Defining Detective Fiction

This is a blog about detective fiction and, of course, I’m aware that anyone who has found this page probably already has a fair idea of what detective fiction is.

But, in the interests of thoroughness, maybe one of the first things to do would be to define it.

Detective fiction has been around for some time.

Some of the earliest examples are:

The short stories “The Murders on the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844) by Edgar Allen Poe.

Illustration for “The Purloined Letter”

The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins.

The Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, beginning with “A Study in Scarlet” (1887).


The Father Brown stories by G. K. Chesterton beginning with “The Blue Cross” (1910). 

The works of Agatha Christie (1920s to 1970s), Dorothy Sayers (1920s and 1930s) and John Dickson Carr (1930s to 1970s).


A Highly Codified Form

The detective novel has developed into a highly codified form of literature with a widely recognised series of conventions regarding plot structure and narrative devices. Many attempts have been made to define it. Simply put, in a detective novel …

“A murder occurs, many are suspected, all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated, the murderer is arrested or dies.” W H Auden, 1948.



In 1944, in his canonical essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, Raymond Chandler first proposed a distinction between the traditional or classic murder mystery novel and his own realistic hard-boiled school. Since Chandler appeared, the term ‘detective fiction’ has tended to apply more to this school. But the distinctions have always been subtle, and these days the whole field has diversified to an extent where they are not particularly useful.

New categories have formed, such as the police procedural, the feminist detective novel, and the post-modern mystery, and between all the classes boundaries are blurred. Often the terms operate less as categories than as descriptive tools, indicating overlapping structural or thematic emphases. The core remains. Most detective fiction has, at its centre, a death and a mystery.

I tend to use the terms ‘murder mysteries’ and ‘detective fiction’ interchangeably. The crucial elements are a focus on a murder and a ‘whodunit’ question.



The conventions of murder mysteries (detective fiction) are well known by authors and readers. Mystery writers can work within these conventions or in opposition to them, but we are always aware of them.

P D James (2009) says a detective story must contain:

   “a central mysterious crime which is usually murder, a closed circle of suspects, each with motive motive means and opportunity for the crime; a detective … who comes in rather like an avenging deity to solve it.”

P.D. James (p9).

It is expected that a detective novel has a well-crafted and fast-moving plot, an engaging detective and a clearly depicted landscape that suits and aids the narrative.

There are also rules of fair play.

This was stressed by none other than major modernist poet, T. S. Eliot (see article by Grimstad).

NPG Ax142996; T.S. Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Eliot believed that, for a detective story to be fair, “the character and motives of the criminal should be normal”, and that solutions to mysteries should not involve “elaborate and incredible disguises”, “occult phenomena”, “discoveries made by lonely scientists,” or “elaborate and bizarre machinery”.

The reader must be provided with clues necessary for solving the mystery, and these clues should be rendered inconspicuous in some way, so that they achieve significance mostly in retrospect. P D James specified that a detective story must have …

 “a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”

P. D. James (2009, p9)

The mystery element

Detective novels are based in plot and ratiocination, puzzle solving, and this is a quality that is in some way definitive. In them violence occurs, either on or off-stage, relationships are untangled, histories are pieced together, detectives are given or uncover concrete pieces of information. But, above all, there is a mystery.

My novel, The Slipping Place, is a carefully structured murder mystery, set in and around Hobart and on Mount Wellington.

mt-wellington-mist-dolerite luke obrien
Mist over the rocky pinnacle of Mt Wellington by Luke O’Brien


“Photograph of T. S. Eliot” by Ottoline Morell, National Portrait GalleryNPG Ax142996

“Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder”  Fair use,

‘Illustration to “The Purloined Letter” by E. A. Poe.’ by Frédéric Théodore Lix (Fashion magazine), 1864, №23 (December), Public Domain,

“Sherlock Holmes” by Sidney Paget – The Strand Magazine, Public Domain,

“A Study in Scarlet” by David Henry Friston – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

“Mount Wellington Pinnacle Road”

References and Further Reading

Auden, W. H. (1948) “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict”, Harpers Magazine online,

Chandler, Raymond (1944) “The Simple Art of Murder”, Dec 1944.

Cohen, Michael 2000, Murder most fair: the appeal of mystery fiction, Madison, N.J., Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, London, Cranbury, N.J., Associated University Presses.

Cole, Cathy 2004, Private dicks and feisty chicks: an interrogation of crime fiction, Fremantle, Curtin University Books.

Ephron, Hallie 2008, ‘The deadly dozen mistakes in mystery writing’, The Writer, Boston, vol. 121, no. 10, pp. 26-30.

Freeman, R. A. (1924), “The Art of the Detective Story”

Grimstad, Paul (2016) “What Makes Great Detective Fiction, According to T. S. Eliot”, The New Yorker.

Horsley, Lee 2005, Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press.

James, Phyllis. D. (2009), Talking about detective fiction, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

Krystal, Arthur (2001), “The Usual Suspect” in Harper’s Magazine.

Knight, Stephen 2004, Crime Fiction 1800 – 2000: Detection, Death , Diversity, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Most, G.W. and Stowe, W.W. (eds) The poetics of murder: detective fiction and literary theory, San Diego, CA, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,

Rzepka, Charles J. (2005), Detective fiction, Cambridge, Polity.

Rzepka Charles J. and Lee H. (eds) (2010), Companion to Crime Fiction, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.



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