Detective Fiction. Murder Mysteries. To some extent the terms are interchangeable. Maybe at the time Raymond Chandler began writing there was a distinction (see “Defining Detective Fiction“), but today I think the boundaries are blurred.
The term “murder mystery” has acquired a bit of baggage. It sounds old fashioned and a bit soft, a bit cosy. It has connotations of , the murder mystery party, the light comedy detective shows that appear on the ABC at 7:30 on a Sunday, the old fashioned country house mystery.
“Murder mystery”. It makes you think of Midsomer Murders and Cluedo.
“Detective fiction” sounds grittier. It has gravitas. Do you agree? Please comment.
Or maybe gravitas isn’t always the right term.
At any rate, I tend to favour the term “detective fiction”. And sometimes I describe my novels as “murder mysteries” because it feels clearer and more specific.
As I have said elsewhere, I define detective fiction as follows:
That field of crime fiction where the mystery or puzzle element is dominant, where the primary line of the plot is based around a death and attempts to piece together what happened to cause that death.
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).
“Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle. First edition” by Rtrace via Wikimedia
“Ambiance Cluedo” by Thomassin Mickaël on Flickr
“Cover, Detective Book Magazine Volume 5, #10 (Winter 1948), Fiction House (defunct co.), pulp magazine, artist unknown” via Wikimedia
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.