What Is a Detective Story?

Learn About Detective and Mystery Stories

A man dressed up as Sherlock Holmes standing under a building arch looking away
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The detective story is a genre of fiction in which a detective, either an amateur or a professional, solves a crime or a series of crimes. With few exceptions, the crime involves one or more murders (occasionally, detective stories may revolve around spectacular thefts or blackmail, but this is rare).

Because detective stories rely on logic, supernatural elements rarely come into play. The detective may be a private investigator, a policeman, an elderly widow or a young girl, but he or she generally has nothing material to gain from solving the crime.

Mystery stories, unlike police procedurals, thrillers, true crime stories, and other crime-related genres are typically focused not on the blood, gore, and horrific details of murder but, instead, on the puzzle of an unsolved murder. While contemporary mystery writers may dwell on graphic details or graphic sex, this is still somewhat rare. In fact, most "classic" mysteries fall into the category of "nice, clean" murders in which the victim is whacked on the head, poisoned, stabbed, or otherwise killed in a single blow with little or no suffering involved.

History of Detective Stories

The first "official" detective story was The Murders in the Rue Morgue, written in 1841 by Edgar Allen Poe. While Poe's was not the first story to include a mystery or a murder, it was the first to introduce the then-new character of the detective. It was also the first story to revolve entirely around the solution of a murder-related puzzle.

Poe's writings were short stories, but The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, was a full-length gothic novel which was, at the same time, a murder mystery.

The most famous of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, was invented by Arthur Conan Doyle for the Strand Magazine in 1887. It was Conan Doyle who developed the idea of the "consulting detective," who works independently from the police--along with a not-quite-bright companion whose involvement may provide comedy, drama, suspense or an opportunity to befuddle the reader with misinterpretations of clues and red herrings.

The "Golden Age of Mysteries" -- the 1920's and 1930's -- included authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh. These authors created gentlemen detectives and evocative settings -- manor houses, cruise ships, and archaeological digs, among others -- have continued to fascinate readers.

Types of Mystery Stories

There are several sub-genres of mystery stories. While there is no "official" set of rules for writing a particular type, these descriptions should be helpful:

  • The cozy is a gentle detective story set, almost always, in a small town or village. The detective is an amateur sleuth, usually a woman.
  • The hard-boiled detective story is an older genre which came to popularity during the 1930's with writers such as Dashiell Hammett who developed tough "private dicks" such as Sam Spade.
  • The "locked room" or "whodunnit" mystery is primarily a puzzle in which characterization takes second place to discovery and interpretation of clues...

For a complete list of the rules of the genre, see "Ten Rules for Writing Mysteries."