POV in Detective Stories

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Annika Barranti Klein

Staff Writer

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

Annika Barranti Klein

Staff Writer

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

This weekend I played around with my on-again, off-again obsession with detective stories and how they are told. This time, the topic of my scrutiny was perspective. I speculated that most detective stories are told in the first person by the detective herself, and looked at some of those that are not.

The reason for first person narration is obvious, as it forces the reader to get the same information as the storyteller. Of course, the problem this causes is that there are no secrets from the reader. Some authors have solved this by presenting clues obliquely, while others have shifted the narration.

In the hope of starting a larger conversation, I compiled (with the assistance of Twitter) a partial list of detective novels, broken down by point of view.

1st person, narrator is the detective
Philip Marlowe books by Raymond Chandler
The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke
Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker
Eric Carter novels by Stephen Blackwood
Cal MacDonald novels by Steve Niles
Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
Kinsey Millhone “Alphabet” books by Sue Grafton (though apparently late in the series multiple POVs are used)
Alex Cross novels by James Patterson
Easy Rawlins novels by Walter Mosley

1st person, narrator is not the detective

Sherlock Holmes books and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (narrator is assistant Dr. John Watson)
Nero Wolfe books and stories by Rex Stout (narrator is assistant/detective Archie Goodwin)
Poirot books and stories (and play!) by Agatha Christie (narrator is often Arthur Hastings)

3rd person
Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keene
Phryne Fisher novels by Kerry Greenwood

Other perspectives

Robert Coover’s Noir: 1st, 2nd, 3rd

A few observations:
1. The (very few) female detectives are mostly third person stories.
2. The first-person narrator who is not the detective seems to have been a contained trend, in that Stout and Christie both copied Doyle (who copied Edgar Allan Poe).
3. Seriously, where are the ladies.

What are your thoughts? Any important examples I’ve missed?