The first definitive detective story was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murder in the Rue Morgue published in 1841. Poe was inspired by the memoirs of Francois-Eugene Vidocq, the founder of the first detective bureau. The genre gained prominence in the late 1800s with writers like Emile Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chesterton et al producing compelling mysteries. They gave us memorable characters like Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. The genre has evolved since then and has taken two very different directions- the British whodunnit and the hardboiled American thriller. The genre reached a peak in the early 1900s, with the 1920s and 1930s known as the Golden Age of detective fiction.
The golden age is believed to have started with Chesterton but did not gain momentum until the end of World War I. The era produced some of the most prominent contributors to the genre including the four queens of crime – Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and Dame Ngaio Marsh. The British whodunit is known for its pastoral settings, colourful characters and a detective who inspires awe with his eccentric personality that is in direct contrast to his rationality and accuracy of detection. Due to its growing popularity and prominence, The Detection Club was formed in 1930 by a group of English mystery writers that included Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, Margaret Cole, Dorothy Sayers, Ronald Knox among its members. The members met and held dinners where they discussed their writings and all swore to Knox’s Ten Commandments of detective fiction (or decalogue). The Decalogue was developed in 1929 by Richard Knox to ensure that the readers have the opportunity, throughout the story, to use the clues presented and try to solve it themselves.
This set formula has been a bone of contention for the genre’s detractors. The American thriller writer Raymond Chandler famously wrote that, “There is nothing new about these stories and nothing old . . . the classic detective story, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. The genre is also accused of celebrating the status quo and endorsing the notion that the criminal tendency is an individualistic trait independent of social conditions and experiences. Thus, most whodunnits start with a ripple in the status quo of (usually high) society due to a murder committed in a closed-off community-usually a picturesque little village or vacation town-untouched by the cares and issues of the real world. The amateur detective investigates the crime and everyone present at the time and place of the crime is a suspect until proven innocent. Tropes of the genre include red herrings and double bluffs that are masterfully incorporated into the plot to add to the mystery and confuse the readers until ‘the very end. Ultimately, the murderer is revealed and the status quo restored.
Despite its set formula, the detective fiction genre is highly popular and accommodates a wide range of readers; from school children to intellectuals. The whodunnits are favoured for the very reason they are critiqued. In fact, it is the diversity of plots despite the set formula that appeal to the readers. The clear beginning and the closure at the end, unlike most modern fiction, is part of its appeal. In these stories, order is restored by rooting out the cause of evil, unlike the ambiguities and complexities of real life. And most importantly, justice always prevails and the resounding moral of detective fiction is that crime never pays.