Nicholas Fuller, in a typically thoughtful post, outlines his own definition of a good detective story:
For me, a good detective story is also a good story in its own right. Story-telling, atmosphere, characterisation, and theme are as important as, if not more important than, the problem. The problem is crucial, but ideally, it should be the result of the theme and the characterisation.
I agree – to an extent.
As a firm believer in art for its own sake, I don’t see the need for detective stories or any other kind of fiction to be « about » something. The masterful plotting of And Then They Were None and the haunting atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles are sufficient justifications for the existence of the books. So « theme » to me is an irrelevant notion.
Also, while I value story-telling, atmosphere and characterization as much as anyone else, I don’t think they should be given as much importance as the problem when it comes to assess the quality of a detective story, for the problem is the core, the identity of the genre. Vivid characters, convincing atmosphere and good story-telling are very rare things indeed but can be found in other genres, while the puzzle plot is a trademark of detective fiction and real mystery fiction. Call me a genre nationalist, but I think it’s worth preserving and defending.
Now, as I said above, I basically agree with Nick that a detective story with not only a brilliant plot but also good story-telling, atmosphere and characterization is certainly better than one which is abysmal on all counts but the problem – and is much more frequent than critics of the genre would have us to believe. That’s indeed why I like R.A. Freeman better than, say, S.S. Van Dine. But I also believe a loosely-plotted detective story cannot be quite redeemed by fine writing or sense of character. It may be good as general fiction, but as mystery fiction it’s just bad.