Sensational Scandal: The Development of Crime Fiction from Daniel Defoe to Agatha Christie

Crime fiction reflects our most dubious, scandalous, and wicked impulses, perhaps this is what makes it so popular. This course traces the development of crime fiction from the 18th – the 20th century. Beginning with the rogues that populate Daniel Defoe’s writing, before moving on to the intensification of fictional criminality and the rise of the gentleman detective in the 19th century. Ultimately, arriving in the early 20th century, also known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, an era that produced many Queens of Crime including: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and, of course, Agatha Christie.


  • Daniel Defoe – Moll Flanders
  • Charles Dickens – Bleak House
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon – Lady Audley’s Secret
  • Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – A Study in Scarlet
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart – The Door
  • Agatha Christie – The Mysterious Affair at Styles


  • The Picara – Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders: In this class we will discuss the progenitors of crime fiction: early eighteenth-century rogue narratives, also known as picaresque. We will historicise our understanding of this novel by examining the early modern criminal justice system, including the punishment of transportation.
  • What the Dickens? – Charles Dickens' Bleak House: In this class we will examine the public taste for crime reporting that accompanied the arrival of the newspaper. We will also consider how true crime made its way into fiction, looking specifically at the case of the Bermondsey Horror.
  • Getting at the Truth – Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret: In this class we will consider the influence of the gothic on proto-crime fiction tastes and the popularity of the sensational villainess.
  • Elementary – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet: In this class we will examine Sherlock Holmes’s novelistic debut, which ushered in the codes and conventions of the gentleman-detective led crime novel. We will also consider the dynamic of the detective-hero with his reliable ally, Watson.
  • The Butler Did It! – Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door: In this class we will travel across the pond to meet the American Agatha Christie! We will also consider the way crime fiction affirms order and status, as well as its moralist impulse when rooting out and punishing transgression.
  • Order and Method – Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles: In this class we will study Christie’s first published novel and the debut of the infallible, Hercule Poirot. Affectionately faulted for being ‘too ingenious’, we will analyse the ways in which Christie ushered in a new standard for crime fiction.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Trace the genealogy of crime fiction and the rise of the detective protagonist.
  2. Historicise interpretations of crime fiction, with a focus on the changing criminal justice system and the advent of crime reporting in early newspapers.
  3. Account for the popularity of crime fiction.
  4. Analyse crime fiction novels and assess their literary status.
  5. Appreciate the influence of proto-crime fiction on the Golden Age of Crime Fiction.

This course has no current classes. Please the waiting list.