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Building a Case for the Detective Story

Reader engrossed in a detective story
image credit: iStock/francescoch

Over the many years since the receipt of my Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Michigan, I have probably spent more rewarding hours reading detective stories than any other form of fiction. Such reliance on a particular genre is often viewed as a marked deficiency in taste and erudition, so I’d like to take a few minutes to defend my predilection.

Let me start with an observation from Raymond Chandler, one of the recognized masters of the form.

Few Are Called to Greatness

As Chandler noted, in The Simple Art of Murder:

Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that it [the detective story] is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

In other words, most detective stories are rubbish, and it is no part of my intent to defend them today.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me describe for you the ten elements that I look for in a good mystery.

1. Moral Distinctions

One of the things I appreciate about the form is that a good mystery has things to say about the differences between right and wrong, between good and evil.

In older, more traditional mysteries, these moral distinctions often come easily: it is the murderer who is wrong, and everyone else who is right.

In more modern stories, however, especially those following WW I, these distinctions are often more shaded. Many characters have mixed motives, and we can even discern varied standards of ethics among the casts of petty crooks and grifters that populate the American noir stories of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Mystery authors by this point are depicting many of their characters as victims of an uncaring and unequal society, rather than simply focusing on the errant behavior of a single criminal and the unusual deaths of a few individuals.

Unlike much modern fiction, however – which simply tells us that everyone has secrets, and we are all flawed and guilty, and all morality is relative – the mystery form requires the resolution of the ethical dilemmas being exposed. We are required, along with the detective and his or her companions and assistants, to make hard choices. People will go free or be found guilty.

In other words, a good detective story requires us to exercise our ethical muscles.

And this is something we can all use in these troubled and troubling times.

2. A True Hero

All fictional detectives have flaws of one sort or another. None of them are perfect.

And yet a good mystery is required to present us with a genuine hero, someone who is a positive role model of sorts. Our hero will confront challenges, and rise above them. And the way he or she does this – the qualities they display, the means they use – will tell us what the author thinks is important about how we live our own lives in the world we find around us.

To cite Chandler again:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Here Chandler makes explicit the attributes of the hero he depicts in his novel. But now let’s look at the opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep to see how these traits are portrayed in a work of fiction:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to really be trying.

So here we are introduced to a detective who sits at the juncture of different worlds – rich and poor, cultured and crude, romantic and realistic – and whose view of all these things is observant, independent and imaginative. He has a sense of humor about himself and about those around him. We are invited to consider him in heroic terms through the comparison to a knight of old, but at the same time Chandler makes clear that he is a modern hero, updated for the time and place in which he lives. If this all sounds of interest, the opening seems to say, then come on in and find out more. A better introduction to a fascinating detective is hard to imagine.

Different authors will have different sorts of heroes, and this is part of the fun. Some you will like more than others, but all of them should have something to teach us.

If they don’t, then they probably need to be thrown back onto the great rubbish heap.

3. Lives Worth Living

Almost all mysteries feature murder as their primary criminal act, and with good reason: the taking of an innocent human life is the ultimate evil, the standard by which all others are judged. And so all detective stories will draw a picture of evil for us.

The best ones, though, also give us a means to measure the depth of the loss that happens when a life is taken, by contrasting the ravages of death with the joys of human life well lived. And it is this juxtaposition – the depiction of the joys of life alongside the evil of murder – that makes us as readers care deeply about what happens over the course of the story, and makes us feel keenly whatever losses may befall or threaten our characters.

Again, different authors will have different ideas of what that good life looks like, and experiencing and unwrapping all of this is part of the pleasure that comes with reading a good detective story. For Louise Penny, the good life can be found in the quiet rural Canadian community of Three Pines. Chandler, on the other hand, had somewhat different views:

The other part of me wanted to get out and stay out. But this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in the hardware store and married the boss’s daughter and had five kids and read them the funny paper on Sunday morning and smacked their heads when they got out of line and squabbled with the wife about how much spending money they were to get and what programs they could have on the radio or TV set. I might even have got rich – small-town rich, an eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend. I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.

Of course, the small village of Three Pines is home to a gay couple running the local bistro, a retired black psychologist running the bookstore, a famous Canadian poet who goes nowhere without her duck, and a pair of painters both of whom are nationally recognized at different points in Penny’s cycle of stories, so Marlowe might have actually enjoyed spending some time there if he had ever felt like taking a vacation from his native Los Angeles.

What’s your ideal vision of the good life? After reading a great detective story, it should hopefully have been altered and enhanced.

4. A Sense of Human Agency

In many stories, the characters are overtaken by events. Or their fate is determined by their character flaws. And this is certainly true in most detective stories as well – the victim is typically overtaken by events, and the criminal typically laid low in the end by character flaws.

But then, as E.M. Forster noted:

Failure or success seem to have been allotted to men by their stars. But they retain the power of wriggling, of fighting with their star or against it, and in the whole universe the only really interesting movement is this wriggle.

The detective story focuses our attention on this wriggling. The detective is, quintessentially, a wriggler: someone who is not content to simply accept the events that happen to them and others around them, but someone who fights against them, who takes action to change the course of the story, to uncover the criminal, to prevent further criminal acts.

And in this world of ours today, we need a hell of a lot more wriggling.

5. Distinguishing between Appearance and Reality

If all of reality were available to us through surface appearances, then there would be no role for detectives, and there would be no mysteries to unravel. But the premise of every detective story is that the way things appear is quite different from the way things actually are and, as the story unfolds, one illusion after another typically falls away, revealing the underlying reality.

Stories of detection also typically reveal the actions of characters under pressure – often both perpetrators and the detectives themselves – with the strong presumption that what people do under pressure reveals some truer character than that revealed in more ordinary circumstances.

6. A Beacon of Rationality

Many detective stories, especially the earlier ones, are a great deal about the triumph of reason over superstition. Consider, for example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, or many of the novels by John Dickson Carr.

Almost all mysteries, though, teach us the important elements of critical thinking:

  • careful observation;
  • a disinclination to accept apparently easy and obvious truths at face value;
  • reasoned analysis;
  • the value of independent thought;
  • the superiority of proof over mere suspicion.

In this way a good detective story will demonstrate for us the advantages of achieving the modern level of development, including application of the scientific method.

7. Narrative Abundance

Almost every good mystery will have to tell us, not just one, but several good stories.

a) The story of the murder, which is gradually discovered over the course of the novel, and finally revealed at the work’s end.

b) The story of discovery, showing us how the crime (often in the form of a lifeless body) was originally found.

c) The story of detection, involving the work of one or more investigators, professional or amateur, in uncovering the nature of the crime.

d) The story interrupted – that is, the story of the murder victim(s). Such a story adds meaning to the loss of the victim.

e) The story threatened. The occurrence of one murder often creates an explicit or implicit threat to others in a shared community, and their stories again add meaning to the work of the detective in defending that community.

f) The ornamental story: various other tales embedded in the narration in order to help conceal the story of the murder.

The weaving together of all these tales into a cohesive whole is not easy, but proves rewarding and entertaining when done well.

8. A Great Deal of Fun

A mystery author is much like a magician: in order to work her magic in plain sight of her audience, she has to devise a whole series of entertaining distractions.

The best mystery authors beguile us with unique characters and actions that prove entertaining on their own.

Take, for example, Edmund Crispin’s English professor turned detective Gervase Fen, paired with the character of Sir Richard Freeman, Chief Constable of Oxford, who wants nothing more than to discuss English literature whenever he meets Fen over the course of an investigation.

Or consider the genuinely spooky atmosphere often created by John Dickson Carr when setting the stage for his carefully calculated acts of mayhem.

Within the context of a mystery, such elements serve the dual ends of distracting us from prematurely fitting together the key pieces of the puzzle, while providing us with extravagant entertainment along the way.

As Chandler noted, we want a world that is a safe place to live in, “and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

In a good mystery, life is never dull.

9. A Sense of Humor

Occasional humor provides a nice contrast with the inevitably dark presentation of evil deeds, and helps to round out the author’s notion of a life well lived. An entirely humorless novel about murder would be a grim affair indeed.

10. Great Writing

We all have different standards by which we judge such a thing, but my favorite mysteries all share a careful attention to language used in novel ways to make us see our normal surroundings in a new and different light.

Take, as an example, just the first sentence of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, already quoted above.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

The bare facts contained in this sentence could have easily been communicated in a far more conventional manner. But look at the pains Chandler takes to draw us away from mere facts and instead convey mood and character and a sense of place. Note that he doesn’t give us an exact time or date. Instead it’s “about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October….” He doesn’t tell us it is cloudy, but instead says “with the sun not shining….” And then he finishes with this marvelous image of “…a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.” Somehow, while describing the detective’s physical environment, Chandler has also managed to paint a picture for us. I could take another couple of hundred words to try to unpack what he’s doing here, but that would probably just ruin the effect. Suffice it to say that this is something different than what you’ll hear in the morning weather report, no matter what station you’re listening to.

Different authors have different styles, but for me it is important to have some sense of style, and a sure command of the language used to convey something more than a rote description of everyday events.

11. A Playful Sense of Adventure

Finally, a good mystery offers the thrill of the chase, the adventure of encountering the new and the unknown, a rapid succession of momentous events, and the threat of danger. As readers we are often aware of a strong sense of play exhibited by the author in the contrivance of these portions of the narrative, and yet we are still swept up in the action, happily granting the author a willing suspension of disbelief.

These oft-quoted paragraphs from Arthur Conan Doyle give a good sense of what I mean here.

“Come, Watson, come!“ he cried. ”The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!"

Ten minutes later we were both in a cab and rattling through the silent streets on our way to Charing Cross Station.

A Few Examples

Here are some of my preferred mystery authors, listed alphabetically, along with one or two of my favorite works by each. I believe each of them lives up to the standards I’ve set above.

Margery Allingham Recently named by no less a personage than J.K. Rowling as her favorite mystery author, Allingham penned a series of eighteen novels featuring gentleman sleuth Albert Campion. Many of her books are quite different from one another, and Campion matures and even marries over the course of her works, so it’s hard to pick out an obvious favorite. But Mystery Mile is a good place to start.

John Dickson Carr is often referred to as the acknowledged master of the locked room mystery, in which the victim dies alone inside of a sealed room, making the mysteries of means and opportunity paramount. Carr’s best detective was Gideon Fell, whose form and character were allegedly based on those of G.K. Chesterton. There are many novels to choose from, but The Man Who Could Not Shudder might be a good starting point.

Raymond ChandlerThe Big Sleep is hard to beat but Chandler’s last, and longest, Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye, is also one of my favorites.

Edmund Crispin – Gervase Fen is an Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature, as well as an amateur sleuth. Crispin’s books are witty, literate and, at times, farcical. The Moving Toyshop is everyone’s favorite among the Fen canon, and you certainly can’t go wrong with that, but Love Lies Bleeding is probably the one I’ve enjoyed the most.

Arthur Conan Doyle – His detective, Sherlock Holmes, is the world’s best known fictional detective, and for obvious reasons. Hard to go wrong with The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Dashiell Hammett – Unlike most other authors on this list, Hammett did not stick to a single fictional detective for all of his books, making them a bit more varied. The Maltese Falcon with Sam Spade is the obvious classic, but The Thin Man, featuring Nick and Nora Charles, is its own world of fun. And The Dain Curse is also hard to beat.

Michael Innes – Probably his best known work is The Journeying Boy, which is a superb adventure story, but most of his detective stories featured John Appleby, who progresses over the course of the books from a lowly inspector, to Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and finally into active retirement. It is a long series, and Innes varies the locales and stories quite a bit, so it’s hard to find an obvious place to start. Hamlet, Revenge!, the second book in the series, is probably as good a recommendation as any.

Robert Parker – His detective Spenser is featured in 40 novels. I once heard Parker speak. He had no advice for struggling writers because he said that he had simply started writing Spenser novels one day, and began selling them immediately, and then never looked back. He also had no advice in terms of outlining or preparation, because he said he simply sat down and wrote them out. He died in 2010 at the age of 77 while sitting at his desk and working on his next book.

The Spenser novels are set in and around Boston, and are full of interesting details about that city and the surrounding area. A notable feature of the series is Spenser’s long-running romantic relationship with psychologist Susan Silverman. Parker uses the character and her relationship with Spenser to give his detective a bit of class, but also to provide interesting contrast between their two personalities, and to explore the ability of a person to be true to themselves, without compromise, and yet to also give themselves to another as part of a lasting and loving relationship. Most of the books are very similar to each other, and I don’t recall running across a bad one. I would recommend starting with one from the '80's, perhaps Pale Kings and Princesses. One could certainly accuse some of the later ones of being a bit rote, but I must confess I enjoyed all of them.

Louise Penny – Penny is a Canadian author, and her detective is Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. She only began her literary career in 2005, and has turned out fifteen Gamache novels since then. Her books have won a slew of awards, and she is still writing. Her books center around the mythical town of Three Pines, somewhere outside of Québec, a place that cannot be found on any maps. Penny’s detective Gamache is a true original, depicted often as a leader rather than the usual solitary investigator, or the brilliant detective accompanied by an often buffoonish foil. The series is notable because of the large cast of recurring characters, some of whom become active components of investigations in various books. The idyllic rural life of Three Pines is described in loving and varied detail, and this is a strong element in her work. Her books also have a strong moral element, and evil surfaces in many forms. Still Life starts the series and won many awards, so is as good a place to start as any.


I can’t recommend a steady diet of detective fiction. There are many different types of stories that need to be told and heard, and they can’t all fit neatly into this particular set of literary conventions. But the best detective stories offer great rewards to readers, and they certainly deserve a place of honor on your bookshelves and reading lists. I hope that some of the ones I’ve recommended today will bring you as much joy and enlightenment as they’ve delivered for me.

May 7, 2019