Really, it all began with Sherlock Holmes. Although Poe’s 1841 stories can claim to include the first detective fiction in the English-speaking world, and Collins’ The Moonstone is widely regarded as opening up the floodgates with the first modern detective novel, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation gripped the popular imagination like never before. Managing to perfect what Poe had invented with Duplin, Holmes was a brilliant and eccentric detective; a man of action who battled master criminals. The reason Sherlock Holmes was the first successful detective is because he encapsulated morals that the readers of the time could relate to. He used science and the power of his mind to fight criminals, but Doyle made him eccentric and impatient in order to give him a human touch.
There was a great amount of rule-making laid out for crime writers, most notably by RA Knox in 1929 with the Decalogue – a set of “commandments”, one of which insists that the detective must a) not withhold clues from the reader, and b) must not himself be the killer. Although this hasn’t dated very well, it certainly informed much of crime fiction’s “golden age”.
In 1923, Dashiell Hammett introduced a ruthless investigator known as the Continental Op, whose role was to remain anonymous, fight off the baddies and keep an emotional distance. In The Maltese Falcon (1930) he created Sam Spade – the hard-boiled detective with his own code, a faithful secretary and one of the most famous femme fatales to date. The hard-boiled fiction was an instant success.
Between the wars, detective fiction was dominated by the so-called “Queens of Crime” – most famously, Agatha Christie and her creation of Hercule Poirot. Poirot was a fussy, vain Belgian sleuth with Captain Hastings as his Watson (this was another common trait: to have a trusted partner who was less intelligent, allowing the detective to explain, through dialogue to them, the solution to the readers). Most detective stories of the era ended with the criminal being handed over to the police; a few of Agatha Christie’s novels diverted from this set formula and were highly acclaimed as a result.
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) took the hard-boiled detective to new levels with Philip Marlowe. Marlowe operated in the real world, defining the hero as a man who was “neither tarnished nor afraid” – like a knight in shining armour. A number of contemporary detectives still behave as modern-day knights, and Marlowe is said to have changed the character of the detective forever – they were men who answered to no high power; not to God nor science. Writers at this time were keen to explore the “why?” as well as the “how?”; looking deep into the minds of the criminals.
One of the first professional women private detectives, Cordelia Gray, was created by PD James in 1972. While there had been plenty of female investigators dating back to the late 19th century, Gray took centre stage, as opposed to being a secretary or victim. She was every bit as hard-boiled as her male counterparts, and set the scene for more recent authors such as Patricia Cornwell and Val McDermid.
Modern crime fiction has drastically changed; not only have the crimes themselves evolved – crimes are often committed on a larger scale, not always by one person with a single motive – but the role of the detective has come on a long way, too. The detective can now be anything from an investigative journalist to a FBI agent. Those who committed the crime are usually a major part of the plot, and there are very blurred lines when it comes to the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ – often because the detectives are shown to be flawed, leading to complications within the story. For example, Lee Child’s modern-day detective Jack Reacher, a former US Army Military Police Major, is anything but a perfect character.
So where does the detective go from here? Crime fiction has never been more popular, and authors are looking for new ways to make their central character stand out from the pack.