A (very) brief history of detective fiction for Eng. 3104
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the beginning about the analytical mind is the template for the outsider (oftentimes vigilante) detective. “Murders” came out in 1841. Then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in 1892. And from there came the more gritty, urbanized hard boiled detective, first popularized by Dashiell Hammet in the short story “Black Mask,” and then in novels like The Maltese Falcon (1930), which featured the private detective protagonist (and recurring character) Sam Spade. In all three versions of the detective character, from Poe’s Dupin to Hammet’s Spade, there’s a distaste and distrust for government and police, or at least, as in “Murders… ,” a recognition that police aren’t that smart and don’t have the time to properly investigate crime.
If misogyny was more implicit for Poe and Conan Doyle, then it became grotesquely obvious with the hard boiled fiction of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Women in those stories are almost always sex objects or traitorous villains, and typically both. Enter the femme fatale archetype which has since been flipped on its head.
So in response, writers like Agatha Christie introduced female detectives, creating in the process a new sub-genre of mystery called cozy mysteries. Cozy mysteries are often characterized by seemingly calm and peaceful settings, such as a small town in the English countryside; but beneath the calm is some kind of deviance/crime/malevolence that only an astute (vigilante) detective can solve with her keen analytical skills. So it goes back to Dupin from Poe but, whereas characters like Dupin and Sherlock Holmes have trouble relating to most people, detectives in Christie’s work and other cozy writers’ generally have more ties to people. Like gritty detective stories, cozy mystery became its own legacy, retaining a solid following from Agatha Christie’s heyday in the ’40s and ’50s up to the modern day. Murder She Wrote is a textbook cozy series.
HBO’s Big Little Lies is a modern (and amazing) incarnation of the cozy mystery.
While cozy mysteries saw a surge in popularity and then retained a dedicated following, the hard-boiled detective story was in many ways replaced by the psychological thrillers and mysteries that we all know so well. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho came out in 1960, and, since then, we’ve been obsessed with mysteries and stories where the drive to figure out the why often overshadows (or at least matches) the desire to figure out the how and and who questions. Enter Patricia Highsmith and her sociopathic character, Tom Ripley.
There’s still a lot of demand for vigilante detective characters shaped in Dupin’s form. Most obviously, Sherlock Holmes has seen a few popular and modern reincarnations, first with Robert Downey Jr. and then with Benedict Cumberbatch. The central detective character in PBS’ Endeavor is another direct offshoot.
Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its central character, the troubled and brilliant Lisbeth, is in many ways a contemporary answer to the hardboiled detective. Lisbeth is an incredibly dark character who does things that make you question your allegiance to her, even though she remains the hero. She’s also an analytical mastermind, seeing clues where most people don’t. The Dragon Tattoo series also plays on revenge stories in that Lisbeth severely punishes those who cause her harm, inviting readers and viewers to revel in that punishment.