Characteristics of a Detective Story

Updated April 17, 2017

The modern detective story dates back to the late 19th century, when authors such as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ellery Queen began crafting suspenseful tales. The venerable genre of the detective story comes with definite rules, and certain elements that must be included. Some of these include a distinctive setting, a crime (only partially revealed), a detective, a group of suspects and a resolution.

A Distinctive Setting

The best detective stories tend to be set in a memorable time and place. Early examples include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's London and Agatha Christie's exotic Middle East locations. More recently, "The Name of the Rose," by Umberto Eco, is set in a medieval monastery and the Falco series, by Lindsey Davis, takes place during the Roman Empire.

The Crime

All detective stories involve at least one crime, and most centre on a murder. If the crime is described as part of the "real time" narrative, it must be concealed enough to allow for suspense (for example, the murderer can be partially glimpsed if his face remains hidden).

The Detective

The detective needs to be a memorable character, yet is not required to be the most sympathetic character in the story or even the protagonist. Integrating the detective's psychological and emotional issues into her effort to solve the crime can make for a well-rounded character.


A detective story must involve a group of suspects, each with possible motives and opportunities to have committed the crime. Some of the suspects can seem more likely than others, and the criminal should turn out to be someone who was neither extremely obvious nor incredibly unlikely.


The story must conclude with the resolution of the crime by the detective, who must reveal and piece together all of the evidence. The resolution is often a denouement that follows a climactic piece of action, such as a chase or other effort to apprehend the villain.

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About the Author

Colby Phillips' writing interests include culture and politics. Phillips received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Oregon and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Boston College.