The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Of necessity, the following is a too-brief account of the development of the detective genre–the topic properly requires hundreds of pages to do it justice.
Detective fiction is generally held to have begun in 1841 with Edgar Allan Poe and his C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries. While largely accurate, this is a broad generalization which slights the fiction which preceded Poe. There were decades of Proto-Mysteries before Poe, works with characters who were skilled at deduction (Voltaire’s Zadig, 1749), works in which the unraveling of mystery was important to the plot (see: “The Ghost-Seer”), works focusing on the lives of criminals (the Newgate Calendar, the Newgate novels–see: Proto-Mysteries), and works in which the protagonist is forced to discover the true identity of a murderer (Godwin’s The Adventures of Caleb Williams ). Too, the Gothics have in common with mysteries the revelation of secrets and the punishment of violators of the status quo. Many of the elements which Poe synthesized in the Dupin stories were present in fiction before Dupin, including the figure of the genius crime-solver, the Great Detective; thanks to a fictionalized, self-promoting biography, Europe and America were aware of Eugène François Vidocq (see: Proto-Mysteries) as the most brilliant policeman of them all, even if that knowledge was based on brilliant marketing more than anything factual. Moreover, as Lucy Sussex notes,
The story of crime fiction’s origins in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries can be more fruitfully regarded as polygenetic. Here Russian formalism is useful, namely its case for literary genres as systems, whose interaction forms new systems, new genres. Various origins can be posited for the detective genre: what we now term true crime, either in newspapers or memoirs such as those of the French detective Eugene François Vidocq; The Newgate Calendar, the famous seventeenth-century compendium of criminal biographies; the Gothic novel, particularly female, Radcliffean Gothic; theatrical melodrama; law reform; and the development of forensic science.1
As well, the pre-Dupin magazines held a substantial number of crime narratives:
the perceived necessity for a detecting figure and prototypes of such a being are to be seen first in the pages of the popular periodicals between 1820 and 1850. Initially, these periodical articles, often, but not always, concerned with crime, stand alone and do not interconnect or have any constancy, but in the 1830s this changes. Samuel Warren's 'Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician' offers a serial investigative figure, albeit in the field of medicine rather than crime, and brings into textual being the case structure that the work of a doctor necessarily requires and which becomes a recurring feature in later detective fiction. There is little crime per se in Warren's pseudoautobiographical narratives, but there is a strong moral theme: moral misdemeanour is indissolubly linked with mental or physical malaise. What had proved successful and popular with the public in the case of medicine was readily mapped onto other professions.2
Too, to concentrate on English and French detective fiction is to unjustly overlook the German kriminalgeschichte, or “criminal stories.” The largest eighteenth century source of kriminalgeschichte is the Newgate Calendar-like Pitaval collections (see: Proto-Mysteries). However, unlike the English, the Germans used these works to produce mysteries, rather than Proto-Mysteries, and they did so years before Poe wrote his first Dupin mystery. In 1819 E.T.A. Hoffman wrote “Mademoiselle de Scudéry,” a Pitaval-influenced Proto-Mystery which anticipates the kriminalgeschichte. In 1823 the Danish writer Laurids Kruse published The Crystal Dagger (original: Der Krystallene Dolch) in Germany. The Crystal Dagger is another Proto-Mystery, but one which strongly combines the Gothic plot with elements of detection. And in 1828 Adolph Müllner wrote “The Caliber,” the first of many German mysteries. Numerically there were more kriminalgeschichte published in German in the nineteenth century than mysteries published in England, France, or America, and by 1880 the genre had established its modern outlines, years before Sherlock Holmes had his greatest impact. Much has been made of the influence of Thomas De Quincey on Poe and the creation of C. Auguste Dupin, especially De Quincey’s “The Avenger” (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, August, 1838), but “The Avenger” is De Quincey’s attempt at writing a kriminalgeschichte, which he acknowledged not just by setting the story in Germany (a hint at the association of crime stories with Germany in the minds of English litterateurs in the 1830s) but in his proposal to the editor of Blackwood’s–De Quincey described “The Avenger” as “a German tale.”3
Even though Poe was the beneficiary of decades of work by other writers, he still deserves the majority of the credit for the creation of modern detective fiction. Poe not only synthesized much of what had preceded him but was the first to create a number of the themes and motifs which would become dominant in detective fiction, and those he did not create he was responsible for propagating. From the detective using an individual or distinctive approach to crime-solving to the detective as a mental superman, many of the most common genre conventions can be credited to Poe.
However, Poe’s influence was gradual rather than immediate. He was certainly widely read, and individual writers made use some of his mystery plots, including Wilkie Collins, in “The Lawyer’s Story of ‘A Stolen Letter’” (1854), Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in Out of His Head (1862), and J. Redding Ware, in “Arrested on Suspicion,” in Revelations of a Private Detective (1863). But it was not until Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (see: The Lerouge Affair) that the influence of Dupin was felt in any significant way, and it was not until Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries that Dupin could fairly be said to be the grandfather of detectives. Between Dupin’s departure in 1845 and the appearances of Lecoq in 1863 and Holmes in 1887, the major detective characters were only lightly influenced (if at all) by Dupin.
From the late 1840s until the early 1870s the dominant type of fictional detective in England was the casebook detective. These stories, about policemen confronting urban realities which were generally the province of investigative journalism rather than fiction, were aided by the rise of crime journalism verité, such as Charles Dickens’ “On Duty with Inspector Field” (Household Words, June 14, 1851), which was a lightly fictionalized account of Inspector Charles Field’s night’s work.
But the two most prominent detective characters who appeared during the years of the casebooks were not influenced by the casebooks or by Dupin. Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (see: Bleak House) was modeled primarily on Inspector Field and shows no sign of the Dupin angst or brilliance. Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff (see: The Woman in White) has Dupin’s omniscient manner, but is different only in quality and prominence from other similar characters in sensation novels. Both contributed to the development of the Great Detective character type, albeit not to the degree that Dupin did.
During these years detective fiction was flourishing in France. Eugène François Vidocq’s Mémoires de Vidocq (1829) spawned numerous imitations and created, in France, the genre of the fictionalized police biography, a type of French casebook. By the time Poe appeared in French (1846 in pirated and altered editions and 1856 in Charles Baudelaire’s translation) there had been decades of near-omniscient Great Detective characters primarily influenced by Vidocq. Balzac’s Vautrin (see: Father Goriot), the most famously influential of the pre-Lecoq detective characters in France, was a fictionalized Vidocq. The roman feuilleton, the dominant genre (in terms of sales) of nineteenth century French literature (see: The Count of Monte Cristo), delivered a series of characters who owed their all-knowing Great Detective manner to Vidocq, from Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert (see: Les Misérables) to Eugène Sue’s Rodolphe von Gerolstein (see: The Mysteries of Paris) to Ponson du Terrail’s Rocambole (see: The Rocambole Adventures). Gaboriau’s Lecoq was drawn primarily (though not entirely) from Vidocq, but Gaboriau’s shift from character to plot added an element which had previously been lacking, and after the 1860s it was Lecoq rather than Vidocq who was most influential in the romans policier. Those characters who were not particularly influenced by Lecoq (see: No. 13 Rue Marlot) appeared in stories and novels which were influenced by Gaboriau.
Mystery fiction was far more common in French literature than in English literature in the nineteenth century, and the English reader was far more likely to associate detectives with French literature than with English literature. English authors would pair their own English detectives with French detectives in order to capitalize on the cachet or the French detectives. This began in the penny dreadfuls in the 1860s (see: The Dance of Death) and could still be seen in the story papers of the 1890s (see: The Nelson Lee Mysteries, The Sexton Blake Mysteries), well after Sherlock Holmes had become the model for other detective characters.
Detective fiction in America did not cohere as a genre until the 1860s and 1870s, when writers like Metta Victoria Fuller Victor (see: The Dead Letter) and Anna Katherine Green (see: The Leavenworth Case) became bestsellers and solidified the form. (The appearance of Sherlock Holmes in 1887 would create a type of mystery and detective for American writers to imitate). Where British and French detective writers were influenced by a few dominant sources, American mystery writers were influenced by several, from the casebooks (see: Out of His Head) to sensation novels (see: The Dead Letter, “Mr. Furbush”) to the Great Detective tradition (the stories starring Allan Pinkerton; see: The Great Detective), often showing multiple influences in one story or character. In the 1870s the dime novels began publishing recurring detective characters (see: The Old Cap. Collier Mysteries, The Old King Brady Mysteries, The Old Sleuth Mysteries), combining the casebook and the Great Detective.
The arrival of Sherlock Holmes in 1887 began the final significant change in the detective character during the nineteenth century. Indeed, it is hard to underestimate the influence of Holmes. Within a decade of his first appearance the Holmesian character type and the Doylean mystery story and combination of deductive logic and scientific orderliness were the dominant forms in America, England, France, and Germany, sweeping away the pre-existing characters and genres and establishing the pattern which would not be seriously deviated from until the 1920s.
For Further Research
Pamela Bedore, Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
LeRoy Lad Panek and Mary M. Bendel-Simso, The Essential Elements of the Detective Story, 1820-1891. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017.
Kate Watson, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: British, American, and Australian Women’s Criminographic Narratives, 1860-1880,” PhD diss., Cardiff University, 2010.
Heather Worthington, The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
1 Lucy Sussex, “Edward Bulwer Lytton and the Development of the English Crime Novel,” Clues 26, no. 1 (2007): 9.
2 Heather Worthington, The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 4.
3 Qtd. in Patrick Bridgwater, De Quincey’s Gothic Masquerade (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004), 152.