Roots and Beginnings: Victorian & Edwardian Mystery Fiction

Four influential figures dominate British and American detective fiction before World War I: Edgar Allan Poe (the father of the detective short story), Wilkie Collins (the father of detective novel), Arthur Conan Doyle, and G. K. Chesterton. The first two authors wrote during the Victorian era; the latter two, the Edwardian period.

Although elements of the mystery novel can be traced back to the Bible (Sayers 1928, 72), the genre’s most relevant ancestors are eighteenth-century true crime stories, Newgate Calendar stories (cautionary tales which recount the exploits of famous criminals), and Gothic novels. And even though these stories and other eighteenth-century novels are rich in crimes and mystery, they do not contain the elements that we associate with the detective story today. “For a book to be described as a detective fiction,” claims P. D. James, “there must be a central mystery, and one that by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically, not by good luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from clues honestly if deceptively presented” (2009, 10).

Social conditions needed to pave the way for the development of the genre. Dorothy L. Sayers points out that an effective police organization had to be established first (1928, 75). As James reminds us, “Detective fiction is unlikely to flourish in societies without an organized system of law enforcement or in which murder is commonplace” (2009, 13). In Britain and the United States, police forces were established during the 1840s and 50s. Over the course of the century, detection gradually emerged as a useful method of solving crimes. Up until then “criminals were more often than not betrayed by confederates, discovered by accident, or caught red-handed” (Rzepka 2005, 57).

Literary conditions also changed prior to the establishment of the genre. Fiction became more accessible to the middle class once libraries and cheaper forms of publication were established. Another factor that contributed to the emergence of detective fiction was the popularization of scientific interest in inductive logic (Rzepka 2005, 17).

In 1834, Eugène-François Vidocq, a criminal turned detective, published his Memoirs, a widely-read four-volume work that inspired generations of later writers. Another French writer, Émile Gaboriau, created a series of detective novels that influenced writers in America and England. As Stephen Knight points out, “his pattern of closely involved detection among clues, mysterious twists, and with a final amazing revelation, became a powerful model for the emerging book-length crime-focused story” (2004, 51).

Edgar Allan Poe wrote only three short stories featuring the detective, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, but they were enough to stir the imaginations of subsequent writers (see my post on Poe’s detective stories). Almost every variation in detective plot, claims Symons, can be found in Poe’s mystery tales (1992, 29). Poe created the type of detective (the aristocratic amateur) who would flourish until well after World War II (Symons 1992, 55).

Although Dickens used elements of crime fiction in Bleak House, Oliver Twist, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it was his friend Wilkie Collins who wrote the first English detective novel in 1868 (see my post on The Moonstone). Collins’s creation of a detective who hides his talent behind a mask of eccentricity helped establish the detective tradition (Scaggs 2005, 24).

In the latter half of the nineteenth-century, mystery novels were often integrated with and submerged into fictional forms such as the Gothic, sensational, realistic, historical, and Newgate novel (see Rzepka 2005, 99).

When Doyle published his Sherlock Holmes stories at the turn of the century, he little knew the far-reaching impact his stories would have (see my post on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.)

The first flowering of the detective novel was conservative, favouring male detectives and endorsing a patriarchal world-view (Scaggs 2005, 20). Indeed this conservatism lasted well until after World War II. Early detective fiction frequently took the form of the short story rather than the novel (Symons, 65), and featured robberies rather than murders (Knight 2004, 81). The detective introduced a new kind of hero to the novel, one who played the role of “master interpreter, inventor of hypothetical arrays, reconstructor of past events” (Rzepka 2005, 70-71).

James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.

Sayers, Dorothy L. “Introduction to The Omnibus of Crime.” (1928). In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft, 71-109. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.