The Rise and Fall of the Detective Novel

By Bell, A. Craig | Contemporary Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of the Detective Novel


Bell, A. Craig, Contemporary Review


IN this day and age of the crime novel, the who-dunnit, the detective hero; when half the novels, plays and T,V programmes (or so it seems) consist of the genre; when Agatha Christie's lucubrations run for years in the West End, and spatter the TV programmes; and when a whole clutch of fiction purveyors have made their names and fortunes by turning out nothing else, it is interesting and instructive to look back and trace the origins of such a state of affairs.

The first essays in the art of deduction and ratiocination per se must go to the French. As early as the 18th century the Chevalier de Mailly, in his Le Voyage et les Aventures des Trois Princes de Serendip (1719), showed the wandering princes displaying this skill, describing, for instance, a strayed camel so accurately from traces it had left in the sand that they are accused of having stolen it. Voltaire's Zadig (1750) relates how his hero escaped from a similar predicament by proving that his detailed knowledge about the Queen's dog and the King's horse was derived solely from their tracks in the soil, thus indicating their size, and from hairs caught on branches, revealing their breed and colour.

Beaumarchais, in Le Barbier de Seville (1775), made Bartolo conclude purely from inductive reasoning that Rosine had written a letter during his brief absence. And in fact, Beaumarchais amply demonstrated his abilities in this respect in a letter to the 'Morning Chronicles' on 1st May, 1776. He had found a lady's cloak at the Pantheon after a ball and, wishing to return it to its owner, amused himself by deducing her personal appearance from a scrutiny of the cloak itself, and with disarming gaiety stated exactly why he knew she was young, blonde and beautiful and describing her height and build, her taste in dress and her social rank. Sherlock Holmes is anticipated! But all these examples are brief and presented simply as amusing tours de force. The first sustained fiction to employ detection in a serious way and to create the first detective 'hero' in fiction, was Edgar Allan Poe with his Auguste Dupin.

The three famous stories in which he appears, viz. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter (1841) were almost immediately translated into French, and not only making Poe's name European but bringing about in French fiction what the great English critic Saintsbury has called 'the attraction of the forcat', with such novelists as Sue and Balzac and others of lesser breed portraying criminals of every possible type - swindlers in the salons of the nouveaux riches, gangsters in the squalid slums of Paris, convicts suffering in the notorious prisons of Bicetre and Brest, or struggling to gain a livelihood after their escape or release.

Nevertheless, these were simply crime novels, not detective novels. There was as yet no heir-apparent of Auguste Dupin, no professional detective whose sole job it was to detect and trace crime and to make it his living.

For the rediscovery of that personage we come back to our own shores and turn to Dickens's Bleak House (1852-53) to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bucket. The acquaintance, however, proves at best a nodding one, since that personage, although given an air of mysterious importance by his creator, is little more than a dummy figure, appearing now and then to help in the unravelling of the 'plot'. We are told little or nothing of his methods, proclivities or theories; and one has only to compare him with Wilkie Collins' Sgt. Cuff, destined to appear a decade later, to be made aware of the former's lack of personality. I doubt whether the average Dickens reader, if asked to name his one detective, could remember it. Nevertheless Mr. Bucket's name must be included in the roll and role of fiction's full-time detectives.

Our chronological survey takes us back across the Channel and to no less than Alexandre Dumas. In his later years (with his best historical romances behind him) Dumas wrote a series of novels of contemporary life. …

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