Detective Fiction from Sherlock Holmes to the Second World War

Module code: EN3169

Module co-ordinator: Dr Victoria Stewart

This module introduces students to the works of the key figures in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century detective fiction, and to the critical debates that have arisen around this form. We'll address the challenges of studying popular and middlebrow fiction, and undertake the analysis of narrative structure through the reading of texts including short stories, novels, and a play by a range of authors. Your understanding of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literary culture will be expanded by the examination of works that fall outside the boundaries of the modernist canon. Historically, many of these texts have been considered unworthy of academic interest, and the reasons for this judgement, as well as ways of challenging it, will be discussed.


Beginning with a consideration of the very influential Dupin stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the module will focus on two key moments in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century development of British detective fiction: the boom in short stories in the detective genre in the wake of Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of Sherlock Holmes, and the so-called 'Golden Age' of the 1920s and 1930s (Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers).

A glimpse of the path detective fiction would take in the post-1945 period will be offered by a consideration of works from the 1930s by Francis Iles and Patrick Hamilton, which focus on the criminal rather than the detective. We'll also study some of the attempts that have been made over the years to offer 'rules' for the writing of detective fiction; the impulses behind these will be explored.


The module will be taught in ten two-hour seminars. Towards the end of the module, students will be asked to deliver a short, unassessed presentation, either individually or with another student, on a topic negotiated with the tutor.

By the end of the module, you'll be able to...

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the development of detective fiction -- principally the short story and the novel -- from the 1880s to the 1940s
  • Identify and analyse the characteristic narrative forms and techniques employed by authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie
  • Assess the role of detective fiction in purveying and critiquing social attitudes, particularly attitudes towards gender and social 'deviance'
  • Consider the relationship between this popular form and other literary productions of the period
  • Show an awareness of contemporary and historical critical debates about detective fiction


  • One 5,000-word essay on a topic agreed with the tutor