Super Sleuths A Timeline of Detective Fiction

– 1794 –

William Godwin’s Things as They Are, or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams is often credited as the first novel to show characteristics of the crime novel. 

– 1841 –

Edgar Allan POW! In American author Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin solves a double murder mystery after the authorities fail. 

– 1800s –

The 19th-century penny dreadfuls were popular stories published in weekly parts. They moved from horror and thriller to crime and detective fiction in the 1840s. 

A Penny Dreadful title - Black Bess - Johnzhouse, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

– 1852-

Bleak House – Charles Dickens – Inspector Bucket is one of the earliest detectives in English fiction. Bucket is believed to have been based on a friend of Dickens, named Inspector Charles Frederick Fields. Dickens used to accompany Fields on his nightly rounds, which must have given him lots to write about. 

– 1865 –

The 72-part penny dreadful The Boy Detective features a young runaway called Ernest Keen, who starts working for a police inspector. 

– 1868 –

Dickens’ buddy Wilkie Collins publishes The Moonstone. Despite it coming later than Bleak House, The Moonstone is regarded as the first proper detective novel because it sets the rules for detective fiction to follow. One example is the use of a red herring (not an actual fish): a literary device that leads the reader down the wrong path, distracting them from solving the crime too soon! Sneaky!

– 1887 –

A Study in Scarlet introduces us to Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most famous detective in fiction EVER! Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stories follow the adventures of Sherlock and his ever-faithful sidekick, Dr John Watson.

A. Conan Doyle. David Henry Friston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

– 1920 –

The 1920s and 1930s saw what is known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Many detective and mystery novels appear during this time, particularly those written by female writers. Amongst the most famous is British author Agatha Christie, who gives us Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in 1920. In 1927 we are introduced to Miss Jane Marple, the clue-cracking super sleuth. This school of crime writing focuses on the game. The crime is always murder and the reader has all kinds of exciting clues like railway timetables, maps and floorplans with which to make a deduction.

– 1924 –

The Box-Car Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner, is published.

– 1927 –

Hardy Boys debut.

– 1929 –

The Adventures of Tintin are written between 1929 and 1976 by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi under his pen name Hergé. They follow the adventures of a young reporter called Tintin and his dog Snowy, who end up solving crimes ahead of two incompetent detective buddies, twins Thomson and Thompson.

– 1930 –

The Nancy Drew series follows a mystery‑solving teenager in America and gains a huge cult following. She is seen as the female counterpart to the Hardy Boys. Occasionally Nancy and the Hardy Boys join forces ­– a total thrill for devotees. 

The Secret of the Old Mill by Frankie W. Dixon (Oinkers42), DatBot, GrahamHardy at en.wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

– 1940s –

The Famous Five British author Enid Blyton writes 21 stories about five friends (one of these was a dog!) who meet up in the school holidays and solve mysteries. Later, Blyton will write the Secret Seven series featuring a group of adolescent detectives who form their own secret society. 

– 1953 –

Roald Dahl’s adult short story Lamb to the Slaughter is a dark comedy. It gives us the perfect murder and leaves the detectives attempting to solve the crime well and truly stumped.

– 1963 –

Donald J. Sobol debuts his new kid detective hero, Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown.

– 1964 –

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, is published.

– 1969 –

Animated series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! premieres on CBS.

– 1972 –

Created by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, Nate the Great debuts. This character is a kids’ version of hardboiled detective Sam Spade.

– 1987 –

Douglas Adams publishes the book Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Dirk Gently famously uses ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things’ to solve crimes.  

– 1997 –

An unknown author named J.K. Rowling (don’t ask me, no idea) publishes Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. We are introduced to a wizarding school and a group of pupils who form very strong friendships and solve pretty dangerous mysteries. Rowling will later say that her Harry Potter books were ‘crime novels in disguise’. 

– 2010 –

Lauren St. John publishes Dead Man’s Cove, the first Laura Marlin mystery.

– 2011 –

Lauren Child publishes the first of her Ruby Redfort detective series. Redfort is a genius code‑cracker, daring detective and gadget-laden special agent.

– 2014 –

Robin Stevens publishes the first in her Murder Most Unladylike series, starring detective duo Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells. The settings, situations and characters hark back to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, adding a modern twist.

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Words: Jennifer Newton-Brown. Illustration: Kaley McKean