The Lure of the Detective Novel: From Golden Age to Present

By Carole Reedy

ince detective fiction emerged in the 1800s with Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and the novel The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (which appeared in 1868 as serial installments in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round), a diverse range of readers has become enraptured by the genre, the British poet T.S. Eliot and Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov among them. Sherlock Holmes’ arrival in 1887 cemented the success of detective fiction, which continued into what’s referred to as The Golden Age through the present day.

It’s been suggested that the detective story was actually first written in 429 BC by Sophocles (Oedipus Rex), and then again in the tenth century tale The Three Apples, from the collection One Thousand and One Nights.

The Golden Age

During the 1920s and ’30s, the detective novel surged to popularity with writers from both sides of the Atlantic including Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen, along with the more daring and bleaker styles of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Readers anticipated and expected certain conventions in these novels. In fact, in 1929 Ronald Knox wrote the 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, and S.S.Van Dine doubled the number in his Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories. One thing was constant, though, and that was the idea that the reader must have as good a chance at solving the mystery as the detective.

Van Dine also writes: “The detective story
is a kind of intellectual game. It is more—it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws…unwritten, perhaps, but nonetheless binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.”

Variations on a theme

Modern detective stories and writers may or may not adhere to the rules of Van Dine or Knox, but countless readers and sales numbers prove the genre is alive and kicking. Today we see variations on the investigative angle, such as police novels, serial killer mysteries, legal thrillers or courtroom novels, and cozy mysteries (often more humorous or with a specific theme such as cooking). Here’s a look at some modern novelists we consider to be mystery writers.

Elizabeth George With her recent novel A Banquet of Consequences, George adds to her 16 previous works featuring the dashing Inspector Lynley and his sidekick the dubious Barbara Havers. Fans won’t be disappointed with their latest entanglements, both in mystery-solving and in the idiosyncrasies of their personal lives.

Henning Mankell A sharp pang of grief still lingers for Mankell fans in the wake of his recent death. Mankell has written dozens of books, but his Wallander series remains the most widely read. His humanitarian efforts in Mozambique, with the founding of a theater there, are evident in many of his other novels set in Africa.

Both George’s Lynley and Mankell’s Wallander novels have been serialized for TV, but for this reader no television script or presentation can compare to the authors’ words.

Jo Nesbo Mankell fans also are attracted to another Scandinavian writer of the genre, described by a Nesbo fan here… “A gritty Oslo? Not the first image that comes to mind when pondering Norway’s clean, bike- friendly capital, and yet it’s the setting for Jo Nesbo’s dark, psychological Harry Hole series. Harry’s name is less dichotomous. He’s a serious drinker, a loner, melancholic, and deeply flawed like the best detectives, but also smart and intuitive, even occasionally dangerous. Rich in history and local color, Nesbo’s thrillers are deeply engaging.”

James Patterson Take a look at the New York Times best-seller list. A Patterson book is always among the top ten. His police genre seems to attract readers of all types.

Alexander McCall Smith I’ve never met a
person who didn’t like the books that make
up the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
Each is a short, simple read taking place in
Gaborone, Botswana, with a cast of lovable
characters whose humble lives are filled with
personal traumas that cause the reader to
pause for a philosophical moment. The only
way I can describe these novels is “this is the
way life should be lived.” The small
adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the
”traditionally built” owner of the agency and
first female and private investigator in Botswana; her secretary and assistant Mma Grace Makutsi; and Mma Ramotswe’s mechanic husband make up a trio of unforgettable characters. Each adventure will put a smile on your face.

McCall Smith, a Scotsman and former professor of medical law, has written several other series, including 44 Scotland Street, The Sunday Philosophy Club, Corduroy Mansions, as well as a personal view of Scotland, A Work of Beauty, an intimate portrait of the country he loves.

Judging from the number of mystery writers on the shelves of the bookstores today, it does not appear that the genre is in decline, making its readers very content. There is nothing like curling up in bed with your favorite “who-done it.”