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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: November 2016

24 - The Detective Story: Order from Chaos


Agatha Christie's ‘Tape Measure Murder’, published in 1950 at the tail-end of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the British detective story, betrays typical features: a closed community, in this case a respectable English village, but where violence lies repressed beneath gentility. A middle-aged housewife dressed in a kimono lies strangled, her neck bearing the marks of what appears to be a narrow belt. There are suspects, and there are official investigators – but it is left to an amateur detective, in this case a sedentary old spinster, Jane Marple, to puzzle her way through the series of scattered facts before revealing the truth on the final page. The crime is described as ‘old fashioned’ and the story certainly seems so. But, sixty years on, its appeal remains. If such texts have sometimes been neglected in surveys of literary history, it is not because of a shortage of materials, nor of heavyweight supporters – which have included T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Gertrude Stein – but because detective stories have often been perceived as superficial and one-dimensional: the focus on the puzzle has been seen to diminish the ‘literary’.

Indeed, for a long time, the literary establishment maintained a condescending stance to this popular and commercial genre. In 1944, Edmund Wilson described the detective genre as ‘sub-literary’, ‘degrading to the intelligence’ and existing ‘somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles’. ‘I hope never to read another of her books’ was his verdict on Christie. He judged Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories ‘stagy’ and melodramatic, although he had enjoyed them as a child. Doyle, Christie and their kind are accused of enacting a form of confidence trick on the public, giving them the same thing over and over again; yet these unpretentious writers never made great claims for their stories, beyond their timeless appeal.

The recognition received by detective stories and their writers has never, therefore, been straightforward. The form is seen as not quite literature but has been held up as the epitome of pure storytelling. The 1920s are a case in point: the moment when the familiar structures of the detective short story seemed to stand in opposition to modernist short story writers’ apparent disdain for plot. The modernist aesthetic preferred ‘obliquity’, which Virginia Woolf described as ‘the things one doesn't say’.

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