The detective story is a special branch of crime fiction that focuses attention on the examination of evidence that will lead to the solution of the mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary records the first printed use of the noun “detective” in the year 1843. The term had become established in the language because of the formation of the first detective bureaus, the original of which was the Bow Street Runners, a group of detective policemen organized by Henry Fielding and John Fielding in their capacities as magistrates in London. The Runners operated out of the Fielding residence on Bow Street and were the precursors of the detective branch of Scotland Yard. Some time later, early in the nineteenth century, the Sûreté Générale, the first modern police force, was formed in Paris with a detective bureau. With the establishment of such bureaus, the way was open for the detective story to be developed out of existing literary sources. Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
In the eighteenth century, the chaplain of Newgate Prison in London was authorized to publish the stories of notorious criminals in The Newgate Calendar. From this practice sprang the often wholly fictional Newgate novels, accounts of sensational crimes. In France, François Vidocq, a criminal himself, became head of the Sûreté and later published his memoirs recounting his exploits in capturing criminals. It is also likely that some of the ambience of the early detective story was derived from the gothic novel. William Godwin’s Things as They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794; also known as The Adventures of Caleb Williams: Or, Things as They Are; best known as Caleb Williams), for example, although not a detective novel, is a story of a crime solved in order to free an innocent man.
From these beginnings, it remained for Edgar Allan Poe to devise the detective story in its now familiar form. Poe wrote three short works that are certainly detective stories, as well as others that are sometimes included in the genre. The first of these was “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), which was followed by “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1845). Poe initiated the device of establishing the character of the detective and then using him for several stories. Poe’s detective, M. Dupin, is a recluse, an eccentric, aristocratic young man with a keen analytical mind. He has an unnamed but admiring friend who marvels at Dupin’s mental prowess and is willing to be his chronicler. Dupin examines the evidence in a given case and solves the crime after the regular police have exhausted their methods—a circumstance that was to become one of the commonplaces of detective fiction.
Apparently impressed by Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827), by François Vidocq, Poe set his stories in Paris and borrowed his policemen from the Sûreté. Meanwhile, in France itself, Émile Gaboriau began to produce detective stories that also owed much to Vidocq. His detective, M. Lecoq, a representative of the official police, became the chief figure in a number of tales of detection. The detective short story was thus established and enjoyed great popularity in the century to follow.
Probably the first full-length novel of detection was The Notting Hill Mystery (1865), by Charles Felix, but it was quickly followed by Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), which critics consider to be the first important detective novel. Collins introduced Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, who, with the help of amateurs, was able to solve the mystery. The first detective in English fiction, however, antedated Sergeant Cuff by fifteen years: Inspector Bucket of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book). Detective novels were published at a slow, sporadic pace until the advent of Sherlock Holmes, the most famous of all fictional detectives, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887, serial; 1888, book).
Holmes starred in four novels and fifty-six short stories and eventually came to have a life independent of his creator, Doyle, who even killed him off in one tale only to bring him back for further adventures. A house on Baker Street in London has been identified as the place where Holmes occupied a flat and is now a tourist attraction. Clubs honor his memory with birthday parties, and a biography has been written based on incidental remarks and inferences about his “life” in the works in which he appeared. The Sherlock Holmes stories follow the pattern established by Poe’s Dupin: Holmes is a bachelor given to esoteric studies, an eccentric who plays the violin and occasionally takes cocaine. A keen observer with amazing talents for analysis and deduction, an amateur boxer who performs astonishing feats of physical strength, Holmes is a virtual superman, while the commonsensical Dr. John Watson, the narrator of his exploits, provides a perfect foil.
The success of the Sherlock Holmes stories resulted in an outpouring of detective fiction; many authors adopted the basic technique of establishing the character of the detective and then recounting a series of his “cases.” R. Austin Freeman introduced Dr. John Thorndyke, who based his solutions on more strictly scientific evidence rather than the deductions favored by Holmes. An American writer, Jacques Futrelle, introduced Professor S. F. X. Van Dusen, who was called “the thinking machine” and who became one of the early omniscient detectives in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes.
Detective Fiction’s Golden Age
With Trent’s Last Case (1913, revised 1929; also as The Woman in Black), by E. C. Bentley, the modern era of the detective story began. Mary Roberts Rinehart modified the pattern of the detective novel by providing a female amateur as a first-person narrator who worked with the official police and who provided the key to the solution almost by accident. Another prolific writer was Carolyn Wells, who wrote seventy-four mystery novels, most of which starred Fleming Stone as the detective. She also made an important contribution to the theory of the detective story with The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913).
As the detective story moved closer to its “classical” stage, it became more realistic and was written with more literary skill. The detectives became less bizarre and less inclined to become involved in physical danger or in personally grappling with the criminal in the manner of the great Holmes. The adventure-mystery involving a sleuth who was proficient both physically and mentally was given over to thrillers such as the Nick Carter stories, while the strict detective tale became purely analytical. In this form, the detective story featured the detective as its chief character and the solution to an interesting mystery as its chief interest. There was generally a narrator in the Watson tradition and an absence of any love interest, and neither characterization nor the tangential demands of the plot interfered with the central business of unraveling the puzzle. With these characteristics established, the detective story moved into its golden age.
The period of 1920 to 1940 represented the golden age of the novel of detection. It included the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Earl Derr Biggers, and S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright). Hundreds of novels were written during this period and were enjoyed by people at all levels of literary sophistication. The expectation of the reader was that a clever detective would be faced with a puzzling crime, almost always a murder or a series of murders, that had not been committed by a professional criminal; the solution of this mystery would come about by the examination of clues presented in the novel.
Dorothy L. Sayers was perhaps the most literary writer of the practitioners of the detective novel; she attempted a combination of the detective story and the “legitimate” novel. The Nine Tailors (1934) is a good example of the work of her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and of her careful research into background material. She is considered to be one of the finest of the mystery writers of this period. Lord Peter Wimsey is a snobbish man given to airy commentary and a languid manner, but he has the analytical skills necessary to solve the mysteries.
Although she may not have had the skill in characterization or the literary quality of Sayers, Agatha Christie surpassed her rivals in the sheer ingenuity of her plots and her manipulation of the evidence that her detective, Hercule Poirot, had to evaluate. Christie used such traditional ploys as the somewhat dense associate (in this instance, Captain Hastings), the least likely person as the murderer, the unexpected turn of the plot, and an exotic manner of committing the crime. Poirot, who became the most popular fictional detective since Sherlock Holmes, appears in thirty-three of Christie’s novels. Christie invented yet another fictional detective who became almost as beloved as Poirot: Miss Jane Marple is a quiet Victorian lady who figures in eleven novels and a collection of short stories. Her solutions come about from a shrewd knowledge of human behavior, keen observation, a remarkable memory, and the ability to make startling deductions from the evidence. Despite the popularity of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, neither stars in the book that is widely considered to be Christie’s best: Ten Little Niggers (1939; published in the United States as And Then There Were None, 1940; also known as Ten Little Indians).
Rivaling M. Poirot and Miss Marple for the affections of detective novel fans was the Chinese Hawaiian American detective Charlie Chan, created by Earl Derr Biggers. Charlie Chan’s widespread popularity was especially enhanced by the fact that his stories were turned into some forty-five motion pictures. Chan’s characterization includes the frequent use of Chinese aphorisms, an extremely polite manner, and generally humane qualities. Chan is especially interesting in that come critics consider him to be the first example, in this kind of fiction, of an Asian who is a sympathetic character rather than a villain, while others consider him to be an offensive stereotype.
S. S. Van Dine is the author of twelve novels starring the detective Philo Vance, who, like Lord Peter Wimsey, is an English aristocrat, although all of his cases have an American urban setting. An extremely erudite man with a world-weary air, Vance was the best-educated and most refined detective of this era. Van Dine, under his real name of Wright, was a literary critic who made the detective story an object of research and study. The result was the publication of the “twenty rules for detective stories,” only one of several efforts to define the exact characteristics of the form. Both readers and writers of this period had definite expectations and resented efforts in the field that did not follow certain specifications. The idea of fair play with the reader was essential; that is, the game must be played with all the evidence needed to solve the crime. There must be no love interest to detract from the business of solving the mystery, the detective could not be the criminal, and the solution could not come about as a result of accident or wild coincidence. During the detective novel’s golden age, these rules were taken quite seriously by those who believed that a permanent form of popular fiction had been established.
While the classic detective story was being established in England and the United States, an American development turned the detective novel in a new direction. Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay collaborated to create a detective who would achieve worldwide fame. Ellery Queen, ostensibly the author of the novels that describe his cases, is an amateur detective and professional writer who works with his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Department. Inspector Queen provides the clues and investigative techniques while his son, Ellery, puts the evidence together. They are not supermen, after Sherlock Holmes, nor are they all-knowing in the manner of Philo Vance, but professionals dealing with a more realistic crime scene than that of their predecessors. Ellery Queen was thus a crossover figure leading to the police procedural story and to the kind of detective fiction that came to reflect the actual criminal class, as well as the working of the criminal justice system, in the United States.
Hard-boiled Detective Fiction
In the 1930’s, while the classic detective story was thriving, another kind of mystery story came into being—the hard-boiled detective novel. The preeminent writers of this school were Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and—in the next generation—Ross Macdonald. Some of these writers began writing for Black Mask, a pulp magazine, in the 1920’s. Hammett’s Sam Spade, who appeared in The Maltese Falcon (serial 1929-1930, book 1930), is characteristic of the new detective: a private eye in a not-very-successful office who solves crimes by following people around in unsavory neighborhoods, having fights in alleys, and dealing with informers. He is cynical regarding the political dealings that go on behind the scenes and is aware of the connections between criminals and the outwardly respectable. He trusts no one, while he himself follows the dictates of a personal code. Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934), which became the basis for a series of motion pictures, was a return to the more traditional form of detective fiction.
Another member of the hard-boiled school was Raymond Chandler, who wrote seven novels featuring his sleuth Philip Marlowe. Chandler, describing the ideal detective hero, said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Such a man is aware of the corruption he will find, but he is governed by a code that includes faithfulness to the client and an abhorrence of crime without an avenging or sadistic bent. Chandler specialized in complex plots, realistic settings, and snappy dialogue in novels such as The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). He was also a theoretician of the detective story, and his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944) is an important document in the annals of crime literature.
After the introduction of the hard-boiled detective and the many stories involving the routine investigations of official law-enforcement agencies, the tradition of the superman detective declined. Fictional detectives lost their aristocratic manners and eccentricities, while the crimes being investigated gained interest not because they involved yet another bizarre or ingenious way to commit murder, but because of the influence of the psychological makeup or the social status of the criminal. The criminal was also less likely to be an amateur than a habitual malefactor. Limiting the suspects by setting the story in confined quarters—such as a country house or an ocean liner—gave way to a story that took the reader into the mean streets referred to by Chandler. These stories often involved the brutality of the police, more violence on the part of the detective, frankness in matters of sex, and the use of formerly taboo language. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer typified a new breed of private detectives, one who is given to acts of sadistic violence.
This often brutal social realism is also reflected in the work of Erle Stanley Gardner, best known for his creation of the lawyer-detective Perry Mason. The hero of more than eighty novels, Mason was first characterized in the hard-boiled tradition; early novels such as The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933) and The Case of the Curious Bride (1934) emphasize the fast-paced action and involuted plots that superseded the literary quality typical of Sayers’s work. While retaining his early penchant for extralegal tactics, Mason gradually developed into a courtroom hero, allowing his assistant detective Paul Drake to do the research while Mason excelled in the spectacular oral combat of the cross-examination. Many of Gardner’s plots were drawn from his own legal experiences as an attorney; having founded the Court of Last Resort, Gardner demonstrated a concern for the helpless. In keeping with this concern, he modified the detective genre by introducing the state as the villain and attacking the urban evils of capitalistic greed for wealth and power.
In championing the defenseless, Gardner was the voice of a modern Everyman during the decades between 1930 and 1960. Viewing themselves as vulnerable to the dictates of the state (such as the establishment of Prohibition and income tax), readers achieved vicarious satisfaction in seeing the problems of average people solved. The mass popularity of Mason’s cases was the result not only of their victories over the “system” but also of the medium they employed. Gardner was, by his own admission, a “product of the paperback revolution,” and he further lowered the literary standards of classical detective fiction by dictating his novels. He was also the script supervisor for the television series Perry Mason (starring Raymond Burr and running from 1957 to 1966), which furthered the personal appeal and accessibility of the detective. Unlike the superhuman Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance, whose intellectual and aristocratic qualities are extraordinary and intimidating, Perry Mason is a successful but common professional, combining the wit of the golden-age sleuth with the cynical pertinacity of the hard-boiled detective.
Police Procedural Novel
While the hard-boiled mystery developed one element of the classic detective novel—the appeal of a recurring hero with yet another case to solve—in a strikingly new direction, the sheer fascination of deduction that characterized the golden age of the detective novel was developed in a new subgenre: the police procedural, a kind of fictional documentary often purporting to be taken from actual police files. These stories detail the routines of investigative agencies, taking the reader into forensic laboratories and describing complex chemical testing of the evidence. Hardworking police officers interview suspects, conduct stakeouts, shadow people, and investigate bank accounts. Even if there is a major figure who is in charge of the case, the investigation clearly is a matter of teamwork, with standard areas of expertise and responsibility: in short, a realistic depiction of actual police methods.
These stories date from World War II and are typified by the television series Dragnet and Sidney Kingsley’s Broadway play Detective Story (1949). One of the major writers of the police procedural was Ed McBain (1926 – 2005), who wrote more than thirty novels about the “87th precinct” in a fictional urban setting that closely resembles New York City. The police procedural has proved to be a versatile form that can be used as the basis for a symbolic story with intentions far beyond that of crime solving, as in Lawrence Sanders’s The First Deadly Sin (1973). Similarly, Tom Sharpe’s Riotous Assembly (1971) is a police procedural set in South Africa that uses the form to ridicule apartheid, hypocrisy, and racial stereotyping.
Ostensibly, the psychological crime novels of Georges Simenon should also belong in the police procedural category; however, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris Police Department uses neither scientific nor rational methods to identify murderers. Similar to Perry Mason in his bourgeois appeal (Maigret is heavyset, smokes a pipe, and is fond of domesticity) and in his delegation of research responsibilities to subordinates, Maigret solves crimes by absorbing the ambience of the place in which they were committed. By familiarizing himself with social customs, geography, and personalities, Maigret “becomes” the suspect and uses psychology and intuition to discern the criminal’s identity. Patience rather than flamboyance characterizes Maigret; he relies on the hunches of his sympathetic imagination instead of on factual clues. While Maigret inhabits the sordid world of the hard-boiled detective, he sees himself as a “repairer of destinies” and acts more like a humble priest eliciting confessions than a vindictive policeman triumphing over evil.
In addition to departing from convention in Maigret’s unique style of detection, Simenon also defies genre restrictions in the style of his work. Pietr-le-Letton (1931; The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, 1933; also known as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, 1963) was written in 1929, but it has little in common with the analytical works of the golden age. Accused of being too literary in his early psychological novels, Simenon probes the ambiguity of human behavior, acknowledging the capacity of people to sin while maintaining a sympathetic understanding of their actions. Readers of the Maigret novels are unable to see evil in terms of black and white, as readers of Gardner’s works do, and come away with as much compassion for the murderer as for the victim. Simenon denies both the mental action of the classical period of detective fiction and the physical action of the hardboiled period, promoting instead the action of the heart. In so doing, he demonstrates the versatility of the detective fiction genre.
While retaining many of its traditional core characteristics, detective fiction in the last decades of the twentieth century became increasingly varied, with many new subgenres emerging. Among the most popular and highly regarded writers that became prominent during this time were P. D. James and Dick Francis of England and Elmore Leonard of the United States. James writes in the so-called golden-age tradition of such authors as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh (both of whom are still widely read). Her novels, longer and denser than most in the genre, have series detectives (Scotland Yard inspector Adam Dalgliesh and private eye Cordelia Gray) who are neither stereotypical nor two-dimensional but rather singular people whose private lives directly affect their professional activities. Dalgliesh, for example, is a poet whose wife died giving birth to their first child, a double tragedy that continues to haunt him. The cases he pursues are multifaceted; James develops complex milieus and characters, and there is always a thematic element (sometimes religious). Close to her in method is Ruth Rendell, whose Inspector Wexford novels also feature psychological probing and have equally complex puzzles but lack a thematic dimension. Both women’s novels generally fall into the police procedural subgenre, as do Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, which have an introspective, intellectual protagonist who is quite similar in temperament and method to Dalgliesh. Set in and around Oxford University in England, a Dexter novel usually has a religious element and a dollop of social criticism. Younger than James, Rendell, and Dexter but also a writer of procedurals is Peter Robinson, a Yorkshire native turned Canadian whose increasingly popular mysteries are set in his native northern England. His detective is the gruff but sensitive Inspector Banks (closer to Wexford than to Dalgliesh or Morse), and each novel concurrently tracks several separate crimes at once, much as Ed McBain and J. J. Marric do in their police procedurals.
The many novels of former British steeplechase jockey Dick Francis have been best sellers on both sides of the Atlantic. Each is a fast-paced thriller, but at its heart is a narrative in the golden-age manner, a standard whodunit in which the nonprofessional sleuth exposes industrial corruption, a racing scandal, or some other crime. The admirable, even exemplary, hero inevitably finds himself in an unfamiliar situation, and in a predictable Francis set piece has a life-threatening encounter with an adversary at some late point in the book. Having overcome a variety of physical, intellectual, and emotional challenges, he restores a measure of normality to the society and returns to his normal pursuits. In a departure from the norm, the hero is not an outsider dealing with a case that just came his way but rather part of a group into which criminality has intruded. Holmes, Wolfe, Archer, Maigret, and Dalgliesh may never again come into contact with the principals in their cases; Francis’s detectives, however, continue to live with their erstwhile clients, seeing them regularly at the Jockey Club and other familiar spots. The novels are formulaic, but Francis has maintained a freshness over the years by eschewing the series detective, although his heroes are basically alike. Another Francis standard is the first-person narrative, through which he gains immediacy as well as increased reader empathy with the hero.
Anything but formulaic are Elmore Leonard’s best sellers, which are written in the hard-boiled tradition of Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald. Like Francis, Leonard shies away from a series detective, but he revisits characters (law enforcers and law breakers), and though his milieus range far and wide, he also returns to such places as Detroit and south Florida. While he fills his varied novels with social misfits and assorted grotesques, many of his characters are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Readers can also expect a spare style in the Ernest Hemingway manner, dialogue that rings true to life, and a fast-paced narrative with a chase as a central element. Leonard began his career as a writer of Westerns, and this background is evident in his plotting and style. Another hallmark is his shifting point of view. His characters, good and bad, tell their own stories; Elmore thus avoids omniscient narrators. Further, he changes the narrative point of view several times within a book, carrying the practice to an extreme in Maximum Bob (1991), in which part of an episode is told from an alligator’s point of view. Shifts in time between the past and present are another Leonard commonplace, and this characteristic and the others may reflect his experience as a writer of screenplays. Leonard is less predictable than most of his peers, for his subjects, settings, and plots run the gamut of possibilities. The Hot Kid (2005), for example, is set during the Great Depression, Pagan Babies (2000) is set in Rwanda and Detroit, and Get Shorty (1990), one of several of his books that have been adapted into feature films, takes its protagonist from Miami to Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Leonard’s books are full of surprising protagonists, from a midwestern couple confined in the federal witness protection program to a loan shark turned music producer to an Arizona cowboy caught up in the Spanish-American War. Before he writes, Leonard or a surrogate visits potential milieus and does on-the-spot research to ensure verisimilitude. This process, coupled with his imagination, narrative skills, and incredible ear for dialogue, has led to critical and popular acclaim for Leonard.
Another popular crime novelist who engages in extensive prewriting research is Patricia Cornwell, who, before becoming an author, worked as a police reporter and for the Richmond, Virginia, chief medical examiner as a keeper of forensic records. She also studied forensic science and rode with homicide detectives as a first responder to crime scenes. This background and the preparation she does for each project have allowed Cornwell to produce graphically realistic novels that are almost case studies in such areas as forensic anthropology (All That Remains, 1992) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing (Postmortem, 1990). Her series detective is Kay Scarpetta, a physician who is Richmond’s chief medical examiner. Talented scientist though she is, Scarpetta is a woman with a personal life that occasionally intrudes upon her professional activities. Scarpetta’s niece, like Cornwell herself, is lesbian, and the novels have always treated sexual identity matter-of-factly. Despite the characters’ romantic problems and their confrontations with grisly inhumanity and irrationality, Scarpetta remains a decent person who copes and ultimately triumphs, sometimes over a local, state, or federal bureaucracy, but always over criminals.
Because the boundaries separating crime writing categories are often indistinct, Cornwell sometimes is placed with the hard-boiled group of writers and at other times is placed in the police procedural genre. The police procedural flourished during the 1980’s and 1990’s, not only because of new Ed McBain books but also because of such varied series as Tony Hillerman’s New Mexico Navajo Indian mysteries, featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leghorn; James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels set in Louisiana; Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther books, which take place primarily in Brattleboro, Vermont; Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe Yorkshire whodunits; and Stuart Kaminsky’s and Martin Cruz Smith’s Soviet Union books.
The traditional mystery, increasingly called the “cozy,” experienced a renaissance at the end of the twentieth century. Originally pejorative, the term “cozy” refers to novels in which the setting is noncriminal and in which the detective (usually not a full-time sleuth, but rather a college professor, bookstore proprietor, or English nobleman) engages in an intellectual chess match with the reader and faces a variety of suspects. The seriousness may be tempered with some humor, and the stories shy away from graphic violence, overt sex, and crude, lowlife characters. The cozy is often associated with British writers, with whom the form originated, but Americans such as Amanda Cross, Martha Grimes, Carolyn G. Hart, and Joyce Porter are popular practitioners of the form.
The private-eye subgenre also experienced a renaissance toward the end of the century, with a major change being that the stories were set in places other than New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or Los Angeles: Cedar Rapids (Ed Gorman’s Jack Dwyer), Cincinnati (Jonathan Valin’s Harry Stoner), Detroit (Loren D. Estleman’s Amos Walker), North Carolina (Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott), and a series of national parks (Nevada Barr’s Anna Pidgeon). Female private eyes, perhaps influenced by the successes of P. D. James’s Cordelia Gray, also started to come to the fore. Liza Cody’s London agency operative Anna Lee first appeared in Dupe (1980). Two years later came two important American debuts: Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone in A Is for Alibi (1982) and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski in Indemnity Only (1982). Noteworthy, too, is Linda Barnes’s Boston private eye Carlotta Carlyle, whose first appearance in a novel is in A Trouble of Fools (1987). Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone is sometimes considered the first of the hard-boiled female detectives. McCone has appeared in more than twenty-five novels, including Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) and Burn Out (2008).
Several detective novel subgenres either emerged or gained in popularity during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Series with religious themes and clerics as detectives include William X. Kienzle’s Father Robert Koesler books, Joseph Telushkin’s Rabbi Daniel Winter mysteries, and Ellis Peters’s medieval Brother Cadfael novels. The Amanda Cross mysteries starring Professor Kate Fansler, M. D. Lake’s campus cop Peggy O’Neill novels, and Edith Skom’s literature lecturer Beth Austin books are academic whodunits, mysteries set on college or university campuses. New authors began featuring African American detectives (Walter Mosely, P. J. Parrish), Native American detectives (Thomas Perry, Aimée Thurlo), and gay or lesbian detectives (Lev Raphael, Katherine V. Forrest). Historical detective fiction, in which the action is set in the past, was a rarity until the 1970’s, when it became a major subgenre, as practiced not only by Ellis Peters but also by such authors as Peter Lovesey, whose Victorian mysteries feature Sergeant Cribb; Jacqueline Winspear, whose sleuth Maisie Dobbs was a nurse on the front lines in World War I; and Edward Marston (pseudonym of Keith Miles), who has authored both medieval and Elizabethan novels. Marston’s eleventh century Domesday Book series is developed around the device of William the Conqueror’s men traveling the countryside to review problems stemming from the ruler’s census and property survey. Spurred by sibling rivalry, the desire for material gain, and the determination to purge suppressed grievances, people murder and cause havoc in a society that remains insecure two decades after the upheavals of the Norman Conquest. By the time they leave an area, the king’s men have adjudicated land claims and have exorcised real and imagined evils. Another Marston series, set in England at the end of the sixteenth century, centers on a London theater group whose stage manager turns to detection when deaths occur offstage.
The several plots that Marston typically orchestrates in each of his medieval and Elizabethan mysteries exemplify such subjects as unrequited love, political and social ambition, sibling rivalry, the intrusion of the past upon the present, and questions of personal identity. They are very much like the subjects of most other detective novels, whatever their category or subgenre. In other words, however much detective fiction changes, it retains fundamentals of early and golden-age crime stories, which traditionally used murder as a dramatic means of focusing on a wide variety of human issues.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the publishing industry began to decline in the wake of economic downturns and the availability of online media. In 2006, retail sales of mystery fiction had accounted for about $400 million in the United States, behind only romance novels, science fiction and fantasy, and classic literary fiction. Partially in response to marketing demands, a new wave of “cozy” detective series appeared. Apparently aimed at middle-age women, these new series had hobbies and careers as their “hooks.” The detectives were women (often single mothers) who solved crimes while engaged in such activities as running coffeehouses, scrapbooking, blowing glass, repairing old houses, catering, selling candies or herbs, knitting, crocheting, or working in a library. Many of these books were short and less psychologically developed than the works of authors such as P. D. James and Patricia Cornwell—meant to be consumed quickly and in quantity, like the pulp fiction of the past. With the continued publication of books by authors including Elizabeth George, Michael Connelly, Michael Chabon, and Walter Dean Myers, however, the literary detective novel continued to thrive.
Espionage Novels and Novelists
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Source: Rollyson, Carl. Critical Survey Of Long Fiction. 4th ed. New Jersey: Salem Press, 2010.
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