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.

Table of contents
1 Whodunnit?
2 Police Procedural
3 Other subgenres
4 Suspense - the core tenet of Detective fiction
5 Famous fictional detectives
6 Books


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' protégé, Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), is credited with the 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 described 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
  • Interesting and unusual cars driven by the principal detective

Other subgenres

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

Suspense - the core tenet of Detective fiction

A beginner to detective fiction, would generally be advised against reading anything about a piece of detective fiction (such as a blurb or an Introduction) before reading the text itself. Even if they do not mean to, advertisers, reviewers, scholars and aficionados usually have a habit of giving away details or parts of the plot, and sometimes -- for example in the case of Mickey Spillane's novel I, the Jury -- even the solution. (After the credits of Billy Wilder's film Witness for the Prosecution, the cinemagoers are asked not to talk to anyone about the plot so that future viewers will also be able to fully enjoy the unravelling of the mystery.)

The unresolved problem of plausibility and coincidence

Up to the present, some of the problems inherent in crime fiction have remained unsolved (and possibly also insoluble). Some of them can be dismissed with a shrug: Why bother at all, even if it is obvious to everyone that an ordinary person is not likely to keep stumbling across corpses? After all, this is just part of the game of crime fiction. Still the fact that an old spinster like Miss Marple meets with an estimated two bodies per year does raise a few doubts as to the plausibility of the Miss Marple mysteries. De Andrea has described the quiet little village of St Mary Mead as having "put on a pageant of human depravity rivaled only by that of Sodom and Gomorrah". Similarly, TV heroine Jessica Fletcher is confronted with bodies wherever she goes, but over the years people who have met violent deaths have also piled up in the streets of Cabot Cove, Maine, the cosy little village where she lives. Generally, therefore, it is much more convincing if a policeman, private eye, forensic expert or similar professional is made the hero or heroine of a series of crime novels. On the other hand, who cares for authenticity?

Also, the role and legitimacy of coincidence has frequently been the topic of heated arguments ever since Knox categorically stated that "no accident must ever help the detective" (Commandment No.6). Yet time and again authors resort to that deus ex machina-sort of device. Is it just because they have to meet their publisher's deadline and cannot think of any other ending to their latest novel? Or is it because they are mediocre writers in the first place? Or is one coincidence per novel acceptable now? A special case of illogical plotting seems to be the murderers' reluctance to kill off the hero or heroine of the story: Even serial killers, who normally do not hesitate for a second to kill an innocent bystander if they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, show a lot of scruples when it comes to ridding themselves of their most dangerous -- and ultimate -- enemy, even if he or she is already in their power. Instead of killing him or her right on the spot -- in the manner in which they bumped off all their previous victims -- , they keep putting off the execution until it is too late and they are outsmarted by their rival. In many cases, instead of just pulling the trigger, they embark on a lengthy discussion of their criminal record, detailing all their crimes -- no doubt mainly for the reader's benefit, but shouldn't a good author be able to think of other narrative devices that help the reader catch up on what they have missed so far?

Finally, it must be said that technological progress has rendered many of the plots implausible and antiquated. For example, the use of mobile phones by practically everyone these days, including the hoi polloi, has significantly altered the dangerous situations investigators have found themselves in lately. A snowbound mansion somewhere in the country, with a murderer at large? A deserted street in a slum area in the middle of the night, with dark figures looming in the distance? So what?! Get out your mobile and phone for help, for Christ's sake! Some authors have not really succeeded in adapting to the changes brought about by modern technology; others, among them Carl Hiaasen (born 1953), have. In Sick Puppy (1999), one of the characters is stuck on a desert island because, after his tongue has been shot off, a bulldozer has been parked on his legs. He desperately tries to phone for help using his mobile, and the following scene unfolds:

CALLER: Hep meh! Peezh!
DISPATCHER: Do you have an emergency?
CALLER: Yeah, I gah a emoozhezhee! I gah a fugghy boo-gozer oh meh azzhhh!
DISPATCHER: 'Boo-gozer'? Sir, I'm sorry, but you'll have to speak more clearly. This is Levy County Fire Rescue, do you have an emergency to report?
CALLER: Yeah! Hep! Mah baggh is boge! Ah bing zzhaa eng mah fay! I ngee hep!
DISPATCHER: Sir, do you speak English?
CALLER: Eh izzh Engizh! Mah ung gaw zzha off! Whif ah gung!
DISPATCHER: Hang on, Mr. Boogozer, I'm transferring you to someone who can take the information. ...
CALLER: Ngooohh! Hep! Peezh!
DISPATCHER TWO: Diga. ¿Dónde estás?
CALLER: Aaaaaagghh!!!
DISPATCHER TWO: ¿Tienes un emergencia?
CALLER: Oh fugghh. I gaw die.
DISPATCHER TWO: Señor, por favor, no entiendo nada que estás diciendo.
CALLER: Hep! ... Hep!

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 (Marple);
  • the private investigator (Holmes, 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:
Father Brown - G. K. Chesterton
Albert Campion - Margery Allingham
Kate Fansler - Amanda Cross
Kinky Friedman - Kinky Friedman
Donald Lam - Erle Stanley Gardner
Miss Marple - Agatha Christie
Simon Templar aka "The Saint" - Leslie Charteris
Paul Temple - Francis Durbridge
Philip Trent - E.C. Bentley
Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen - Jacques Futrelle
Lord Peter Wimsey - Dorothy L. Sayers
Nero Wolfe - Rex Stout

Private eyes:
Mike Hammer - Mickey Spillane
Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Philip Marlowe - Raymond Chandler
Laura Principal - Michelle Spring
Ellery Queen
Sam Spade - Dashiell Hammett
The Continental Op (he never reveals his name, but he's an operative for the Continental Detective Agency) - 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
The Amsterdam Cops (note - later became private eyes) - Janwillem van de Wetering

Medical examiners, etc.:
Dr. Temperance Brennan - Kathy Reichs
Dr. Kay Scarpetta - Patricia Cornwell
'Fitz' - Cracker - Jimmy McGovern
Dr Jane Halifax -
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 The Secret Seven - Enid Blyton
The Three Investigators - Robert Arthur

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:


  • Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel - A History by Julian Symons ISBN 0571094651