Elements of Detective Fiction

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.

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:

  • Can be compared to mythological heroes (e.g., Odysseus) because they face challenges, temptations, danger, and usually have loyalty to a higher power (usually Truth)
  • Known as “private eyes” which refers to their ability to be “all-seeing”
  • Usually well-educated and sophisticated, sometimes wealthy, too
  • Have physical strength and prowess
  • Tend to have a quick wit and/or sarcasm, and have superior abilities to the average citizen in things like card playing, shooting, car racing, etc.
  • Often defeat their opponents with language rather than simple brute strength
  • Usually asked to restore something: an object, a person, or peace of mind

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:

  • Closed-mouthed and anonymous; secretive and avoids publicity or fame
  • Loyalty to partner and profession
  • Dedication to the client
  • Economical with the client’s money
  • Cooperates to some degree with the police, but his or her investigation supersedes the law (dedication to the client comes first)
  • Avoids being tricked by examining all possibilities

Common Themes in Detective Fiction

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

  • A search for an apparently valuable, but really worthless item
  • Apparent crime that is revealed to be a repetition of an earlier crime
  • A wealthy family with a problem or a secret
  • The cleaning up of a corrupt town or system
  • The antagonist who is the double of the detective

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)

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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