The Typology of Detective Fiction – Summary

In The Typology of Detective Fiction, Tzvetan Todorov deals with the way the genre of detective fiction works within the parameters of certain rules. Knowing a genre is often one of the best means to understand a piece of work, but often great works of literature surpasses the genre and achieves greater heights. This essay will make you understand the genre of detective fiction in a much more coherent way.


Todorov starts the essay by defining the contours of what it means to study a genre and how and why often study of genre is avoided by scholars and critics. It is found that when one knows a genre and its structure and rules, it may often not make us enjoy a piece of literary work in the same manner as one usually does. But at the same time, this is also true that when one reads few works of the same genre, one naturally comes to know a rough structure of that genre leading to a different kind of approach to understanding literature. For example, we have all read tragedies and know the basic rules of tragedy – that a tragedy should deal with the rise and fall of a character which usually is caused by the tragic flaw (hamartia) or the fate. Apart from these, Aristotle had given few more norms of tragedy such as it should have catharsis (purgation of the feelings of pity and fear); that the protagonist of a tragedy should be a noble character; that the plot of the novel should have three unities (time, place and action) and that it should be accompanied by music and rhetoric and that the comic and tragic elements should not be mixed with each other. Knowing these norms of tragedy often is helpful for us as students of literature to categorize a piece of work as a tragedy and often we also tend to say how a play has followed the norms or have broken them. For example, William Shakespeare in all his great tragedies have broken the Aristotelian norms and have created masterpieces.

This makes Todorov state that “the literary masterpiece does not enter any genre save perhaps its own.” What he means is that each literary masterpiece is a genre on its own; as it does not follow the norms of the genre, but moreover creates norms of its own which is difficult to imitate and create another one. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, is a play about revenge; but more than that it is Hamlet. A second Hamlet is not possible and when an indecisive character similar to Hamlet is being constructed in T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, he had to say “I am not Hamlet, nor I am meant to be” as a second Hamlet is not possible. So, in case of literary masterpieces, according to Todorov what is created is unique in such a manner that it does not fit a formula.

But when we come to Popular Fiction, we have already seen in the Unit on Christopher Pawling that it is formulaic in nature and Popular narratives usually tend to follow the norms and structure of the genre. Todorov goes to the extent of saying that “the masterpiece of popular literature is precisely the book which best fits its genre.” What he means is that in case of popular literature, a masterpiece is one which follows the norms of the genre closely and does not deviate much from its structure or pattern that is so typical of the genre.

A Detective Fiction usually has two stories –

  1. The story of the crime
  2. The story of detection

These two stories are merged to form the plot of a detective novel. As we progress with the story of the detection which usually a friend or an acquaintance of the detective usually narrates, we are gives clues (often false clues) about the criminal and thus the tussle/ tension/ suspense between the narrative and the reader continues. The essence of the suspense is whether the reader will be able to gauge the criminal before the detective tells who s/he is. Based on these parameters most Detective Fiction, Todorov proposes the following structure of a Detective Fiction –

  1. The novel must have at most one detective and one criminal, and at least one victim (a corpse)
  2. The culprit must not be a professional criminal, must not be the detective, must kill for personal reasons.
  3. Love has no place in detective fiction.
  4. The culprit must have a certain importance (a) in life: not be a butler or a chambermaid and (b) in the book: must be one of the main characters.
  5. Everything must be explained rationally; the fantastic is not admitted.
  6. There is no place for descriptions nor for psychological analyses.
  7. With regard to information about the story, the following homology must be observed: “author : reader : criminal : detective.”
  8. Banal situations and solutions must be avoided.”

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