Literature

A Short History of Detective Fiction

An introduction to the history of the detective story

Since this is a short history of the detective story, it will, inevitably, make some pretty glaring omissions. We’d love to hear from detective fiction aficionados in the comments section below, for any other interesting takes on mystery and detective tales.

The first detective story is a hard thing to call. ‘The Three Apples’ in Arabian Nights is sometimes given the honour, but whether this is a detective story even in the loosest sense is questionable, since the protagonist fails to make any effort to solve the crime and find the murderer of the woman. Many say the mantle should go to another tale with a title beginning ‘The Three …’, namely ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, a medieval Persian fairy tale set on Sri Lanka (Serendip being a Persian name for the island) – the princes are the ‘detectives’ and find the missing camel more by chance (or ‘serendipity’; this word was coined by Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, and has been in use ever since) than by their powers of reasoning.

The first modern detective story is often said to be Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) but in fact E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’ predates it by over twenty years. There is also a story titled ‘The Secret Cell’ from 1837, and written by Poe’s own publisher, William Evans Burton, which predates ‘Rue Morgue’ by a few years and is an early example of a detective story – in the tale, a policeman has to solve the mystery of a kidnapped girl.

Moonstone

The first detective novel is often held to be The Moonstone (1868) by Dickens’s friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins. However, The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-3) predates it by five years. It was published under a pseudonym; the real author has never been conclusively proved. Some argue that the first detective novel had appeared over a century before: Voltaire’s Zadig (1748) was an influence on Poe in the creation of C. Auguste Dupin. Others mention Dickens’s own novel, Bleak House (1853), as an important book in the formation of the modern detective novel, since it features Inspector Bucket, the policeman who must solve the murder of the lawyer, Tulkinghorn.

Sherlock Holmes is the most famous fictional detective ever created, and has to be one of the most famous fictional characters in the world, alongside Hamlet, Peter Pan, Oedipus (whose history may qualify as the first detective story in all of literature), Heathcliff, Dracula, Frankenstein, and others. Holmes was created, of course, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and is largely a mixture of Poe’s Dupin – several of Dupin’s ‘tricks’ even turn up in the Sherlock Holmes stories – and Dr Joseph Bell, a real-life doctor who taught Doyle at the University of Edinburgh when Doyle studied Medicine there. Nobody can decide whether Holmes’s creator should be known as ‘Conan Doyle’ or just ‘Doyle’, by the way. Is Conan a middle name, or part of a (non-hyphenated) double-barrelled surname? The jury’s out.

Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really make deductions: strictly speaking, his reasoning takes the form of induction, which is slightly different. In logic, deduction means drawing conclusions from general statements, whereas induction involves specific examples (the cigarette ash on the client’s clothes, the clay on their boots, etc.). Alternatively, some logicians have also suggested that Holmes’s reasoning is something called abduction, rather than either deduction or induction: abductive reasoning involves forming a hypothesis based on the evidence to hand, which is a rather neat summary of what Holmes does. Perhaps he is a master of abduction, rather than induction (and certainly not of deduction).

Following the success of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the rise in popularity of the ghost story and horror novel during the late nineteenth century, a new subgenre emerged: the ‘psychic detective’, who solved crimes of a (possibly) supernatural origin, often in a Sherlockian style. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr Hesselius is often cited as the first such character, although he doesn’t do much solving himself: most of the time he merely sits in a chair and listens. The most popular character to emerge out of this subgenre was the ‘psychic doctor’ John Silence, created by horror writer Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood’s John Silence: Physician Extraordinary (1908) was the first volume of fiction to be advertised on roadside billboards, and became a bestseller as a result.

In the twentieth century, Endeavour Morse (who was always a Chief Inspector, never plain old ‘Inspector Morse’, despite the title of the television series) was merely one in a long list of Oxford detectives. Some notable detectives who predate him are Lord Peter Wimsey, created by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Oxford professor Gervase Fen, created by ‘Edmund Crispin’, real name Bruce Montgomery, who was a contemporary of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis at Oxford during the early 1940s. Crispin has been called one of the last great exponents of the classic detective novel. Montgomery was a skilled painter and composer, too: among other achievements, he composed the musical scores for numerous Carry On films.

The most popular writer of detective fiction of all time is probably Agatha Christie – and there are so many fascinating Agatha Christie facts that we’ve dealt with her in a separate post. To learn more about classic detective stories, discover these 10 great rivals of Sherlock Holmes and the forgotten author of this comic crime novel from the genre’s golden age.