etective fiction, though often considered an escapist genre, actually tells us a great
deal about the real world. The best detective fiction, in addition to requiring rigorous
plot and character development, provides readers with an opportunity to examine the
beliefs and mores of different communities and eras and to consider human need and
interaction and changing ideas of right and wrong. These readings, from over one hundred
years of British and American mystery writing, explore the relationship between the genre
and the differing social, political, and cultural climates that have served as its broader
Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887) introduced the widely
celebrated amateur detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the stolid friend and foil
with whom Holmes shares an apartment in Baker Street, London. A firm believer in the value
of careful observation and deduction in solving puzzling crimes, Holmes abstracts the
detective's task to an almost purely logical proposition, reflecting, perhaps, the values
of the Victorian society in which he lives. The brilliant, but eccentric Holmes became the
prototype for scores of detective geniuses and the Holmesian tale, a classic model for the
In The Maltese Falcon (1929) and other detective novels, Dashiell
Hammett established the prototype for the hard-boiled American private detective hero.
Like the characters of Hammett's contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Sam Spade and other
tough-guy Hammett heroes are laconic and self-defined men, frequently bruised but seldom
defeated by unpleasant, sometimes violent experiences. The author's colorful stylistic
blend of slang, wisecracks, and colloquial humor, captured memorably in Humphrey Bogart's film
noir interpretation of the character and the San Francisco scene, has become a
standard feature of the form.
The Nine Tailors (1934), a classic Golden-Age Mystery by British novelist
Dorothy L. Sayers, takes place in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul in the East Anglian
countryside. Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers's popular aristocratic sleuth, applies his
penetrating intelligence and insatiable curiosity to a crime ingeniously wound up in the
ancient art of change-ringing. The novel is widely considered one of the best of the
writer, whose detective fiction is admired for its well-researched backgrounds,
distinguished style, observant characterizations, and intricate plotting, as well as for
its amateur detective.
In Listening Woman (Tony Hillerman, 1978), the mysterious murders of a
terminally ill old man and a young girl on a desolate New Mexico mesa baffle the state
police and the FBI and leave the blind Navajo seer, Listening Woman, intoning cautionary
visions of ghosts and witches. Hillerman's experienced detective, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn
of the Navajo Tribal Police, however, marshals his uncanny powers of deduction and
knowledge of the ways of his people to solve the crimes. As in other Leaphorn novels,
Hillerman successfully evokes both the beautiful desolation of the American Southwest and
the pain of cultural clashes that can be as subtly colored as the landscape.
Heralded as "Britain's reigning queen of crime" by Newsweek magazine,
P.D. James sets her novel Devices and Desires (1986) against the backdrop of
contemporary nuclear power issues. Her detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, is on leave
visiting a remote area of the Norfolk coast shadowed ominously by the Larksoken Nuclear
Power Station. A psychopathic serial killer is on the loose, strangling one woman after
another, and, like the reader, Dalgliesh is drawn into a web of hatred and violence. This
subtle and powerful work of contemporary fiction, written almost a hundred years after
Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, presents a post-modern detective hero in a
cultural milieu far removed from the Victorian world of Sherlock Holmes.
James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues (1989) updates the hard-boiled
detective novel for the 1990s. His first-person narrative follows the sometimes tortured
path of ex-cop-turned-private-investigator Dave Robicheaux through the seamier sides of
life in the Louisiana bayou country and New Orleans. Combining toughness with
vulnerability, Robicheaux struggles against his own demons, as well as former police
buddies and a professional killer. Burke's gritty, yet poetic prose and acute sense of
both place and the menaces of modern life create a compelling picture of contemporary life
at its raw edge.
Suggested Further Readings
Nevada Barr, Track of the Cat
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Patricia Cornwell, Body Farm
Amanda Cross, Death in a Tenured Position
Aaron Elkins, Icy Clutches
Dick Francis, Bonecrack
P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Charlotte MacLeod, The Silver Ghost
Ngaio Marsh, Death in a White Tie
Sara Paretsky, Deadlock
Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders at Rue Morgue
Arthur Upfield, No Footprints in the Bush
General and Background Resources in Mystery and Detective Fiction
History of Mystery site
Information on the Edgar
Allan Poe Awards for mystery writing
Stop, You're Killing Me! A Site to Die for. .
. If You Love Mystery Books
Corpus Delicti of Mystery Fiction: A Guide to the Body of the Case, Linda
Herman and Beth Stiel, Metuchen, NJ, 1974.
Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction. Four volumes. Ed. Frank N.
Magill Pasadena, CA, 1988.
Detecting Women: A Reader's Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series Written by Women.
Willette L. Heising, Dearborn, MI, 1996. [also Detecting Women 2]
Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler. New
Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction, Stephen Knight, Indiana, 1980.
Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary. Ed. Kathleen Gregory Klein,
Westport, CT, 1994.
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition. 1996.
Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press, 1991.
Retired Discussion Series