The genre of detective fiction is a large and complex one and it is not the aim of this post to provide a comprehensive history but, rather, to put forward a few points that may be of interest.
In the decades proceeding the publication of The Moonstone (1868), authors such as Poe and, to some extent, Dickens had established the concept of a detective being an important and, in the case of Poe, the main, character in a novel or short story. There was a growing readership for the “Sensation Novel” and Collins, along with other authors such as Henry Wood and Elizabeth Braddon, were producing works that fitted this description. The sensation novel, itself, could trace a trail back to the Newgate Annals and French detective fiction.
A Touch of Class.
It is with The Moonstone and Sergeant Cuff that I make my first observation. Collins, allegedly, based Cuff on a real policeman, namely, Whicher who had been, notoriously, ostracized for his failure to bring a satisfactory conclusion to Road Hill House Case. Cuff also makes mistakes and does not completely solve the mystery of The Moonstone.
The Victorian class structure regarded policemen of all ranks as “trade” and generally of a lower social order. The fact that these men were often investigating and, most disagreeably, accusing their “betters” was an uncomfortable and threatening issue in regards to the defined social structure. It could be said that this issue was tackled in literature of the period by having the police fail, or to have them appear bungling and ineffective. This led to the emergence of the Amateur Gentleman Detective who, invariably, outwitted not only the criminal but his professional counterparts. Normally, he was of a standing that allowed him accepted access to the higher levels of society while not preventing him donning a disguise and mixing with the common people. He would, also, have colleagues or accomplices from these lower social classes too.
Into the Golden Age.
This literary device can be seen in operation throughout the emergence of the detective story as a specific genre and into thr “Golden Age” of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The main characters of Allingham, Sayers and Christie were of a class above “working”. Poirot also had the advantage of being an outsider due to nationality, so could circumvent the social etiquette to some extent and move freely between the classes without causing offence.
That is not to say there were not exceptions but of the characters that retained their popularity it is, largely, true.
Americans prefer hard boiled.
It was with the emergence of the harder edged American gumshoes that this formula began to break down. They came from a nation that saw itself as classless and it fragmented the strict genre of Golden Age Puzzle in various directions; thriller, spy caper, etc, along with harder and more violent detective stories.
A second observation and an interesting footnote to this discussion is the emergence of a number of authors now writing books set in Victorian or Post-Great War periods. These often feature female detectives who come from the lower classes but have access to all levels of society. It is a vein that, for the most part, remained untapped by authors writing in those periods and comes from a view of the past constructed firmly by the present, one that presents the modern author with a number of creative opportunities.
Of these modern stories (and there are many) some works of note are Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, a well written and researched series featuring an intriguing main character with some unique approaches to solving crimes against a backdrop of an haunted past as a VAD nurse in The Great War. There is also the Mary Russell novels by Laurie R. King, who has an older Sherlock Holmes as her companion, having met him keeping bees in Sussex. As an avid reader of Conan Doyle in my younger days, I was wary of this series. Using Holmes as a main character could so easily go wrong. However, these are good reads and the author handles her subject with skill, good characterisation and cracking plots. There are many others, some good, some not so good. Indeed, much like the Victorian period when work ranged from the Penny Bloods, Yellowbacks through the many Quarterly Magazines and Periodicals, the quality of writing covers a large range, written by authors, the majority of whom, have faded into obscurity; in some cases, undeservedly so, but that is a subject for another post.
The Vikings are coming!
One cannot end a discussion on contemporary crime fiction without a mention of Scandinavian literature. TV and bookshops have seen the emergence of interest in these stories. Within TV series’ I think many a viewer had grown tired of homegrown and U.S output which is often formulaic and predictable, or refers back to Golden Age style plots and characters, but to fully understand the popularity of Scandinavian Detectives is, indeed, a three pipe problem. I would suggest it is a bit of a fad that will, eventually, diminish; consider the hype surrounding The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a few years ago and one can see that interest wains swiftly in a fast moving market.
The Crime and Mystery Book by Ian Ousby. Thames and Hudson, 1997.
The Art of Mystery & Detective Stories by Peter Haining. Treasure Press, 1986.