The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Proto-Mystery 

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

A “proto-mystery” is a work of fiction, written before the advent of the modern mystery genre, which has the themes and motifs of mystery fiction and which was important in the development of the mystery genre. Unlike mysteries, there is no discrete proto-mystery genre and no continuum of development from one proto-mystery to another. The term “proto-mystery” is as accurately applied to a novel’s elements as to the novel as a whole.

Although some critical histories of detective fiction point to proto-mystery elements in the Bible, most critics see Voltaire’s Zadig (1749) as the first novel of the modern era to have a significant proto-mystery element.1 Zadig is a philosophical account of the workings of Providence and has nothing to do with crime, but in the third chapter Zadig uses deductions based on physical evidence to identify the queen’s missing spaniel and the king’s runaway horse. The scene emphasizes Zadig’s abilities at deduction and at tracking, traits which James Fenimore Cooper would later attach to his characters in The Last of the Mohicans, which would in turn provide “a literary influence which, though the fact is not generally recognized, must have been powerfully exerted…upon writers of mystery fiction.”2 

The second significant proto-mystery appeared in Germany. For the first two centuries after the invention of printing the public was informed of true crime stories via broadsheets (in Germany, flugschriften) and plays, but in 1650 the German poet and lawyer Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (1607-1658) published his Grand Theater of Lamentable Murders (original: Der Grosse Schauplatz Jammerlicher Mordgeschichte), a collection of true crime stories which gave as much emphasis on assembling evidence to detect the criminal as it did to telling the story. While the telling of true crime stories had a long tradition in Germany in 1650,3 Harsdörffer’s approach was an innovative one, as legal guilt or innocence was determined by ordeal or torture in the German countries of the time rather than by examining material evidence. Harsdörffer’s work was popular with the small educated German reading public, and his approach was duplicated in 1661 by another German lawyer, Matthias Abele von Lilienberg (c.1616-1677), who used cases from the archives of the French Parliamentary courts as the source for his Metamorphosis and Unusual Law Cases (original: Metamorphosis Telae Judiciariae).

The English counterpart to the Harsdörffer’s Grand Theater of Lamentable Murders was the Newgate Calendar, a collection of true crime stories. Newgate Prison was the largest in London and the main repository for criminals in London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first Newgate Calendar was produced by the Newgate Prison chaplain and appeared in 1728. Sequels to the first appeared intermittently, with a five volume collection published in 1773. The stories in the Newgate Calendar were non-fiction; each began with a brief description of how the man or woman became a criminal and then described in detail the crimes they committed, mentioning not just the names and ages of the criminals and victims but where the crimes were committed and how they were committed, including the tools the criminals used. The Who, What, When, and Where of each crime was described, with only the Why–the criminals’ motivation–being slighted. The crimes described in the Calendar were usually robbery or murder. In the stories the criminals are usually caught because of the presence of witnesses or because other people becomes suspicious of the criminals. The implicit message of each story is that criminals are always caught and that crime does not pay, a message verbalized in each Calendar’s preface.

The Newgate Calendar was popular with the English reading public, and each new collection sold well. The Calendar acted as a vector for stories of crime, familiarizing the public with the idea of crime as something that was an ordinary rather than extraordinary occurrence and which was committed by English people rather than inflicted on the English by outsiders.

In France in 1734 a Parisian lawyer, Francois Gayot de Pitaval (1673-1743) published Famous and Interesting Cases (original: Causes Célèbre et Intéressantes), a twenty-two volume set of true crime stories from centuries of cases in France. Although controversial, the collection was extremely popular and was repeatedly reprinted, both inside France and across Europe. The German translation (in nine volumes) was called Der Pitaval (1747-1768), with a four volume continuation appearing in Germany from 1792-1795. In Europe collections of true crime stories became known by “Pitavals.”

The Pitaval narratives were popular in Germany. One of those who enjoyed them was Friedrich Schiller. Several of Schiller’s works in the 1780s were crime-related and were influential on later authors. Schiller’s 1781 The Robbers featured a criminal protagonist and explored the psychology and personal history of the criminal, attempting to explain why Karl Moor becomes an outlaw. (Later imitations (see: The Räuberroman) would lessen Schiller’s emphasis on the criminal’s background in favor of a simpler adventure narrative). Schiller repeated this with his The Criminal of Lost Honor (original: Der Verbrecher aus verlorener Ehre, 1786), describing how Christian Wolf’s psychological troubles lead to his criminal acts. In 1787 Schiller took a different approach in his “The Ghost-Seer,” which has two scenes in which the Prince uses deduction and physical evidence to solve mysteries.

Appearing five decades before Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries, William Godwin’s The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) is the proto-mystery most similar to modern mysteries. Caleb Williams is the secretary to Mr. Falkland, a squire. Falkland is a good man, but when he is beaten by his cruel neighbor Tyrrel, Falkland murders Tyrrel and then hides the evidence of his crime. The curious Caleb uncovers Falkland’s guilt, but Falkland succeeds in discrediting and humiliating Caleb and has him thrown in prison. A final confrontation between Falkland and Caleb results in Falkland’s death. Caleb Williams has many of the elements of modern mysteries, including the investigation of a crime, the discovery of clues and their presentation to the reader, the protagonist’s deduction, the planting of false clues, and the author structuring the story so that the solution to the mystery is not prematurely revealed. But unlike future mystery novels The Adventures of Caleb Williams disapproves of the actions of the detective character. Caleb Williams views his discovery of Falkland’s guilt in a negative light: Williams feels that he should have confronted Falkland about the murder rather than attempting to have him jailed, as a confrontation would have led Falkland to confess to the crime and attempt to make amends. Williams sees conflicts between individuals as properly being resolved by those individuals rather than by institutions.

Many Gothic novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially the “female” Gothic, have a structural similarity to the modern mystery. Novels like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho have a plot format of mystery-investigation-solution, with the female protagonist acting as a prototypical detective in her investigation of the mysteries of the plot.

Another notable proto-mystery is Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner. Published in 1828, it is similar to the later casebook collections and to modern police procedurals in its depiction of the life of a Bow Street Runner in the 1820s. Richmond does not have the modern mystery-investigation-solution format of modern mysteries but does portray the underworld and the daily operations of a policeman. However, Richmond was neither widely read nor influential.

More influential than Richmond were the 1828-9 Memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq (see: The Great Detective). Vidocq’s Memoirs are presented as non-fiction, as true accounts of his experiences with criminals, and the encounters with criminals are a part of his larger biography. The largest influence of the Memoirs was in the creation of the Great Detective character type rather than in the construction of mystery fiction.

Forgotten about today, but the product of a famous writer in their time, are the four mysteries written by the journalist and political activist William Leggett (1801-1839) and published from 1827-1833 in various journals.

Set in the Mississippi frontier of the 1820s, they are obviously indebted to Cooper’s early Leatherstocking tales, but unlike Cooper’s novels, their violence does not depend upon Indian treachery. There are, in fact, no Indians in Leggett’s western stories, nor are his heroes credited with exploits with or against Indians. His world is a white man’s world, characterized by a white man’s crimes [sic]: murder, rape, arson, robbery, and kidnapping.4 

Leggett’s stories are of note because of their content—all emphasize the importance of clues in way not seen in American letters since The Adventures of Caleb Williams, and one, “The Rifle” (The Atlantic Souvenir, Christmas and New Year’s Offering, 1827), contains “the detail of exhuming the dead hunter in order to perform an elementary ballistics test”5—and because of their influence. Leggett was, in the late 1820s and early 1830s, near the height of his literary fame, and it would not be surprising at all if Poe had read them before writing his Dupin stories.

The 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s were also the decades of the “Newgate novels.” Named for the criminals of the Newgate Calendar, the Newgate novels were fictional biographies of criminals. Much English popular literature, from broadsheets to chapbooks to popular journalism to plays, had dealt with the lives of criminals, but the Newgate novelists were the first not only to romanticize the criminals but to portray them as the victims of a cruel and repressive legal system. In the Newgate novels the criminal became the hero, a rebel against an unjust and uncaring society. The Newgate novels privileged the skills of the criminal rather than those pursuing him or her. The attitude of the Newgate novels toward their criminal protagonists is usually sympathetic rather than condemnatory, which is the largest reason that the Newgate novels became so controversial (and in turn sold so well).

The Newgate novel has traditionally been seen as protest literature, popular and profitable during the years of the Chartist movement. The Chartists were political activists in favor of legal reforms giving the working class greater legal power, including the right to vote, and the lifespan of the Newgate novel matches that of the Chartist movement. But the Newgate novel also appeared during a time of legal reform, and the criminal justice system which was the main target of the Newgate novel was revised far more rapidly, and much closer to the goals of the Newgate novelists, than was the political system. During the period of the Newgate novel Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), the Home Office Secretary, oversaw a revision of the criminal code, the elimination of the death penalty as the punishment for many crimes (several petty), the consolidation of the laws on theft, and the creation of a new, professional police force which replaced the Bow Street Runners (see: Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner).

Although most literary histories place the beginning of the Newgate novel in the early 1830s, there were several works which appeared in the 1820s which influenced the Newgate novelists. Pierce Egan the elder’s Life in London, a weekly serial which first appeared as a serial in September 1820 and was published as a novel in 1821. Life in London is about “Corinthian Tom,” an urban swell, Tom’s friends, and a motley assortment of thieves with names like “Black Sal” and “Flashy Nancy.” Egan’s portrayal of the London nightlife and underworld and his use of Thieves Cant influenced other writers. Life in London was widely imitated and plagiarized, both in print and on stage, and its influence was still being felt in the 1860s (see: The Dance of Death).

Edward Bulwer Lytton’s second novel, Pelham, was published in 1828 and caused a furor. Pelham was the most popular and best-selling of the Silver Fork genre of novels about the lives and secrets of the aristocracy, but Pelham also has a significant crime subplot. One of Pelham’s friends is suspected of murder, and to prove his innocence Pelham is forced to learn the Thieves Cant and meet an accomplice to the murder in a gang’s headquarters.

Both Egan and Bulwer Lytton made the contemporary underworld and its inhabitants a part of their novels. Previous novels about criminals had been set in the past or had focused on upper-class criminals. The use of the contemporary lower-class criminals and their peculiar patois was an innovation. However, it was Bulwer Lytton rather than Egan who most influenced the Newgate novelists, as it was Bulwer Lytton rather than Egan who was widely read by the middle and upper-class audiences and authors.

The first major Newgate novels were Bulwer Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830), Bulwer Lytton’s Eugene Aram (1832), and Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834). They were extremely popular and created the audience’s enthusiasm for Newgate novels. In 1837 Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard appeared, accompanying Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in the pages of Bentley’s Miscellany. Although the Newgate novel had always been controversial, Jack Sheppard was met with outright hostility, and when the murderer of Lord William Russell claimed to have been inspired to the act by reading Jack Sheppard, the backlash against the Newgate novel began in earnest. Works like Oliver Twist were seen as morally legitimate, while the Newgate novels were alleged to be immoral and sensationalist. Although the Newgate novel continued to sell, reviewers were extremely critical and other writers, including Thackeray, wrote attacks on and satires of the Newgate novel. By 1847 the Newgate novel was finished as a commercial genre.

The popularity of the Newgate novel influenced other writers, and in the 1830s and early 1840s criminal elements began appearing in novels of other genres with a greater frequency. Domestic novels (see: The Adventures of Susan Hopley) and family melodramas (see: Night and Morning) had crime elements, often significant ones.

In Germany writers had taken the criminal elements from the Pitaval narratives and began using them in the 1820s and 1830s as the basis for crime fiction, the kriminalgeschichte (see: Detectives). During those decades American fiction magazines ran stories which portrayed law enforcement officials investigating crimes and apprehending criminals (see: “The Secret Cell”). And the French romans feuilleton, or serialized novel, used both the Pitaval narratives and Vidocq’s Memoirs in their novels (see: The Mysteries of Paris).

The Proto-Mystery survived the appearance of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries, but the rapid rise in the number of outright mysteries inspire by Poe’s work meant that the number of Proto-Mysteries dwindled quickly, and by the 1850s and the advent of the casebook detective stories the Proto-Mystery was finished as a genre.


1 See, for example, LeRoy Panek’s An Introduction to the Detective Story (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), and Stefano Benvenuti and Gianni Rizzoni’s The Whodunit: An Informal History of Detective Fiction (New York: Macmillan, 1980).

2 Dorothy Sayers, “Introduction to the Omnibus of Crime,” in Howard Haycraft, ed., The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946), 85.

3 Joy Wiltenburg, Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 163-168.

4 John Seelye, “Buckskin and Ballistics: William Leggett and the American Detective Story,” Journal of Popular Culture 1, no. 1 (Summer 1967): 53-54.

5 Seelye, “Buckskin and Ballistics,” 56.