Origins of Detective Fiction
Crime fiction has been a popular genre of fiction for longer than most might realize. In ancient literature, including the Bible, scholars have found evidence of whodunit detective stories. In the Old Testament, Daniel 13 tells the story of 'Susanna and the Elders', in which Daniel cross-examines two witnesses to a crime. Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, many scholars consider a detective story, as the title character is searching for answers about his origins. However, the oldest known detective story that is an intentional detective story is 'The Three Apples', by Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights. Through several plot twists, the main character Ja'far determines who killed the young woman whose corpse he finds mutilated in a trunk by the Tigris River. This story set the precedent for our modern-day detective fiction.
Today's detectives are usually classified in four different categories: The Police Detective, The Amateur Sleuth, The Private Investigator and (a more modern animal) The Medical Examiner. In each of these categories of detective there are varying degrees of well-crafted characters. The following are the pinnacle of their category.
The Police Detective
Probably the most written about detective, the police detective has made a career out of solving mysteries. The homicide detective, in particular, is the most prevalent in this genre. Written by Michael Connelly, the Detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch series of books are well-crafted character studies of an all-too-human homicide dick who is a whiz at closing murder cases.
Harry is a Detective III in the Robbery Homicide Division of the LAPD. He smokes too much, drinks too much, and is a loner with trust issues. The son of a prostitute murdered when he was eleven, Harry has made it his life's work to solve the multiple homicides that cross his desk each year. Growing up in foster homes without a father (who is later revealed in the series), then serving as a tunnel rat in Viet Nam are the tragic life events that shaped the man he has become.
Through fifteen novels, beginning with 1992's The Black Echo and ending with 2011's The Drop, one can't help but become a fan of Detective Bosch. Michael Connelly writes this series with grit, reality and occasional humor. Harry Bosch is a detective fiction icon.
The Amateur Sleuth
In the sub-genre of the amateur sleuth, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, both Agatha Christie characters, are prime examples. However, the crème de la crème of the amateur crop is Simon Templar, also known as The Saint. Created by Leslie Charteris, the Saint made his début in Walk-The Tiger! in 1928.
Templar, called the Saint because of his initials (ST), Simon is a criminal with a loathing of those with lower moral character than himself. A modern-day Robin Hood, Templar is a rogue, a ladies man, who fights for the good guy without messing up his hair; he laughs in the face of death while lighting a cigarette.
With the series running from 1928 through 1996's Capture the Saint, written by Burt Barer, Simon is one of the most prolific fictional detectives. Immortalized in countless books, short story compilations, movies and television series', this enduring character truly embodies the "accidental" detective.
The Medical Examiner
The insane popularity of televisions' CSI: Crime Scene Investigators has brought about a new sub-genre in detective fiction: the fringe law enforcement employee turned investigator. Ever since Jack Klugman played Quincy, a medical examiner who was better at solving the crime than the police detectives, America loves the ME. Author Patricia Cornwell has captured millions of readers' attention with her characterization of a female ME outpacing the boys in a man's world, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
Dr. Scarpetta, alongside her detective friend Pete Marino, FBI agent/lover/husband Wesley Bennett and her highly gifted and temperamental niece Lucy Farinelli, Dr. Kay has proven her chops in nineteen wildly popular novels, beginning with Postmortem in 1990 and most recently, 2011's Red Mist. Using science, forensic technology and good old-fashioned intuition, Dr. Scarpetta has taken down serial killers, rogue terrorist organizations and solved some of the most well-written crimes in the genre.
The Private Investigator
The best of the private investigator sub-genre is summarized in two words: Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's PI and his sidekick Watson are immortalized in 4 novels and 56 short stories. The London-based "consulting detective" (PI) is so ingrained in our vernacular that he is even used as a sarcastic retort. "Way to go, Sherlock Holmes" is heard when someone states the obvious.
Holmes first appeared in 1887's A Study In Scarlet, a novel which appeared in the publication Beeton's Christmas Annual. Inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, Doyle's employer at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Holmes was able to draw conclusions based on his incredible attention to detail. Doyle felt Bell would have been a great detective, and the concept for the Holmes' stories were born.
Holmes is the stereotypical absent-minded genius. Living a "bohemian" lifestyle, his digs at 221B, Baker Street are chronically messy, yet he is always able to put his hands on what he needs at the time to help him fit pieces of a puzzle together. Aided with his friend, Dr. John Watson, Holmes is able to solve some incredible crimes, never losing his cool, intellectual bearing.