A Very British Crime Wave: Detective Stories Captured the Imaginations of the British Middle Classes in the 20th Century. William D. Rubinstein Looks at the Rise of Home-Grown Writers Such as Agatha Christie, How They Mirrored Society and Why Changes in Social Mores Eventually Murdered Their Sales

Article excerpt

Between around 1910 and 1950 England was in the grip of a genteel crime wave; a seemingly endless output of murder mysteries, generally set among the upper and upper middle classes and usually solved by a brilliant amateur detective rather than by the police. They were read enthusiastically and with an insatiable appetite by British middle-class readers. The 'golden age' of the English detective story during this span of 40 years or so is an important and often overlooked feature of English popular culture, as significant in its way as the dance bands and the early BBC.

The detective story long predates this apogee, however, and is normally said to have begun in the fertile brain of the great American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), especially in the three stories of his Parisian detective C. Auguste Dupin: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841); The Mystery of Marie Roger (1842); and The Purloined Letter (1845). From 1859 Dupin had a French counterpart in Moniseur Lecoq, created by Emile Gaborian (1832-73). Despite these American and French origins, it was to England that detective fiction migrated, took root and flourished, becoming a characteristically British genre.

This transition occurred because of one author and his great detective. The most famous of all fictional detectives is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, introduced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) in 'A Study in Scarlet' in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887 and the subject of four novels and 56 short stories. Sherlock Holmes has been called one of the three most famous characters in fiction (Hamlet and Don Quixote were noted as the others). Few writers in history have had such an impact as Conan Doyle. For millions around the world, late Victorian England is the world of hansom cabs, gaslight and fog described in his books, a world where, as Vincent Sterrett, author of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933), wrote, 'it is always 1895'.

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As a seminal landmark in detective fiction the Sherlock Holmes stories have many distinctions that influenced scores of other writers. Holmes is a brilliant private detective, categorically better than the plodders and mediocrities of Scotland Yard, who constantly turn to him when they are baffled, their normal state. This in itself is pure fiction: in real life there were never any brilliant private detectives to whom Scotland Yard turned when they failed and the Yard's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had a remarkable clear-up rate and has always been highly competent. Indeed, the most famous real-life British detectives of the 20th century, such as Walter Dew (1863-1947) and Robert Fabian (1901-78), were Scotland Yard inspectors. Holmes is memorably eccentric, with a range of endearing and less endearing habits (he is a drug addict), a feature of his persona often imitated but never bettered. Nearly all of the Holmes stories are narrated by his faithful Boswell, Dr John (or James: his first name varies) Watson, the original of dozens of other detectives' 'Watsons'. Watson is Everyman, constantly amazed and stupefied by Holmes' genius, but never, despite years of working with him, ever to produce these brilliant insights himself. There is general agreement among the many writers on Holmes that Watson is a lot cleverer than he allows us to understand; he is certainly a fine writer and a memorable phrase-maker.

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Most of the Holmes stories are set among the higher levels of Victorian and Edwardian society, a world inhabited by professional men, retired army officers and country gentlemen as well as members of royalty and cabinet ministers. Few take place among the working classes or the very poor. This situation is the precise opposite of the actual occurrence of criminality, which is overwhelmingly fanned by poverty, alcohol, gangs and domestic violence, sometimes accompanied by examples of brutal thuggery, as subtle or mysterious as a punch in the nose. …