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date: 15 July 2024

British Detective Fiction in the 19th and Early 20th Centurieslocked

British Detective Fiction in the 19th and Early 20th Centurieslocked

  • Anne HumpherysAnne HumpherysLehman College, City University of New York

Summary

From ancient Greece on, fictional narratives have entailed deciphering mystery. Sophocles’ Oedipus must solve the mystery of the plague decimating Thebes; the play is a dramatization of how he ultimately “detects” the culprit responsible for the plague, who turns out to be Oedipus himself. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines a successful plot as one that has a conflict (which can include, and often does include, a “mystery”) that rises to a climax, followed by a resolution of the conflict, a plot line that describes not only Oedipus Rex but also every Sherlock Holmes story.

A particular genre of mystery writing is defined by the mystery at the center of the story that is crucially, definitively solved by a particular person known as a detective, either private or police, who by ratiocination (close observation coupled with logical patterns of thought based on material evidence) uncovers and sorts out the relevant facts essential to a determination of who did the crime and how and why. The form of detective fiction throughout most of the 19th century was the short story published in various periodicals of the period. A few longer detective fictions were published as separate books in the 19th century, but book-length detective fiction, such as that by Agatha Christie, was really a product of the 20th century.

Most critics of detective fiction see the beginning of the genre in the three stories of Edgar Allan Poe which feature his amateur detective, Auguste Dupin, and were published in the 1840s. Although Poe’s 1840s stories as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which first appeared in the 1880s, are probably the most well known of 19th-century detective fictions, a number of other writers of generically recognizable detective fiction published stories in the almost fifty years between Poe and Conan Doyle, including a number that featured female detectives. Finally, from the 1890s into the early 20th century, a plethora of new detective fictions, still in short-story form for the most part, appeared not only in Britain but also in France and the United States.

Detective fiction has always been popular, but serious critical interest in the genre only developed in the 20th century. In the second half of that century, this critical interest expanded into the academic world. The popularity of the genre has only continued to grow. Both detective fictions (now nearly all novel length) and critical interest in the genre from a variety of perspectives are now an international phenomenon, and detective novels dominate many best-seller lists.

Subjects

  • British and Irish Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 19th Century (1800-1900)

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