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What Is Detective Fiction?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Detective fiction is a kind of crime fiction that focuses on the heroic detective as much as the crime itself. Though the genre is often said to have originated with writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Steen Steensen Blicher, detective stories have been around since ancient times. Since the genre’s official recognition in the 1800s, detective fiction has evolved in different ways, including adjustments to the personalities of the heroes and changes to the tone. There are also many variations on detective stories, including some that are almost like adventure stories, and others that are more like horror.

In the earliest detective fiction, the hero was typically a highly sophisticated individual, and the stories almost always focused on the intelligence of the detective, his cleverness, and his ability to outwit the criminal. A generally well-known example of this kind of detective character is Sherlock Holmes. There were many other detective characters modeled to some degree or another after Sherlock Holmes, and more than a few were popular enough to generate a series of novels.

Another common type of detective character is the hard-bitten private-eye. These characters were particularly popular in the pulp detective fiction stories from the 1920s. Usually, they were slightly less refined than detectives in the "Sherlock Holmes" tradition, and they often had to rely on guts as much as brains in order to solve the crime. Phillip Marlowe is a classic example of this type of character.

Over time, detective fiction evolved, and the kinds of characters used became more diverse. Popular detective novelists also brought new elements to their stories to match with the changing times. For example, there are popular detective characters who are computer hackers, and others who rely on advanced forensic technology. Some detective fiction even focuses specifically on characters who are forensic technicians.

There is also a kind of detective fiction that can be a little bit darker. Sometimes these stories may drift slightly beyond the normal realm of the detective genre, and some may even step into the world of horror fiction. The main thing that separates these stories is often the macabre nature of the crimes committed, and sometimes the villains might be so sinister that they almost take on a supernatural quality. In fact, in some cases, the villain actually is supernatural, but it could be argued that these stories are too far afield to fit comfortably into the detective fiction category.

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Discussion Comments

By Monika — On Jan 24, 2012

@Azuza - I actually much prefer detective fiction to all other types of mystery books. I think it's much more realistic to have a detective or private eye solving crimes than a regular person!

I mean, how many regular people do you know that would be able to solve a mystery if they were presented with one? I don't know too many myself! In fact, I don't even think I would know how to solve a mystery if I stumbled on one.

I know it's fiction and all, but I like my fictional books to be about stuff that could actually happen in real life!

By Azuza — On Jan 23, 2012

@indemnifyme - I read all the Nancy Drew books when I was younger too. I think they're still writing more even now-from what I remember, different authors keep up with the series under pseudonym Carolyn Keene.

I also remember reading some Sherlock Holmes Victorian detective fiction when I was in school. I didn't particularly care for it though. At the time I found them to be really outdated!

Also, I usually prefer mysteries that aren't centered on a detective that knows what they are doing. I like the ones where a regular person stumbles on a mystery and then solves the crime.

By indemnifyme — On Jan 23, 2012

@jonrss - I can see how writing detective fiction would be difficult. Even though you know the ending, you still have to write an interesting story! Anyway, I hope one day you will be able to finish one of those detective stories sitting on your hard drive.

I've never tried to write detective fiction myself, although when I was younger I like to read a lot. Nancy Drew was my favorite when I was in middle school. I read through my libraries entire collection of Nancy Drew books-the older series and the newer series!

By jonrss — On Jan 23, 2012

Has anyone every tried to write mystery fiction? They say that it's easy because you know who did it from the start and you can just work backward.But let me tell you, it's not that easy.

I have a hard drive filled with aborted attempts at mystery stories. Some how they always go awry or come up incomplete. I don't know how the more ubiquitous detective fiction authors can pump out as much material as many of them do. I haven't made it to the end of one story let alone 27.

By summing — On Jan 23, 2012

What are your guys favorite detectives in literature? I would like to mention two.

First is probably the most famous detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid and again as an adult. They are irresistible. Holmes is the archetypal private detective and has dazzled readers for 5 consecutive generations.

The next one is more contemporary. It is Lisbeth Salander from the millennium trilogy of novels by Stieg Larson. She is unlike any character I have ever read. She is tough and vulnerable, smart and helpless, talented and yet incomplete. She is also tough as nails and not afraid to get her hands dirty. She is nothing at all like Sherlock Holmes but she is a great detective none the less.

By truman12 — On Jan 22, 2012

I absolutely love to read detective stories. For the classics like Agatha Christie to the new masters like Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard.

There is a reason that mystery books are the most popular kind of literature in the world. No one can resist a salacious crime and a cunning and charismatic detective who is able to deconstruct the details and reach an amazing conclusion.

Detective novels offer us everything from suspense, to romance to comedy to horror. And everyone is intrigued by the unknown. So I think it is likely that detective books will continue to be written and read for many years to come.

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