The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Casebook Mysteries 

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

A common perception of English detective fiction is that the years between 1845, the publication date of the last of Poe’s The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries, and 1887, when the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries debuted, were fallow ones, enlivened mainly by the appearances of Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (see: Bleak House) in 1852 and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff (see: The Woman in White) in 1859. But there was actually a substantial amount of detective fiction published during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, and during the three decades the dominant form of mystery fiction was the “casebook” story. These stories originally appeared in magazines and were then published in collections known as “casebooks.”

The casebook mysteries can be thought of as precursors to modern police procedurals. The casebooks are partially or entirely fictional portrayals of police work, usually told in the first person, with a significant amount of accurate details of contemporary policing and a focus on realistic plots and characters. An early version of the casebook mysteries was Eugène François Vidocq’s 1828-9 Mémoires de Vidocq (see: The Great Detective), although the Mémoires are heavily fictionalized and not a reliable indicator of how Vidocq and French policemen went about their work. Another collection, Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner (1827), is more accurate but describes police work in the era of the Bow Street Runners rather than the era after the modern London police force was organized.

The casebook genre began in 1849, when The Waters Mysteries began appearing in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal. The series, written by William Russell, claimed to be the accurate and factual accounts of a former police officer named “Thomas Waters,” and was the first of the police memoirs genre.

This distinct corpus of fictional texts emerged in mid-century using a memoir format that posited a detective as the central figure in a series of crime stories, each resolved by the actions of the detective hero who speaks in the first person. This narrative strategy not only expanded the presence of the official detective figure in literature significantly, but also accorded him a central role in the plot. In some of these invented life stories the protagonist was a private detective, but, as far as can be ascertained from surveying the fiction of the time, police investigators more often played the leading role— a contrast to their status in other types of literary texts of the period....

Several factors combined to promote the new trend of the pseudo-memoirs of detectives. Undoubtedly, the formation in 1842 of the detective unit at Scotland Yard, and the growing interest it stimulated in the press, inspired literary efforts. Police detectives were also gaining prominence in courtroom testimonies as distinctive representatives of the forces of law and order, as, in effect, they increasingly took over prosecutions...and their function became less controversial in respectable opinion. Changes in the literary world, too, laid the groundwork for the rise of these fictional autobiographical texts. The 1830s saw an escalation in serials aimed at working-class consumption and in the publication of novels in weekly instalments....The same period witnessed an increase in the publication of autobiographical accounts—both true and falsified—of ordinary people who did not lead a lofty life, as well as of professionals. In addition, the reading public in the mid-Victorian decades showed a preference for texts that claimed historical authenticity, such as narratives based on the country’s past. During that period, too, in an effort to avoid the stamp duty levied on newspapers, publications such as the Penny Sunday Times and People’s Police Gazette, which appealed to the lower classes, ‘consisted entirely of fiction and fabricated police reports’. Perceptive writers and publishers merged these trends to form the new pseudo-memoir narrative technique. Unfettered by factual constraints, and taking advantage of the growing acceptance of police detection, the writers of such ‘memoirs’ wove dramatic tales of crime and detection, which they presented as a sequence of episodes, a style highly suitable to serial publication. Pretending that the texts were self-revelations by established crime fighters, they insisted on accuracy of detail. For a few decades, starting from the mid-century, this fusion seemed to work, and writers with no experience in detection increasingly used their imagination, and the snippets of facts about detection that they had on hand, to produce the kind of fiction favoured by the reading public.1 

This series was immediately popular:

An essential factor in the commercial success of Russell’s ‘Recollections’ was the format and vehicle in which the series appeared. Each story was self-contained, published in its entirety in a single issue of Chambers’s. Thus, if readers missed the subsequent instalment, they were not deprived of a closure, but if they were interested in further exploits by the detective-hero, their curiosity would be satisfied in future instalments. Moreover, Chambers’s Journal (launched in 1832) was considered a journal of good taste, and hence was popular among the middle classes, though it also penetrated lower down the social pyramid....the stories had an impact beyond the readership of Chambers’s Journal. In 1856, they were compiled in book form and published by J. and C. Brown under the title Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer. In 1859, another volume was published in England with the same title and author, which included additional stories. Thereafter, Recollections of a Police-Officer was published in various editions under different titles both in England and abroad.2 

Numerous imitators followed, both in England and in America, where the casebook collections was popular and frequently reprinted. The casebook mysteries flourished over the next two decades, acting as a lower-class counterpart to the sensation novel, and did not disappear until after the demise of the sensation genre in the early 1870s. By the early 1870s the casebook audience’s tastes and expectations had changed. Casebook mysteries were intended for the lower classes but were consumed by the middle class, who enjoyed the casebooks’ portrayal of street crime and street policing. But the sensation novels had conditioned the middle-class reading audience to accept that crime was a part of bourgeois life, and that the police who investigated those crimes were safe and respectable. During the 1870s detectives and mysteries appeared in many popular novels and middle-class magazines, nearly all better written than the casebook mysteries. The casebook writers found their market dwindling and began writing in other genres. In the farther reaches of the Empire, however, the casebook genre lingered, so that as late as 1885 a casebook collection, Revelations of an Indian Detective, by “R. Reid, Superintendent, Calcutta Detective Dept,” could appear and sell well in Calcutta.

From the beginning the casebook detectives were street-oriented characters. There was little if anything of the Great Detective tradition about them, none of the superhuman deductive skills of a Dupin or the mastery of the underworld of a Vidocq. The casebook detectives were policemen with realistic skills and backgrounds, living in an environment which the reading audience could identify as existing outside their windows. The fact that the casebook mysteries were not seen as literature and not expected to abide by the proprieties applied to more respectable genres, such as domestic fiction, allowed the casebook authors to give their protagonists attitudes which would not have been acceptable in more elevated fiction, and also allowed the authors to include in their fiction the harsher realities of life usually left out of mainstream fiction or referred to only obliquely. The casebook detectives were hardened, cynical men and women who were continuously exposed to the worst of Victorian society and who knew that whatever victories they won over crime would be short-lived. In other words, the casebook detectives were the forerunners to the modern hard-boiled detective, the cynical private eye best-known to modern readers as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

The hard-boiled detective in its current form is an American creation, and the roots of the character have traditionally been found in American sources, specifically the dime novels, among characters like Francis Doughty’s Old King Brady (see: The Old King Brady Mysteries) and Ormond Smith and John Coryell’s Nick Carter (see: The Nick Carter Mysteries). But the dime novel detectives came after the casebook detectives, and were influenced by them. The names “Tom Fox” and “Waters” were used as pseudonyms by dime novel detective authors, and were chosen because the publishers knew that their audience would be aware of the casebook characters and would associate the dime novel detectives with those characters. By the 1860s the casebook genre was the most dominant among American mystery writers, with Americans imitating the British. The seeds of the hard-boiled attitude clearly lie in the casebook characters, far more than in the American dime novel characters. The earliest dime novel detectives, including Harlan Halsey’s Old Sleuth (see: The Old Sleuth Mysteries), were chivalrous, highly moral, lacked any trace of the hard-boiled attitude, and operated in much cleaner, brighter, and more hopeful worlds than those of the hard-boiled detective. The dime novel detectives who appeared following the moral panic of the early 1880s (see: The Deadwood Dick Adventures), though operating in a more realistic atmosphere than their immediate predecessors, were similarly moral and chivalrous. Most importantly, in the world of the dime novel detectives, crime is an aberration which the detectives correct by story’s end; the idealized status quo of the middle class is always reasserted and reinforced. The world of the hard-boiled detective is significantly different.

From Thomas Waters (The Waters Mysteries) to Tom Fox (see: Tom Fox; or, The Revelations of a Detective) to James M'Govan (see: Brought to Bay; or, Experience of a City Detective), there is a continuity of attitudes that is today identified with the hard-boiled detectives. These attitudes develop over time, and the stories become more aware of the tragic realities of street-level life during the Victorian era, or at least express this awareness more explicitly, but they are present from the beginning. Defining “hard-boiled” is a notoriously fruitless pursuit for critics, but, like obscenity, everyone knows hard-boiled when they see it. There are the mean streets down which the detective must go. There is the detective himself, the only light of goodness, however dim and tarnished, in an otherwise heartless world. There is corruption, both on the street and in "society." There is the detective's code of honor, which cannot be bought and is never sold. And there is violence, directed at the detective and coming from him.

The British casebook detectives approach these attitudes and often embody them. Not completely, of course, because no matter how hard-boiled the characters are they never overcome their essentially Victorian origins and could never break through the Victorian proprieties of what could and could not be published, so that even as hardened a native of the mean streets as Tom Fox could never match the relative explicitness and cynicism of Philip Marlowe. But Tom Fox and his compatriots come close. Like the hard-boiled detectives, the casebook detectives are not respectable by middle-class standards, and if necessary are willing to sacrifice legality for justice. The world of the casebook detectives is at least as corrupt and blighted as the hard-boiled detectives. The atmosphere of the casebook mysteries is one of violence, corrupt behavior by those in power, and a barely-restrained breakdown in the social order. The casebook detectives are policemen, not private detectives, but their alienation from the society, because of their lowered social standing, is almost as severe as that of the hard-boiled detective, and when the casebook detectives are on a case they generally work by themselves, like the hard-boiled detectives.

The language of the casebook mysteries is often mediocre. As mysteries the casebook stories are primitive. As detectives the casebook protagonists are elementary. But the casebook mysteries are useful as a glimpse into Victorian life en bas, and, as expressions of outrage at the callousness of Victorian society toward the less fortunate they are extremely convincing.

For Further Research

Haia, Shpayer-Makov, The Ascent of the Detective : Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.


1 Shpayer-Makov, The Ascent of the Detective, 232-234.

2 Shpayer-Makov, The Ascent of the Detective, 235.

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