Elements of Detective Fiction

by Kristy Littlehale

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Many students may already be familiar with the traditional format of detective fiction stories before they begin reading one. Popular TV shows make use of this format all the time, from the lead detectives with a strict moral code, to a brilliant solution that wraps up the case. Many enthusiasts of the genre trace its beginnings back to Edgar Allan Poe, and its true flourishing to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes series. The detective fiction genre is characterized by specific characters and themes, and follows a traditional format.

Detective Fiction’s Rise in Popularity

The popularity of the detective fiction genre came with industrialization: that is, when people began to move into large cities and came into contact with other people from all walks of life. Until this mass migration into large cities, crime wasn’t really a common part of people’s lives; however, as is the case with any large city, break-ins, robberies, muggings, and other crimes became commonplace. People were both fascinated and afraid of crime, which made it the perfect topic to exploit for entertainment purposes.

The detective genre mixed with the already-established Gothic genre, and this fusion created stories that focused on dark elements, evil motivations, and a preoccupation with an unexpected or brilliant solution.

Elements of Detective Fiction

What Characterizes a Detective?

Early detective protagonists were usually professional private detectives; in later stories, detectives came in all shapes and sizes: witnesses to a crime, ordinary people, insurance investigators, etc. Most detectives incorporate the following traits:

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The Detective’s Code

All detectives are expected to have a higher moral code to guide his or her behavior. It typically leads him or her to make choices in the name of doing “the right thing.” Some aspects of this code include:

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Common Detective Fiction Themes

Some common and revealed themes that are typical in most detective fiction stories include:

Plot Diagram for Devil in A Blue Dress
Create your own at Storyboard That EXPOSITION CONFLICT RISING ACTION CLIMAX FALLING ACTION RESOLUTION Easy Rawlins is looking for quick cash, and is approached by a white man named DeWitt Albright who hires him to find a white woman named Daphne Monet. Easy accepts the job because he's just been laid off from his job at Champion Aircraft. Daphne likes to hang out in jazz clubs, so Easy starts looking for her there. Easy's friend Joppy recommends Albright, but Easy doesn't like him. Easy doesn't trust Albright at all. He finds he reminds him of an old, murderous friend named Mouse, who brings fear into Easy's mind every time he thinks of him. Mouse is a cold-blodded killer, and Easy moved to Los Angeles to get away from him after Mouse killed his stepfather. Mouse sends Easy a letter that he is thinking about visiting. Easy runs into his co-worker Dupree and his girlfriend Coretta, Coretta seduces Easy and reveals the name of Daphne's boyfriend, Frank Green, a dangerous gangster. Coretta is murdered, and a creepy politician named Matthew Teran mildly threatens Easy. Daphne calls Easy later that evening. Easy drivers her to her friend Richard's house, where they find him dead. Daphne takes off. Easy calls Mouse's ex-wife and tells her to get in touch with him. Easy discovers that Mr. Carter, president of Lion Investments, hired Albright to find Daphne, who was his girlfriend. He also learns that she stole $30,000. He offers Easy $1,000 to find her, and Easy sets out to find Frank Green. Frank ambushes Easy, but Mouse saves him. Easy enlists Mouse in trying to find Daphne, and in finding Richard's murderer. The police pull Easy in again and fingerprint him, and they mention that Matthew Teran has been shot. Easy receives a call from Daphne to come meet her at a hotel. He takes her to his friend Primo's, where she seduces Easy. She then tells him that she had been dating Richard before she found out he dealt in child trafficking. Mr. Carter didn't want Teran to run for mayor after he found out Teran was a pedophile. Easy thinks he's falling in love with Daphne. He learns that his friend Joppy probably killed Howard Green and Coretta. Joppy and Albright show up at Primo's and knock Easy out. Easy follows them to Albright's house, where he and Mouse kill Joppy and Albright. Easy discovers that Daphne is Frank's half-sister and only half-white. He lets Daphne go after splitting the money and gets Carter to clear his name. A few months later, he is working as a private investigator, and feeling happy.


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Common Detective Fiction Characters

The Detective

  • Male or female
  • Loyalty to the Truth and to the client

Femme Fatale

  • Irresistibly attractive woman who leads men into danger
  • Detective’s love interest
  • Could be the cause of the crime, and so the detective must ultimately reject her


  • The person who comes to the detective for help
  • Lays out all the clues and explains who is involved

The Villain

  • A specific, individualized bad guy
  • A culpable class (i.e., mobsters)

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The detective fiction genre can be divided into two classes: the formal (British) and the Hard-boiled (American). Hard-boiled detective fiction is more appealing to Americans because it combines realism with humor. Hard-boiled detective fiction is characterized by unsentimental, gritty stories about violence, corruption, and sex. They are graphic and unapologetic. The hard-boiled detective story usually takes place in the city, and the detective finds himself at odds with society.

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