A Short History of Detective Fiction

An introduction to the history of the detective story

Since this is a short history of the detective story, it will, inevitably, make some pretty glaring omissions. We’d love to hear from detective fiction aficionados in the comments section below, for any other interesting takes on mystery and detective tales.

The first detective story is a hard thing to call. ‘The Three Apples’ in Arabian Nights is sometimes given the honour, but whether this is a detective story even in the loosest sense is questionable, since the protagonist fails to make any effort to solve the crime and find the murderer of the woman. Many say the mantle should go to another tale with a title beginning ‘The Three …’, namely ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, a medieval Persian fairy tale set on Sri Lanka (Serendip being a Persian name for the island) – the princes are the ‘detectives’ and find the missing camel more by chance (or ‘serendipity’; this word was coined by Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, and has been in use ever since) than by their powers of reasoning.

The first modern detective story is often said to be Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) but in fact E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’ predates it by over twenty years. There is also a story titled ‘The Secret Cell’ from 1837, and written by Poe’s own publisher, William Evans Burton, which predates ‘Rue Morgue’ by a few years and is an early example of a detective story – in the tale, a policeman has to solve the mystery of a kidnapped girl.


The first detective novel is often held to be The Moonstone (1868) by Dickens’s friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins. However, The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-3) predates it by five years. It was published under a pseudonym; the real author has never been conclusively proved. Some argue that the first detective novel had appeared over a century before: Voltaire’s Zadig (1748) was an influence on Poe in the creation of C. Auguste Dupin. Others mention Dickens’s own novel, Bleak House (1853), as an important book in the formation of the modern detective novel, since it features Inspector Bucket, the policeman who must solve the murder of the lawyer, Tulkinghorn.

Sherlock Holmes is the most famous fictional detective ever created, and has to be one of the most famous fictional characters in the world, alongside Hamlet, Peter Pan, Oedipus (whose history may qualify as the first detective story in all of literature), Heathcliff, Dracula, Frankenstein, and others. Holmes was created, of course, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and is largely a mixture of Poe’s Dupin – several of Dupin’s ‘tricks’ even turn up in the Sherlock Holmes stories – and Dr Joseph Bell, a real-life doctor who taught Doyle at the University of Edinburgh when Doyle studied Medicine there. Nobody can decide whether Holmes’s creator should be known as ‘Conan Doyle’ or just ‘Doyle’, by the way. Is Conan a middle name, or part of a (non-hyphenated) double-barrelled surname? The jury’s out.

Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really make deductions: strictly speaking, his reasoning takes the form of induction, which is slightly different. In logic, deduction means drawing conclusions from general statements, whereas induction involves specific examples (the cigarette ash on the client’s clothes, the clay on their boots, etc.). Alternatively, some logicians have also suggested that Holmes’s reasoning is something called abduction, rather than either deduction or induction: abductive reasoning involves forming a hypothesis based on the evidence to hand, which is a rather neat summary of what Holmes does. Perhaps he is a master of abduction, rather than induction (and certainly not of deduction).

Following the success of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the rise in popularity of the ghost story and horror novel during the late nineteenth century, a new subgenre emerged: the ‘psychic detective’, who solved crimes of a (possibly) supernatural origin, often in a Sherlockian style. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr Hesselius is often cited as the first such character, although he doesn’t do much solving himself: most of the time he merely sits in a chair and listens. The most popular character to emerge out of this subgenre was the ‘psychic doctor’ John Silence, created by horror writer Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood’s John Silence: Physician Extraordinary (1908) was the first volume of fiction to be advertised on roadside billboards, and became a bestseller as a result.

In the twentieth century, Endeavour Morse (who was always a Chief Inspector, never plain old ‘Inspector Morse’, despite the title of the television series) was merely one in a long list of Oxford detectives. Some notable detectives who predate him are Lord Peter Wimsey, created by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Oxford professor Gervase Fen, created by ‘Edmund Crispin’, real name Bruce Montgomery, who was a contemporary of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis at Oxford during the early 1940s. Crispin has been called one of the last great exponents of the classic detective novel. Montgomery was a skilled painter and composer, too: among other achievements, he composed the musical scores for numerous Carry On films.

The most popular writer of detective fiction of all time is probably Agatha Christie – and there are so many fascinating Agatha Christie facts that we’ve dealt with her in a separate post. To learn more about classic detective stories, discover these 10 great rivals of Sherlock Holmes and the forgotten author of this comic crime novel from the genre’s golden age.

56 thoughts on “A Short History of Detective Fiction”

  1. Thank you for another stimulating piece. Room must surely be found for Raymond Chandler, whose hero Philip Marlowe is the antidote to Miss Marple, Peter Wimsey and the like, and whose essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ is an acute critique of the classic English detective story, which has always struck me as having much in common with the cryptic crossword puzzle.

      • “This guy was the ugliest guy I had ever seen: he had a face like a collapsed lung” – and of course “she was a blonde to make a bishop kill a hole in a stained glass window” (but he can be poignant and subtle too – when Marlowe is caught by Mr Lewin Lockridge Grayle kissing Mrs LLG (who is in fact Little Velma, Moose Malloy’s one true love,”as cute as lace pants” in Farewell my Lovely) Marlowe says ‘I felt as if I had picked a poor man’s pocket’ (better check those for accuracy – all off the top of my head, which is proof of his vividness)

    • It is fascinating to see the distinction between American and English detective fiction. Speaking in general terms, there are sure to be exceptions, I agree with jfmward in terms of the “puzzle” aspect of the traditional English form of the genre which continues in the medium of TV; Compare Lewis, Midsummer Murders, etc to the more gritty, violent and supposedly realistic form as represented by US drama. Fascinating to read of The Notting Hill Mystery, as I had not heard of it before. Poe was also influenced by Vidocq whose Memoires were published in 1827 (source: The Art of Mystery and Detective Stories by Peter Haining) who also mentions the Newgate Calendars or Annals running into the early 19th century as the first stirrings of public interest in reading about criminals and crime.

      Really enjoyed reading this post and particularly pleased that Algernon Blackwood gets a mention; a fine writer of psychological horror and mystery.

  2. And don’t forget the others in the trio that reigned – and maybe still reign- as the queens of mysteries: Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh join Dorothy Sayers. All write well and entertaining to boot.

  3. I was going to mention Josephine Tey as well, especially her very unusual detective novel about Richard III, ‘The Daughter of Time’, in which her modern day detective-hero researches the death of the princes in the tower – from his hospital bed. I found the conclusions very compelling!

      • Oh boy. I think if I were to condense him down to marrow, I’d say that he was basically the master of the impossible crime, so more howdunnit than whodunnit (though whodunnit is still an aspect).
        I guess it could be argued, but his most famous work is probably The Hollow Man (also published as The Three Coffins.)
        He also worked with Adrian Conan Doyle and published a new series of Sherlock Holmes stories.

        Those are probably the highlights. If you ever get a chance, you should really try him out. He was pretty prolific; I can’t think of his final count off the top of my head but it’s in the seventies I believe.

    • Well spotted! I thought Agatha Christie the most glaring omission, so I’ll need to go back and add something. Perhaps about her mysterious disappearance? And she’s certainly one of the greatest plot-devisers in all of detective fiction…

  4. You’ve added enormously to my reading list with this post! I’m a fan of Chandler, Hammett, Doyle (Conan Doyle?) as well as a lot of modern masters, but I don’t know much about the history of the genre. Thank you for this!

  5. Love this site–I’ve been enjoying reading so many of your informative posts. I agree with the previous poster about the omission of Agatha Christie–she’s a heavyweight in the genre. Thanks so much for following my blog! :)

  6. What a great introduction to this very broad genre! You’re courageous for taking on such a topic!

    I’ve been exploring one thin slice of mystery fiction that you touch on with your comments regarding “the ‘psychic detective’, who solved crimes of a (possibly) supernatural origin.” I’ve traced the history of this character type, starting with 1855 and, for now, stopping at 1925. Depending on how one defines the character, the crossing of detective and supernatural fiction is surprisingly more widespread than many may think.

    Should you or any of your visitors be interested, you’re very welcome to visit my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives at http://timprasil.wordpress.com/a-chronological-bibliography-of-early-occult-detectives/ . I also blog about my the fiction I find as I try to add to the list.

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  9. I really like your short history of the genre. I would like to add Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock since its author owes more that a little to Poe, Dickens, Collins, Doyle, Chesterton and Hammett.


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