Wilkie Collins's Sleuths and the Consolations of Detection

By Trecker, Janice Law | The Midwest Quarterly, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Wilkie Collins's Sleuths and the Consolations of Detection


Trecker, Janice Law, The Midwest Quarterly


ENJOYED BY READERS all over the world, the mystery novel, with its various progeny like the private eye novel, the spy novel, and the international thriller, is perhaps the most vigorous modern genre. Its wide popularity rests on an ability to deal entertainingly with contemporary issues--'ripped from the headlines' as one of my editors used to say--and on a willingness to confront the problem of evil, which has gradually migrated from theology to sociology, psychology, and crime fiction. Flexible enough to encompass everything from cozy puzzlers to conspiracy theories to the darkest noir dramas, the mystery has also created an alternative to the traditional hero, namely, the detective, whose resourcefulness has proved particularly suitable for the materialistic and relatively democratic societies that gave the genre birth. Though the mystery novel often deals with sordid material and is usually dismissed as light reading or pulp fiction, such work has a more serious side, suggesting that the real mysteries of life can yield to human reason and that ordinary mortals can provide answers and achieve justice. In short, the mystery novel is about the power of the little guy.

Perhaps it is this ultimately hopeful view of human capabilities that has led the mystery to supplant tragedy and to produce a new protagonist, whose modest start and ambiguous status are on display in Wilkie Collins's novels. Although Collins (1824-1889) had very mixed feelings about the type he did so much to create, the detective, whether amateur sleuth, private eye, or police inspector, has not only become one of the most popular modern protagonists but has gradually assumed the trappings of the tragic hero that he (or she) has displaced.

The detective's infancy is on display in Collins's three big novels, The Woman in White (1860), Armadale (1866), and The Moonstone (1868), which are striking for both their similarities to the modern product and their differences. The three stories trace the development of the detective from amateur to professional and include many of what would become perennial facets of the mystery, even if the crimes are subtly different and the detectives, and their cultural standing, quite altered. Identity theft in the age of social security cards and computer databases is both harder and easier than in the Victorian period, while privacy is less secure but public exposure less of a threat in the days of Oprah. The loss of even a valuable jewel no longer elevates the heartbeat unless the scheme is of Topkapi complexity, while murder, pretty much off stage in Collins's novels, has come front and center.

But as far as characters and plot devices go, Collins had much of the ground covered long before the big sellers of today. He favored women in jeopardy, still a thriller staple, and femme fatales of the distinctly criminal bent so beloved by the hard-boiled school. There are dubious folk with connections in high places and respectable hypocrites who keep one foot in criminal enterprises, types popular today with writers as different as James Lee Burke and Iris Johansen. The novels offer an abundance of obscure clues that turn out to be crucial, as well as thrilling escapes and dedicated pursuits, drugs, corruption, and weird, isolated landscapes.

Most of the favorite sleuths, both amateur and professional are present, too. We have the dramatically obtuse representatives of local law enforcement favored by Agatha Christie and clever rationalists that will reach their apotheosis in Sherlock Holmes, along with a disreputable private eye and a thoroughly respectable police inspector. All these are just what a modern reader expects; what is unexpected is Collins's distinctly ambivalent feelings about detectives, which, in their police incarnation, were a relatively new phenomena, and one which provoked keen public interest. The contemporary press favored stories of crime, criminals, and detectives, often to the profit of writers (Sturrock, 74; Liddle, 89-90). …

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