Exploring Detective Fiction

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SWBAT the basic elements of detective fiction

Big Idea

What are the basic characteristics of the detective story genre?

Lesson Overview

This lesson focuses on the genre of detective fiction and the relevance of historical context when preparing to read the Sherlock Holmes stories. This lesson focuses specifically on:


  • Detective fiction as genre
  • Audience 
  • Historical Context 

Detecting Genre in Detective Fiction

10 minutes

We begin our discussion of detective fiction by focusing on what we already know.

Slide 9-10 – Discuss the different detective shows on TV today, including a new Sherlock Holmes series on the BBC. How are these detectives different from Sherlock Holmes?  Where do they work? What tools do they use to solve mysteries? What kind of mysteries do they solve? Use the photos from slide 11 to help stimulate discussion.

Slide 11 – Montage of popular detective shows. Clockwise from top left: CSI, Supernatural, Criminal Minds, Sherlock Holmes BBC, Law & Order SVU, X-Files

Slide 12 – Analyze the discussion with these four bullet points.  If not already discussed have students Think-Pair-Share these points.  

Slide 13 & 14 – Move the discussion toward Sherlock Holmes.  Using what students have shared in the Think-Pair-Shares on Sherlock Holmes and detective fiction have them make predictions about the stories including what they’ve learned about the author A. Conan Doyle. 



10 minutes

 Slide 15 - Next we discuss who the original audience for the Sherlock Holmes stories were. I ask the students what qualities or characteristics might the original fans of Sherlock Holmes share.  They mention that the audience would like to read, that they liked scary or suspenseful stories, and they had a large vocabulary. I read them a small quote from the history of The Strand


 Slide 16 - "Founded by George Newnes in 1890 and edited by H Greenhough Smith from 1891 to 1930, the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership. The content was a mixture of factual articles, short stories and serials most of which were illustrated to some extent. Despite expense and production difficulties, Newnes aimed at having a picture on every page - a valuable selling point at a time when the arts of photography and process engraving were in their infancy. "A monthly magazine costing sixpence but worth a shilling" was the slogan the publicity-conscious Newnes used to advertise the Strand – which was half the price of most monthlies of the period."

I then ask them, based on the short description here, what kind of audience The Strand was marketed toward.  Now they point out, families, diverse readers, people who liked pictures, and people who were concerned about cost. 


Rapid Research

10 minutes

Now I have students find an example of a TV show, movie, novel or short story that matches what they know about the detective genre. They have three minutes to find the examples.  Then they need to identify one element of that story that isn't mentioned on their list.  

Finally, they will share that with three other classmates. 

The Relevance of Historical Context

20 minutes

Slides 17 – Discuss what kind of mood and tone readers would expect in a detective story. 

Slides18-24 – Using the different pictures discuss with students what life was like in Victorian England. Point out that Victorian London was undergoing extreme change as it modernized.  Point out that there were terrible slums and that Doyle was writing at a time when audiences wanted to read sensational literature.  Police were not well-trusted so pay close attention to the way Doyle characterizes the police in his stories.  Discuss the overcrowded conditions of urban life and the draw of rural living.