It's December, it's cold, the gloomiest days of winter are ahead of us, and going outside is hard. I plan on hibernating as much as possible in the weeks and months ahead, and if we're going to be honest, there's not much better than doing that while curled up in bed with warm blankets, a multitude of pillows, definitely a hot beverage, and some sort of suspenseful, page turning, detective novel.
And so, since I thought it would be appropriate so share my current literary exploits in my literary blog, the month of December here at Truths and Edits shall be christened the month of Detective Fiction.
Since like a good little former scholar I like defining my terms, a fairly strong definition I found of Detective Fiction comes from the academic Dennis Porter, who describes it as a 'generic term for all novels whose principal action concerns the attempt by a specialist investigator to solve a crime and to bring a criminal to justice'. Another good one comes from my favourite literary bible, 'The Handbook to Literature', which adds that this solving of the crime is solved through a 'logical assembling and interpretation of palpable evidence, known as clues'.
Depending on who you ask, Detective Fiction as a genre either began in the mid-1800s, or it has been around forever. Well, how can that be, you might ask, and the answer to that is that it depends on how rigid or loose you want to be when using these definitions of exactly what is, Detective Fiction.
If you define Detective Fiction as needing to have an actual detective, then you can't really have it begin before the 1800s, since that's when detectives, and even police forces, came into being. This surprised me when I found it out, but alas, it's true.
Until the 1800s and the Industrial Revolution, the population was more scattered, living spread out in smaller towns and in the country side. Hence, the only law enforcement tended to be in the form of a constable or nightwatchman, who knew most people in the area, and either figured out the perpetrators of a crime rather quickly, or not at all. There were still courts, of course, for people who were thought guilty of a crime, but there weren't yet detective like figures who spent time examining the evidence, looking at clues, and really scouting the scene, per say.
It wasn't until the growth of urban centers that real police forces were established in response to the need for formal law enforcement. As Ruth Anne Thompson and Jean Fitzgerald describe it, this was at the start of industrialization when there were no laws in place for workers so you had a lot of people suddenly living in denser areas and enduring horrid working conditions, low wages and overcrowding. Unsurprisingly, there was an increase in crime, and so the modern police force was established as a response: London got one in 1829, Boston in 1838, New York in 1845. Along with it, of course, came the role of the Investigator, or Detective, and so, from this you can say that Detective Fiction could not possibly have started before the 1800s.
However, if you're a bit more fluid in your assessment of what constitutes Detective Fiction, you can also say that it has been around for thousands of years. Rebecca Martin, editor of the volume Critical Insights: Crime and Detective Fiction, argues that Oedipus Rex can be seen as an early example of Detective, or Crime Fiction, in the way there is a discovery of the truth after questioning witnesses; same with the story of Daniel investigating and adjudicating the case of Susannah and the Elders in the Book of Daniel; and with 'The Story of the Three Apples' that also involves the solving of a case, and is included in the collection known to us as One Thousand and One Nights.
This is because they all share certain characteristics with modern crime writing: they are plot driven, not character driven, and the plots feature the 'unusual events, mysterious characters, and the systematic shocks, revelations and suppressions of information that create a suspenseful narrative and keep a high degree of tension alive in the reader.' Even if they don't have an actual 'Detective' in them, in scope these stories are pretty similar to what we might call Detective Fiction. Hence, we can say the genre has been around forever.
Which ever way you want to argue, however, there's no disputing that Detective Fiction definitely took off formally in the mid-1800s. As I said above, this is in part because of the actual appearance of detectives on the world scene, but there are also some other important factors as well: the rise in literacy amongst the masses, the wider spread of the printing press and the ability to mass produce cheap publications, the popularity of crime stories that followed highwaymen and petty criminals.
The three godfather, I guess you could call them, of Detective Fiction are Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Poe is credited for creating the prototype of detective fiction with his short story, 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which introduces the detective, C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur genius who solves mysterious crimes. He was followed by Wilkie Collins, who is said to have wrote the first detective novel with 'The Woman in White', and is also famous as the writer of 'The Moonstone', said to be his masterpiece. In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world, a character that would go on to become a staple of popular culture, and perhaps the most infamous detective of all with his masterful logical deduction and reasoning skills.
Detective Fiction continued going strong well through the turn of the centuries: the period between the two world wars is considered its 'Golden Age,' and it was also, interestingly, a period that featured the prominent writing of quite a few women, who are nicknamed the 'Queens of Crime': Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh, to name a few.
There was also, as Thompson and Fitzgerald describe it, as a result of Prohibition and the prevalence of police corruption, the popularization of detectives in fiction who were characterized more so by their 'superhuman intellectual skills and toughness and tenacity'. Unlike earlier detectives who were more of gentleman-like figures, these characters had cynicism, a sense of honour, and inhabited the mean streets of their cities. Raymond Chandler's private eye in 'The Simple Art of Murder' is an example of this, and I think in looking at the eclectic cast of detectives found on television in novels, today, its clear that they've continued on well into the twentieth century.
Detective Fiction continues to be widely popular, and I think it's easy to understand why. Mystery novels capture your attention, hold you in suspense, and they also allow you, the reader, to go somewhere over the course of the novel, and find stuff out (who doesn't like getting juicy information). As Rebecca Martin states:
'The reader reads both stories in a complicated process of forward movement as the investigation is conducted and backward movement as evidence is weighed, ordered, and interpreted, creating a new narrative, a narrative of the crime in all of it's particulars including motivation. The act of reading itself is an onward search for and interpretation of clues, of which each word is a complex sign.'
A common technique, particularly in older detective fiction like Poe and Doyle, is to have the story narrated by someone other than the brilliant detective, i.e. Sherlock Holmes' dear friend Watson, and I think this convention works so well because it gives the reader an ally in the story: we might not all be as masterful investigators as Sherlock, but when we're shuttled through the story alongside a more 'average' observer, we can have a good time trying to look at the clues given and solve the crime while still knowing we'll get told it in the end, anyways.
All this writing about Detective Fiction has me wanting to actually read some, so I'm going to go make myself a cup of tea and read Poe's 'The Murders in the Rogue Morgue', and I'll tell you about it next time on Truths and Edits.
Further Reading Material:
'On Crime and Detective Fiction: Perversities and Pleasures of the Texts.' Critical Insights: Crime and Detective Fiction. Ed. Rebecca Martin
Ruth Anne Thompson and Jean Fitzgerald, 'From Mean Streets to the Imagined World: The Development of Detective Fiction.' Critical Insights: Crime and Detective Fiction. Ed. Rebecca Martin
Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction
William Harmon and Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature.