Detective fiction is a part of mystery fiction or crime fiction which focuses on a detective or inspector who investigates a crime which is often murder. The detective can be a police officer but is often a private investigator or P.I. In stories where the protagonist is a private detective, the police and other authorities are often depicted as incompetent or an interfering force in the detective’s investigation. Of course, other protagonists have a friendlier relationship with the police and aid them in investigations. However, that is not the case in the works analyzed here.

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Authority Roles in Selected Crime Novels

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“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is an excellent place to start as it is often cited as the first detective fiction story and was influential to future publications. It is a short story by Edgar Allen Poe that was originally published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841. The protagonist Dupin serves as the prototype of the eccentric but brilliant detective that has been used many times again as the basis of other fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and Adrian Monk. It establishes other tropes like the bumbling policemen who are a foil to the detective and first-person narration from a friend of the protagonist. It also utilized the plot device of having the detective declare his solution of the mystery and then explaining the analysis that led to his conclusion.

Dupin is characterized by his analytical abilities and his ability to distance himself emotionally from the crimes. This is contrasted with the Paris police’s emotionalness. They become too emotionally invested because of the ghastly nature of the crimes and the horrific ways in which both of the women were murdered. They arrest Dupin’s friend, Adolphe Le Bon, despite their lack of motive or evidence that he indeed committed the crimes. The police are horrified by the crimes, motivating them to identify and arrest a suspect to assuage their grief and outrage.

The police serve as a foil to Dupin’s cool-headed rationality. He realizes their emotions have distracted them from realizing that this crime is unlike any other that has been committed. His brilliance allows him to notice and piece together the small details overlooked by the police. The authority roles are depicted unfavorably in the first detective fiction story which is a common theme throughout the genre. Their incompetence almost condemns an innocent man, requiring an amateur detective with a passing interest in the case intervene and set things right.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was heavily inspired by Poe’s Dupin. Like Dupin, Holmes is a brilliant deductive and analyst. He is also eccentric and has little human contact save for his close friend through whose perspective the story is told. In the same way the detective was influenced by his literary predecessor, so was the short story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” published in 1892, influenced by “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Like “Rue Morgue,” “Speckled Band” is a locked-room mystery where the culprit turns out to be an exotic animal.

In “Speckled Band,” however, the police have much less of a presence than in the story. The absence of authority in this story speaks to the complicated, baffling attributes of the mystery. The assumption in this detective story is, because of the nature of a locked-room mystery, the police would be ill-equipped to determine the culprit. The victim would be assumed to have simply died under mysterious circumstance, and it would be left at that. There is nothing worthwhile the authorities could contribute to solving this mystery. At best, they would arrest the wrong person as was seen in “Rue Morgue.”

The presence of the police is not necessary to solve this mystery so they are excluded from the process altogether. That is why the family seeks the expertise of Sherlock Holmes to unravel the mystery. They realize that only he is able to solve this baffling crime because he does not possess the same deficiencies as the police. He can use his analytical abilities and come to a conclusion that the police would never reach and would dismiss even if it were presented to them.

This is illustrated at the end of the story when Watson notes “the slow process of official inquiry came to the conclusion that the doctor met his fate while indiscreetly playing with a dangerous pet.” The police are given a lie about the case instead of the truth because there is no way they could handle the truth.

Finally, a more modern detective who also has his unfortunate run-ins with the police is Sam Spade, appearing in the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Spade is much like Dupin and Holmes in that he has an emotionless detachment from the case which aids his keen analytical ability and sharp eye for detail. He helped establish another variation of the private detective archetype known as the hard-boiled detective. The novel was later adapted into the film noir classic of the same name with Humphrey Bogart portraying the protagonist.

The authorities in The Maltese Falcon are similar to the ones in “Rue Morgue” in that they suspect Spade of committing the crime despite their lack of evidence. Their suspicion of him is founded more on emotion than fact. It is only by keeping a cool head that Spade is able to unravel to mystery and come to the conclusion that the police never would. The police are ineffective at solving the crime and are only useful to take the true culprit into custody after the brilliant detective has determined her true identity and hands her over to them. It is seen here as it is in other stories that the police and authority figures more often serve as a foil to the detective rather than being effective at their jobs.

  • Doyle, Arthur C. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Champaign, Ill: Project Gutenberg, 1990. Print.
  • Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.
  • Poe, Edgar A. The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Stories. Köln: Könemann, 1995. Print.