives of crime until the development of Enlightenment thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” it has “all of the central characteristics and formal elements of the detective story, including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past.”[2]

Chapter Three: Early Western detective fiction

3.1 Background

It was perhaps inevitable that with the establishing of police forces around the world it was only a matter of time before we saw the ‘memoirs’ of real detectives appearing. The most famous was of Eugene Francois Vidocq who was the first head of the French Surete in 1812. His four volume set of memoirs were a huge success.

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3.2 Representative detective writers and works

3.2.1 “Voltaire’s Zadig”

One of the earliest examples of detective fiction is Voltaire’s [4] Zadig, which features a main character who performs feats of analysis. Some suggest that Zadig was the catalyst, though whilst not without some foundation, most agree that it was Poe who initially brought all the main ingredients together for the first time.

3.2.2 Edgar Allen Poe and his works

Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Edgar Allen Poe [5] was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the Western detective fiction genre. And he is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

Poe’s best known fiction works are Gothic, a genre he followed to appease the public taste.[83] His most recurring themes deal with questions of death, including its physical signs, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning. Many of his works are generally considered part of the dark romanticism genre, a literary reaction to transcendentalism [6] , which Poe strongly disliked.[3]

Poe referred to his stories as “tales of ratiocination”.[4] In stories such as these, the primary concern of the plot is ascertaining truth, and the usual means of obtaining the truth is a complex and mysterious process combining intuitive logic, astute observation, and perspicacious inference. “Early detective stories tended to follow an investigating protagonist from the first scene to the last, making the unraveling a practical rather than emotional matter.”[5]

3.2.3 Émile Gaboriau and his “Monsieur Lecoq”

Émile Gaboriau was a pioneer of the detective fiction genre in France. L’Affaire Lerouge, which was Gaboriau’s [7] first detective novel, introduced an amateur detective. It also introduced a young police officer named Monsieur Lecoq, who was the hero in three of Gaboriau’s later detective novels. The character of Lecoq was based on a real-life thief turned police officer, Eugène François Vidocq [8] , whose own memoirs, Les Vrais Mémoires de Vidocq, mixed fiction and fact. It may also have been influenced by the villainous Monsieur Lecoq, one of the main protagonists of Féval’s Les Habits Noirs book series.

The book was published in “Le Siècle” and at once made his reputation. Gaboriau’s writing is also considered to contain the first example of a detective minutely examining a crime scene for clues.

3.2.4 Charles Dickens and his “Bleak House”

Charles Dickens [9] created some of the world’s most memorable fictional characters and is generally regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period. During his life, his works enjoyed unprecedented fame, and by the twentieth century his literary genius was broadly acknowledged by critics and scholars. His novels and short stories continue to be widely popular.

In his famous novel Bleak House, the conniving lawyer Tulkinghorn is killed in his office late one night, and the crime is investigated by Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan police force. Numerous characters drawn from real life 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 murderer.

3.2.5 Wilkie Collins and his works

Dickens’s protege, William Wilkie Collins [10] -sometimes referred to as the “grandfather of English detective fiction”-was very popular during the Victorian era and wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and more than 100 nonfiction essays. His best-known works are The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Armadale, and No Name.

Collins’s works were classified at the time as “sensation novels”,, a genre seen nowadays as the precursor to detective and suspense fiction. Collins enjoyed ten years of great success following publication of The Woman in White in 1859. His next novel, No Name combined social commentary – the absurdity of the law as it applied to children of unmarried parents – with a densely plotted revenge thriller. The Moonstone, published in 1868, and the last novel of what is generally regarded as the most successful decade of its author’s career, was, despite a somewhat cool reception from both Dickens and the critics, a significant return to form and reestablished the market value of an author whose success in the competitive Victorian literary marketplace had been gradually waning in the wake of his first “masterpiece”. Viewed by many to represent the advent of the detective story within the tradition of the English novel, The Moonstone remains one of Collins’s most critically acclaimed productions, identified by T. S. Eliot- as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels…in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe”,[6] and Dorothy L. Sayers. referred to it as “probably the very finest detective story ever written”.[7]

3.2.6 Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes

In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle/ created Sherlock Holmes, the most famous of all fictional detectives. Although Sherlock Holmes is not the original fiction detective, his name has become a byword for the part. Conan Doyle stated that the character of Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell0, for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary [11] 0. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing large conclusions from the smallest observations. A brilliant London-based “consulting detective” residing at 221B Baker Street, Holmes is famous for his intellectual prowess and is renowned for his skillful use of astute observation, deductive reasoning, and forensic skills to solve difficult cases. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Holmes, and all but four stories are narrated by Holmes’s friend, assistant, and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson.

Chapter Four: Golden Age detective novels

4.1 Background

The period of the 1920s and 1930s is generally referred to as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During this period, a number of very popular writers emerged, mostly British but with a notable subset of American writers. Female writers constituted a major portion of notable Golden Age writers, including Agatha Christie [12] 1, the most famous of the Golden Age writers, and among the most famous authors of any genre, of all time. Four female writers of the Golden Age are considered the four original “Queens of Crime”: Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh2 and Margery Allingham3.

Various conventions of the detective genre were standardized during the Golden Age, and in 1929 some of them were codified by writer Ronald Knox4 in his ‘Decalogue’ of rules for detective fiction, among them to avoid supernatural elements, all of which were meant to guarantee that, in Knox’s words, a detective story “must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.” In Golden Age detective stories, an outsider – sometimes a salaried investigator or a police officer, but often a gifted amateur – investigates a murder committed in a closed environment by one of a limited number of suspects.

4.2 Representative detective writers and works

4.2.1Agatha Christie and her works

Many of the most popular books of the Golden Age were written by Agatha Christie, who produced long series of books featuring her detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, amongst others, and usually including a complex puzzle for the reader to try to unravel. Christie’s novels include, Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and And Then There Were None.

Chapter Five: Further development

5.1 Representative detective writers and works

5.1.1 Rex Stout and his woks

Stout [13] 5 is best known as the creator of the larger-than-life fictional detective Nero Wolfe, described by reviewer Will Cuppy6 as “that Falstaff7 of detectives.” [8]

Rex Stout began his literary career in the 1910s writing for the pulps, publishing romance, adventure, and some borderline detective stories. In Paris in 1929 he wrote his first book, How Like a God, an unusual psychological story written in the second person.

After he returned to the U.S. Stout turned to writing detective fiction. The first work was Fer-de-Lance, which introduced Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin. In 1937, Stout created Dol Bonner, a female private detective who would reappear in his Nero Wolfe stories and who is an early and significant example of the woman PI as fictional protagonist, in a novel called The Hand in the Glove. After 1938 Stout focused solely on the mystery field. Stout continued writing the Nero Wolfe series for the rest of his life, publishing at least one adventure per year through 1966. Though Stout’s rate of production declined somewhat after 1966, he still published four further Nero Wolfe novels and a cookbook prior to his death in 1975, aged 88.

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5.1.2 Ellery Queen and their works

Ellery Queen is both a fictional character and a pseudonym used by two American cousins from Brooklyn, New York – Daniel Nathan, alias Frederic Dannay and Manford (Emanuel) Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee – to write, edit, and anthologize detective fiction. The fictional Ellery Queen created by Dannay and Lee is a mystery writer and amateur detective who helps his father, a New York City police inspector, solve baffling murders.

In a successful series of novels and short stories that covered 42 years, “Ellery Queen” served as a joint pseudonym for the cousins Dannay and Lee, as well as the name of the primary detective-hero they created. During the 1930s and much of the 1940s, that detective-hero was possibly the best known American fictional detective.[9] Movies, radio shows, and television shows were based on Dannay and Lee’s works.

The two, particularly Dannay, were also responsible for co-founding and directing Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine [14] 8, generally considered one of the most influential English Language crime fiction magazines of the last sixty-five years. They were also prominent historians in the field, editing numerous collections and anthologies of short stories such as The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. Under their collective pseudonym, the cousins were given the Grand Master Award for achievements in the field of the mystery story by the Mystery Writers of America9 in 1961.

The fictional Ellery Queen was the hero of more than 30 novels and several short story collections written by Dannay and Lee and published under the Ellery Queen pseudonym. Dannay and Lee also wrote four novels about a detective named Drury Lane using the pseudonym Barnaby Ross. They allowed the Ellery Queen name to be used as a house name for a number of novels written by other authors, most of them published in the 1960s as paperback originals and not featuring Ellery Queen as a character.

The cousins remained circumspect about their writing methods. According to Otto Penzler:, “As an anthologist, Ellery Queen is without peer, his taste unequalled. As a bibliographer and a collector of the detective short story, Queen is, again, a historical personage. Indeed, Ellery Queen clearly is, after Poe, the most important American in mystery fiction.”[10] Margery Allingham wrote that Ellery Queen had “done far more for the detective story than any other two men put together”.

Although Frederic Dannay outlived his cousin by ten years, the Ellery Queen name died with Manfred Lee. The last Ellery Queen novel, A Fine and Private Place, was published in the year of Lee’s death, 1971.

Chapter Six: Conclusion

6.1 Summary

Detective fiction has evolved during the past century from a demure celebration of rationality to the totally opposite position. Arguably this mirrors the transformation of western countries’ society as a whole. The core belief in rationality at the heart of western countries’ educational system, especially the grammar schools and the universities, possibly reached its peak during the period when the classical detective story flourished as did a belief in science and technology as beneficial to mankind. So, too, did the equally central belief in the fairness and incorruptibility of justice and the assurance that evil-doers would inevitably get their just deserts with murderers sent to the gallows. These core beliefs disintegrated in the 1960s – hanging was abolished in 1964 – a fact reflected in the evolution of popular detective fiction.


[1] Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction, 2005. 8.

[2] Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction, 2005. 9-11.

[3] Ljunquist, Kent. “The poet as critic”. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 7-20.

[4] Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance (Paperback ed.). New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. 171.

[5] Kismaric, Carole and Heiferman, Marvin. The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. 56.

[6] Deirdre David. The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. Cambridge University Press, 2001. 179.

[7] Sharon K. Hall. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. University of Michigan Press, 1979. 531.

[8] Rothe, Anna. Current Biography. New York: H. W. Wilson Co., 1947. 576.

[9] Herbert. Who’s Who in Crime, 2001. 161.

[10] Penzler, Otto, et al. Detectionary. Woodstock. New York: Overlook Press, 1977.


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