Genrely Speaking: The Detective Story

For the first time ever, an episode of Genrely Speaking ties back to a previous installment! No longer a handful scattered categories, the genres are beginning to link up and a picture forms. The game’s afoot!

Yes, the detective story is a branch of the mystery, and thus a close cousin of the police procedural. But at the same time, they’re very different kinds of stories, as well. The sleuth is a classic trope of modern literature, and has been in use pretty much since it was created by Edgar Allen Poe. In many ways, the sleuth was the first superhero, slicing through tricky problems with his superior intellect to set difficult situations to rest.

Indeed, the super sleuth has much in common with later superheroes. His abilities dwarf those of the people around him, and he is usually highly admired and in much demand. In fact, Batman is sometimes characterized as the world’s greatest detective, and it’s considered a part of his “powers”. Great detectives may not be as flashy as superheroes, but that’s one of the things that’s helped them find wider acceptance. It’s easier to read about a snappily dressed sleuth who solves real, understandable crimes and not be laughed at than it is to read about a man in spandex who fights dinosaurs (or something).

But the other thing that gives detective stories their respectability is the fact that they are, in many ways, a kind of puzzle to exercise your mind. While you don’t have to read them that way, just wading through them should sharpen you a little bit. In theory, at least.

The hallmarks of the detective story are a little something like this:

1. A central character who is absolutely, no holds barred, brilliant. This character is the detective, and these stories demand that he stand head and shoulders above the rest of the crime-solving crowd. All stories want something special about their main characters. Detective stories need a main character who is good at solving mysteries.

It doesn’t really matter if they’re good at anything else. In fact, Adrian Monk and the Sherlock Holmes from CBS’ Elementary both need significant help with some (or all) aspects of their life. But in the sole arena of crime, the detective must reign absolute. Whether it be Holmes’ merciless logic, Hercule Poirot’s deft use of psychology or Monk’s obsessive need for order, the detective can somehow pierce through every layer of deceit to find the person who committed a crime. And, perhaps just as importantly, they have to do pretty much all the work themselves.

It’s not that there can’t be supporting characters who help the detective. There can, and should, be such characters. But they serve more as foils for the detective’s brilliance, by not understanding how the sleuth arrives at his conclusions they show how ordinary people don’t make the same connections the detective does. Take Poirot’s Chief Inspector Japp. He’s a competent detective, has to be or he wouldn’t be Chief Inspector. He can do all the leg work for a case, knows all the typical causes for crime and deftly handles multiple cases at once. But when confronted with the really devious problems he can’t seem to match Poirot. Which nicely brings us to the next hallmark of the detective story.

2. Crimes that feature a level of complexity and planning that far surpasses the norm. The detective is brilliant, and so the problems he tackles have to be worthy of his attention. They must challenge his intellect and, at the same time, that of his reader. After all, if part of the purpose is to challenge the reader with the puzzle of the murder, it needs to test our brains. Of course, complex crimes are more interesting as well, to both the detective and the reader. While a drive-by shooting is no doubt a crime and definitely a tragedy, it’s rarely going to lead us on a long, twisting crawl through the lives of the victim and his associates or the mechanics of the killing that eventually culminates in a brilliant set of deductions that pins the crime on the least likely suspect. In short, detective stories need unusual crimes, and so unusual crimes they will have.

Note that, while the crime in mysteries is almost always murder, or leads to murder, there are a few instances, particularly in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories, where the crime was a theft or kidnapping of some sort.

3. The detective figures things out through the use of his brain, not legwork or chance. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that there’s no legwork needed, but the detective usually has a sidekick or plucky assistant to help with that. And there are elements of chance in the story, but they never help the detective – if anything, it’s the addition of some chance happenstance to the murder scenario that makes the situation so difficult to suss out.

The point of the story is that the sleuth is solving the crime through his superior crime-solving method. Chance is cheating and legwork is a way to fuel the deductions, not something to replace them. Of course, in real life oftentimes all you really need is to do enough legwork without breaking any rules that will hinder the DA from prosecuting, which is why most super sleuths are private detectives rather than actual policemen, and why the police procedural is a genre in it’s own right. This also let’s the reader “check his work” as he tries to solve the mystery on his own.

3a. The rule of fair play. Unlike the above, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but you find it much more often in detective stories than you do in pretty much any other kind of mystery. The rule of fair play simply states that all the facts the detective uses to solve the case have to be made known to the reader, to give them a shot at solving the mystery before the summation scene. Fair play mysteries are the ultimate embodiment of the detective story as a puzzle for the reader.

What is the greatest weakness of the detective story? There are two. First, the overly complex crimes can defy belief. After all, who’s going to kidnap someone, kill them, then demand a ransom while staging an alibi when they could just mess with the victim’s brake lines and be done with it? The second is that the highly cerebral nature of the crime solving can take a lot of time from other aspects of the story, cutting into character development and side plots. While that’s hardly fatal, both the heavy intellectual emphasis and the lack of time for other matters might loose some readers. This is why so many modern detective stories are hybrids, including elements of comedy, romance, suspense, ect.

What is the greatest strength of the detective story? Mysteries are incredibly addictive. The quirks detectives bring to the table make them very interesting and people never seem to get enough of them. Also, with so many moving parts there are countless possible combinations of method, motive, alibi, ect to make one mystery different from the next, so they franchise well. But perhaps most of all, the detective himself is quite enduring. The best, Holmes, Poirot, Ms. Marple, Monk, are well known and enduring. And really, what more could an author ask for?

While the detective story is a very demanding genre to work in, the rewards are quite high as well. It’s a genre that offers an enthusiastic, if sometimes critical readership and the promise of a lot of work to come. If you enjoy reading them, there’s sure to always be something for you.

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3 responses to “Genrely Speaking: The Detective Story

  1. My mom is a major mystery fan. Her greatest complaint is when she figures out the mystery or the ending long before the end. It’s a great writer who can lay out all the cards, but still keep the secret.

    • Agreed. Of course, Doyle and Christie didn’t have to contend with an audience who had read dozens of mysteries already, and came forewarned with a library of tropes to draw on. I think that might be a reason I’ve seen fewer fair play mysteries recently…

  2. Pingback: Hammering Out Your Plot: The Beat Outline | Nate Chen Publications

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