Thursday, October 26, 2023


(Down & Out Books, October 2023) is a collection of short crime fiction and writings about writing. Since many of the short stories and the novella collected in the anthology feature detectives, it seemed appropriate to include an essay addressing the origins of detective fiction. Here is that essay.

In the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the protagonist discovers the truth about his origins after questioning various witnesses. John Scaggs suggests in Crime Fiction: The New Critical Idiom (2005) that although Oedipus's enquiry is based on supernatural, pre-rational methods that are evident in most narratives of crime up until the development of Enlightenment thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this narrative has all of the central characteristics and formal elements of the detective story—including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past.

According to Mia Gerhardi, the One Thousand and One Nights contains several of the earliest detective stories—anticipating modern detective fiction. The oldest known example of a detective story was The Three Apples, one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade. In this story, a fisherman discovers a heavy, locked chest which he sells to the Caliph.  In the chest is found the body of a young woman who has been cut into pieces. The Caliph orders his minister to solve the crime and find the murderer.

Gong'an fiction is the earliest known genre of Chinese detective fiction. Some of the well-known stories include the Yuan Dynasty story Circle of Chalk, the Ming Dynasty story collection Bao Gong An and the 18th century Di Gong An collection. The hero/detective of these novels was typically a traditional judge or similar official.

One of the earliest examples of detective fiction in Western Literature is Voltaire's Zadig (1748), which features a main character who performs feats of analysis. The Danish detective story The Rector of Veilbye by Steen Steensen Blicher was written in 1829 and the Norwegian detective crime novel Mordet paa Maskinbygger Roolfsen by Maurits Hansen was published in December 1839.

Detective fiction in the English-speaking world is considered to have begun in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring the eccentric and brilliant C. Auguste Dupin.

Émile Gaboriau was a pioneer of the detective fiction genre in France. In Monsieur Lecoq (1868) the title character is adept at disguise, which is a key characteristic of detectives. 

Another early example of a whodunit is a subplot in the novel Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens. A Dickens’ contemporary, Wilkie Collins— sometimes referred to as the grandfather of English detective fiction—is credited with the first great mystery novel, The Woman in White, while T. S. Eliot called Collins's novel The Moonstone (1868) the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels. 

In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most famous of all fictional detectives. Although Holmes is not the original fiction detective (Conan Doyle was certainly influenced by Poe's Dupin and Gaboriau's Lecoq), Holmes’ name has become a byword for the role. 

Martin Hewitt, created by British author Arthur Morrison in 1894, is one of the first examples of the modern style of fictional private detective. This character—described as an Everyman detective—challenges the Detective-as-Superman that Holmes represented. 

The period between World War I and World War II (the 1920s and 1930s) is generally referred to as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During this period, a number of very popular writers emerged, including British and a notable subset of American and New Zealand writers—perhaps most notably Agatha Christie. 

In the 1930s, the private eye genre was adopted wholeheartedly by American writers. One of the primary contributors to this style was Dashiell Hammett with his famous private investigator, Sam Spade. His style of crime fiction came to be known as hardboiled, which is described as a genre that usually deals with criminal activity in a modern urban environment—a world of disconnected signs and anonymous strangers. Told in stark and sometimes elegant language through the unemotional eyes of new hero-detectives, these stories were a uniquely American phenomenon. In the late 1930s, Raymond Chandler updated the form with his private detective Philip Marlowe, who brought a more intimate voice to the detective than the more distanced operative's report style of Hammett's Continental Op stories.  And by the late forties into the fifties hardboiled was redefined and made harder by private detectives in the mold of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

Along came Lew Archer, Travis McGee, C.W. Sughrue, Spenser, Matthew Scudder, Amos Walker, Kinsey Millhone, Elvis Cole, Dave Robicheaux, Easy Rawlins, Nick Stefanos, Moe Prager, Alex McKnight, Duncan Sloan, Jake Diamond—and here we are.


J. L. Abramo is the Shamus Award-winning author of ten novels—including the Jake Diamond mystery series, 61stPrecinct Brooklyn police procedurals, and the crime epic American Historyand the true crime work, Homeland Insecurity 

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