The Detective Is Born

The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction

At the center of many types of mystery and suspense fiction stands the figure of the detective.

Where the crime disrupts, the detective restores order. Where the crime damages the social fabric, the detective makes the repair. If the crime represents an illness within the body politic, then the detective is the doctor who restores health. Most important, where the crime represents the eruption of the irrational and the uncertain into everyday life, the detective personifies rationality and certainty and reestablishes the norm. In this lecture, we’ll study the classic version of the detective in the work of three seminal giants of the genre: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie.

C. Auguste Dupin

  • Any investigation of the detective must begin with Edgar Allan Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in 1841 in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In this story, a mother and daughter have been brutally murdered in a locked room. Dupin investigates this puzzling mystery and eventually deduces that the murders were committed by an escaped orangutan.
  • One of the most striking aspects of this story is that we don’t meet Dupin until the second section of the story. Poe devotes the opening section to describing the activity of analysis and the characteristics of the analyst. We learn that analysis involves the application of a method of disentangling, that analysis is creative, that analysis is pleasurable to the analyst, and that analysis requires flexibility and variety. All of these points will help us understand Dupin, the prototypical detective.
  • As the second section of “Rue Morgue” begins and we’re introduced to Dupin, we realize that he’s the analyst described in the opening section of the tale and that the detective and the analyst are one and the same. As we follow the story to its surprising conclusion, we also realize that, like the analyst, Dupin finds the activity of analysis pleasurable. This speaks to a very important issue: the detective’s motive.
  • Although Poe suggests that Dupin wants to solve the Rue Morgue murders partly to exonerate the man who has been falsely accused of the crimes, it becomes clear to us that Dupin’s own pleasure, along with the thrill of the intellectual challenge and the opportunity to embarrass the police, are what really motivate Dupin. In other words, the detective doesn’t always possess honorable or admirable motives for detecting.

The Detective as Outsider

  • Dupin’s motives for pursuing detective work illustrate the fact that, in many ways, the detective is not meant to be a particularly admirable or heroic figure. Readers often find it very difficult to connect with Dupin as a character. Even though he’s undoubtedly brilliant, insightful, and learned, he’s also arrogant, selfish, and greedy. This isn’t a slip up on Poe’s part. Instead, it indicates the fact that one of Poe’s most important contributions in developing the detective was to make that figure something of an outsider, marginal in relation to society at large.
  • Poe makes Dupin a marginal figure because he perceives that while the detective might be a necessary response to crime, that doesn’t mean that this figure will always be celebrated. As important as the detective is to mystery and suspense fiction, the figure is frequently accompanied by a certain ambiguity, almost as if his or her association with crime contaminates him or her. What fascinates us most about the detective, in other words, is the figure’s hidden depths and complexities.

Sherlock Holmes

  • The character who is clearly inspired by Dupin but whose differences illustrate the variety and complexity of the detective figure is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
  • Holmes first appeared in print in 1887 in the novel A Study in Scarlet. Beginning in 1891 with the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes’s popularity skyrocketed thanks to his regular appearances in The Strand Magazine.
  • In many ways, Holmes seems to be a carbon copy of Dupin. Like his predecessor, Holmes is extremely eccentric. He is an amateur detective who shares Dupin’s contempt for the police, his professional counterparts in crime solving. He also takes great pleasure, intellectual and otherwise, in his work as a detective. And like Dupin, Holmes is frequently more interested in poetic rather than official justice.
  • Despite similarities between Dupin and Holmes, however, the way Conan Doyle introduces innovations to the figure of the detective helps explain both the popularity of Holmes and the influence and importance of the detective figure to mystery and suspense fiction.

The Humanity of Holmes

  • In short, Conan Doyle makes Holmes much more human than Dupin. For example, even though Dupin insists that he has a method, and frequently demonstrates that method, at no point are we meant to feel that we can imitate that method. We are not meant to emulate Poe’s version of the detective.
  • The situation is very different in Conan Doyle’s work. Just like Dupin, Holmes constantly talks about and demonstrates his method, but unlike Dupin, he demystifies that method, making it seem more like a matter of keen observation and common sense than abstruse knowledge and technical expertise. For example, in what quickly became a ritual element of the Holmes stories, Holmes deduces certain facts about the people who come to see him by examining their appearance. However, Holmes always then goes on to explain how he arrived at those deductions, and in doing so, he frequently minimizes his own ingenuity.
  • Another reason that readers find Holmes more human than Dupin is his relationship with his closest friend, Dr. John Watson. Watson frequently accompanies Holmes on his adventures, playing a much more active role in the stories than Dupin’s companion ever does.
  • What’s more, although many of Holmes’s clients are the rich and powerful, including the crowned heads of Europe, he’s also drawn to clients from much humbler backgrounds. Holmes decides to 
take on the case of the Red-Headed League, for example, not because it promises to pay well, but because he’s never come across anything like it, and it piques his curiosity.

The Detective as Public Servant

  • For Sherlock Holmes, detecting is not merely a hobby; it’s a vocation. Holmes scrupulously updates files containing information on an enormous variety of subjects, files that he consults frequently throughout the stories. The sheer volume of cases that Holmes undertakes is one indication that detecting is much more central to his sense of self than it ever was to Dupin.
  • The reason why Holmes practices as a detective comes across most clearly when Holmes is preparing for his confrontation with Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem.” Holmes admits it’s very possible that this confrontation might lead to his demise, but he tells Watson that he can consider that prospect with equanimity. The motivation is that, in defeating Moriarty, Holmes will eliminate the most dangerous criminal alive, and in doing so, he will help protect and maintain the safety of society.
  • In other words, Holmes regards himself as a public servant. Like Dupin, Holmes occupies the fringes of the society in which he lives, in the sense that he’s a loner who doesn’t seek out public recognition or connection. But he’s still an integral part of that society, and he works diligently to protect it. In this sense, Conan Doyle both redeems and expands the figure of the detective. Because Sherlock Holmes is willing to put his considerable gifts to work to serve society, the detective comes much closer to being a heroic figure than ever before.

Hercule Poirot

  • Hercule Poirot is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and enduring characters. Perhaps more than any other writer in the genre, Christie understood the importance of giving the reader of mystery and suspense fiction a carefully calibrated combination of predictable, familiar genre elements along with innovations and twists so that readers could be simultaneously 
reassured by what they knew and challenged by what they did not.
  • We see precisely this combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar at work in the character of Hercule Poirot. He has a level of arrogance about his abilities as a detective that is thoroughly familiar to any reader of the genre. We don’t require our detectives to be modest.
  • Poirot’s status as a Belgian detective working in England is a continuation of a tendency to make the detective an outsider. Poirot’s foreignness gives him a distance from English culture that makes him seem more objective, more capable of seeing what others may overlook. Most important, the tendency of other characters in Poirot novels and stories to underestimate Poirot precisely because of his foreignness and comedic attributes acts as a salutary warning to Christie’s readers not to make the same mistake.

Miss Marple

  • By the time Christie began publishing in the 1920s, the figure of the detective was familiar to readers of mystery and suspense fiction. Christie could both assume the reader’s knowledge of this type and presuppose that the reader would recognize his or her innovations.
  • We can see this combination of tradition and innovation at work particularly clearly if we consider Christie’s other notable contribution to the detective figure: Miss Marple. Much of this character’s tremendous popularity can be attributed to the fact that Miss Marple encapsulates certain qualities traditionally associated with the detective, such as her amateur status. But because Miss Marple is such an unassuming and unthreatening character, it’s easy to overlook the extent to which she is a revolutionary figure in mystery and suspense fiction.
  • For one thing, Miss Marple radically democratizes what it means to be a detective. Unlike Dupin and Holmes, Miss Marple relies not on specialized and technical forms of knowledge but on her understanding of her community and human nature. A key reason we respond to her so enthusiastically is that we can easily imagine employing her same skills.
  • Although Miss Marple is undoubtedly something of a busybody, she’s an endearing figure because we can see that she genuinely has the interests of her community at heart. Despite being something of an outsider (by virtue of being an elderly spinster) in every other respect, she lives at the heart of the village of St. Mary Mead and does everything she can to protect that community.
  • Finally—and this is a point so obvious that it’s easily overlooked— there is the fact that Miss Marple is female, which is easily the most innovative aspect of this character. In other words, Miss Marple gives us the opportunity to consider the possibility that part of the reason we so automatically recognize and support the authority of the detective figure is that the vast majority of them are male.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why is the detective arguably the most important character in the genre?
  2. Why is ratiocination such a central part of what the detective does?


From the lecture series The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction 
Taught by Professor David Schmid, Ph.D