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History of the Detective Story

The changing cultural mythology of crime has given rise to many different popular genres. Some of these genres have been essentially adventure stories or melodramas, but one of the most prominent embodies the cultural mythology of detectives, criminals, police, and suspects in a classic form that is almost pure mystery. Edgar Allen Poe first noticeably expressed the traditional detective story in the 1840s, but it did not become a widely popular genre until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This rise in popularity of the detective story coincided with the success of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Sherlock Holmes is widely regarded as the most famous of all fictional detectives and is known for his intellectual prowess and reasoning skills. Although Doyle’s works are the most popular of detective fiction, Poe is responsible for originating the formula for what is commonly known as the detective story. Frenchman Francois-Eugene Vidocq, in his Memoirs of Vidocq, introduced the idea of detection and the figure of the detective that would eventually stand at the center of the genre in the early nineteenth century.

Vidocq was a confidant of at least two famous contemporary French writers and an inspiration for many others around the world. Having served as a soldier, privateer, smuggler, inmate, and secret police spy, Vidocq, at age twenty-four, credited himself with a duel for every year of his life. The Paris police accepted his offer for his “security services” in 1812, and shortly thereafter, he established his own department, the Surete, which became the French equivalent of the American F. B. I.

In a typical year, William Ruehlmann reports, “Vidocq had twelve men working for him, and between them they made 811 arrests, including fifteen assassins, 341 thieves, and thirty-eight receivers of stolen property. “[1] When Vidocq published his Memoirs in France in 1828, they were immediately popular and translated into English. Victor Hugo based not one but two characters in Les Miserables on Vidocq – both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Honore Balzac’s character, Vautran, in Pere Goriot was also modeled after Vilocq. Edgar Allen Poe lauded Vilocq’s renowned crime-solving reputation in Murders in the Rue Morgue.

The fugitive in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations was also inspired by Vidocq’s real-life exploits. [2] England’s interest in crime stories blended with a strong, existing genre called the gothic novel. Most scholars attribute this genre to Horace Walpole, whose Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, established the horror story, to which Mary Shelley added scientific aspects with Frankenstein (1818). The gothic influence is said to account for the dark settings, unfathomable motivations, and preoccupation with brilliant or unexpected solutions in the detective/mystery genre.

Among English writers, Vidocq most influenced Charles Dickens, who used detail and character from Vidocq’s Memoirs for his Great Expectations. In the United States, Edgar Allen Poe wrote five stories between 1840 and 1845 laying out the basic formula of the detective story. In “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe introduced an eccentric detective, C. Auguste Dupin, whose solutions were chronicled by an admiring, amiable narrator. Later detective stories, notably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, became even more eccentric, and Poe’s nameless narrator had his counterpart in the good-natured Dr.

Watson. [3] In “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe introduced three common motifs of detective fiction: the wrongly suspected man, the crime in the locked room, and the solution by unexpected means. [4] Dupin solved the crime by reading the evidence better than the police did and by noticing clues that they had neglected, thus highlighting the importance of inference and observation. In a second story, “The Purloined Letter,” Poe invented the plot of the stolen document, the recovery of which ensures the safety of some important person.

Dupin solved this crime by two more formulae that are important: deduction through psychological insight into the protagonists, and a search for evidence in the most obvious place. [5] In the third Dupin story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Poe introduced and developed the crime by recounting newspaper clippings, a technique that later attracted the literary realists and is still used. [6] Though this mystery contained no solution, leaving the reader to deduce a solution, it marked the beginning of the genre’s use of and competition with newspapers in presenting the “truth about crime” to readers.

Of the other two Poe stories, “Thou Art the Man” presents three important motifs: 1) the criminal confesses when faced with the enormity of his crime, 2) the detective follows a trail of false clues, and 3) he deduces that the criminal is the least likely suspect. In “The Gold Bug,” a man finds an encrypted map that promises the discovery of hidden treasure. All five stories are dark in tone, with characters whose motives are indecipherable, as well as the unexpected endings common to the gothic novel in Poe’s time.

Poe was also a literary critic, and he created a basis for the detective story. “The unity of effect of impression is a point of the greatest importance,” wrote Poe, “this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed in one sitting. ” Unity of tone and a length that permitted readings in a single sitting led Poe to conclude that detection was essentially a “tale, a species of composition which admits of the highest development of artistical power in alliance with the widest vigor of imagination. [7] Poe suggested three effects: 1) Failure to preserve the mystery “until the proper moment of denouement, throws all into confusion, so far as regards the effect intended. ” 2) Everything should converge on the denouement: “There should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. ” 3) It is imperative that “no undue or inartistic means be employed to conceal the secret of the plot. “[8] These rules seemed to focus the genre more into what it is recognized as today. By 1870, detective fiction was finding a popular American audience.

Allan Pinkerton published The Expressman and the Detective, the earliest American non-fiction account of a private detective. Pinkerton’s business card showed an unblinking eye with the motto “We never sleep,” linking his services with the phrase “private eye. ” This popular book established the importance of both the hero, and of an understated style employing objective descriptions and short, clear sentences. Working closer than Poe to the public pulse, Pinkerton never allowed his protagonist the eccentricity that precluded his immediate perception as a tough, hands-on hero. 9] Pinkerton understood that the public was interested in “the immersion of the eye into an almost surreal underworld, an underworld to which he must adapt in order to get his work done,” as Ruehlmann writes; he “creates an atmosphere of evil commensurate with a sense of the holiness of the mission and its necessity for the sanctity of moral order. “[10] Pinkerton himself wrote that the private eye “should become, to all intents and purposes, one of the order, and continue so while he remains in the case before us.

He should be hardy, tough, and capable of laboring, in season and out of season, to accomplish, unknown to those about him, a single absorbing object. “[11] In England, by contrast, the detective genre underwent a more analytic, stylized development, exemplified in the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle admits that Poe was an influence to his work. When asked about Poe’s influence, Doyle replied, “Dupin is unrivaled. It was Poe who taught the possibility of making a detective story a work of literature. [12] Doyle adopted Poe’s formula, cut his elaborate introductions, restating them in conversational exchanges between his two chief characters, and emphasized Poe’s least realistic feature: the deduction of astonishing conclusions from trifling clues. [13] Soon, England was producing more detective fiction, such as G. K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown in 1911 and Eric C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case in 1912. American detective fiction was also influenced by the dime novel. Beginning in 1860, the yellow-colored, paper-backed books of the firm Beadle and Adams promised readers “dollar books for a dime. [14] These “yellowbacks” fit in the pockets of Civil War soldiers and were printed on the cheapest newsprint, and made from pure wood pulp without rag fiber, hence their nickname, “pulps. ” Beadle and Adams had a standing order for 60,000 copies of each new book, and sometimes ordered a second printing within a week. Some of the yellowbacks went through ten or twelve printings, a phenomenal circulation for the day. President Lincoln, his vice-president and secretary of state, many senators, and even the celebrated clergyman Henry Ward Beecher have been named as readers of the Beadle and Adams novels. 15] The settings of the dime novel might be the West, the sea, the Maine woods, or war, but in all of them a young, usually male protagonist is immersed in a foreign environment to which he must adapt quickly or perish. Dime novels imparted a great deal of practical lore about fishing or trapping or sea craft or “hunting Injuns,” along with the notion that the protagonist had a “right” to this setting or could domesticate it. The dime novel hero exhibits courage, honesty, and chivalry, not to mention a sense of Manifest Destiny. There is usually a female romantic interest, treated chastely. The endings were morally uplifting if not happy.

As early as 1874, authorities blamed dime novels for juvenile delinquency and crime, a debate that continues. In the Boston trial of Jesse Pomeroy, prosecutors suggested that this sadistic murderer was motivated by “literature of the dime novel type. ” Boston prosecutors used the same tactic against a man named Piper. In 1884, the New York Tribune charged that three boys had robbed their parents and “started off for the boundless West” because of dime novels. [16] The relation between crime and crime narrative has long been debated. In the late 1880s, the American dime novel began to branch.

Some were distinctly Western, evolving from the “Injun tales” of Seth Jones, a descendant of James Fenimore Cooper’s heroes. A new Western hero, Deadwood Dick, appeared in 1884 and became the most popular hero of dime novels. His creator, Edward L. Wheeler, eventually published eighty separate books on his adventures and those of Dick Junior. [17] Nevertheless, an interest in the adventures of city life was also taking hold. Its heroes were the first urban, pulp detectives. The first Old Cap Collier story, Elm City Tragedy was based, like Poe’s “Marie Roget,” on an actual murder case in New Haven, Connecticut. 18] Old Cap Collier novels were written by various authors and eventually numbered over seven hundred titles. [19] So valuable was Old Cap that when he retired, he came back as the author of a second generation of novels. These novels were visually distinct: six by ten inch pamphlets, without illustration, in green covers. Inside were eighty pages of mayhem, according to Pearson, who has chronicled in a single book no less than five one-on-one fights, seven fights with gangs, twelve attacks with knives or clubs, one bombing, one poisoning, and one attack by a steel trap disguised as a chair.

In this same story Old Cap beat two men “to a jelly,” hurled twenty-one men through the air, and choked one man until black in the face. [20] Old Cap had competitors, Broadway Billy and Jack Harkaway, but chiefly Old Sleuth. First appearing in 1872, Old Sleuth specialized in disguises and spoke in underworld slang. [21] The idea of an “underworld” owes not only to classic mythology, but also to the difficulty Victorians had in conceptualizing the cityscape. Without tall buildings or good maps, they had no overview of proliferating streets and alleys, which often lacked numbers and even names.

Popular publications explained the confusion to them by illustrations that used the “bird’s eye view” or the “mole’s eye view. ” Old Cap and Old Sleuth used the latter to explain the city’s “underground” systems to fearful new urban residents. The western/urban split intensified around 1890, the year picked by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner to mark the closing of the American West. The date has seemed notable to many scholars. Henry Nash Smith wrote that the hero of the dime cowboy novel then became “a self-reliant, two-gun man who behaved in almost exactly the same fashion whether he were outlaw or peace officer.

Eventually he was transformed into a detective and ceased in any significant sense to be Western. “[22] Later, scholar Leslie Fiedler returned to this similarity, calling the detective “a cowboy adapted to life on the city streets, the embodiment of innocence moving untouched through universal guilt. “[23] As the dime novel turned the century, interest in the urban detective continued, but in a cleaned-up hero named Nick Carter. The Nick Carter Weekly anthologized his adventures, which were written by Eugene Sawyer and several other authors. The Nick Carter stories moved a step closer to hard-boiled fiction.

For more sophisticated readers, however, there was an even cleaner fellow by the name of Frank Merriwell. Merriwell was a Yale student, polite, educated, and could be counted on to win the football game against Harvard, single-handedly, on the last play. He was an influence on one of the most scandalous of later hard-boiled writers, James M. Cain. [24] Nick Carter was almost as respectable, but he roamed the world, and his stories were packed with fights. Nick Carter and Frank Merriwell defined themselves against each other: street-smart and elite.

The Golden Age of detective fiction is regarded as spanning the years of 1920 and 1939. The Golden Age saw may noteworthy authors such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers. The settings, while seen as traditionally English, were to become somewhat formulaic and predictable[25]. Many Golden Age writers called upon personal experience for background and settings for their plots. Slick magazines were printed on paper with a high fiber-rag and clay content, making them smooth to the hand, long lasting, and brilliantly white.

They featured generous illustrations, often in color, advertisements for hard goods, and they connoted higher social status. They printed fiction by leading authors of the Merriwell School, and they paid astonishingly well, up to a dollar a word. Their detectives were brilliant, witty, and eccentric; the crimes and methods of their solution tended towards Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The most celebrated of the slick magazine detectives was Philo Vance, the creation of Willard Huntington Wright, who wrote under the pseudonym, S. S. Van Dine.

The wealthy Wright set the tone in 1926 with the first of his twelve Vance novels, The Benson Murder Case. While some of the most influential Golden Age detective fiction was written during the early period, the prodigious output of many authors meant that quality and consistency invariably suffered later on. [26] While this sub-genre was taking hold, there was, however, something very much different, and equally important, going on across the Atlantic, The Hard Boiled School. At the other end of the spectrum were new incarnations of Old Cap, Old Sleuth, and Nick Carter.

Their creators toiled for a penny a word and still published on disreputable pulp. These writers submitted to Nick Carter Weekly, Detective Stories, Girls’ Detective, Doctor Death, Brief Stories, or the more lurid Police Gazette, most of which offered readers one hundred fifty pages of fiction for ten or fifteen cents. The early leader was Detective Stories, owned by Smith and Street, which had published The Nick Carter Weekly. [27] Between 1920 and 1950, the prime of hard-boiled fiction, one hundred seventy-five different detective magazines graced the news racks. Some of the pulp writers, using a dozen names, wrote 1. million words a year. “A million words a year is so usual,” wrote Frank Gruber, who credited this outpouring to the invention of the typewriter. He noted that earlier pulp novelists had written seventy thousand words a week in longhand. [28] The first significant hard-boiled authors appeared around 1923 and at the same magazine, The Black Mask. The influence of Black Mask can hardly be exaggerated. It promoted the hard boiled school to an ever increasing audience. [29] The biggest innovation that the hard boiled school brought to detective fiction was the use of the first person narrative to tell the story.

Being tough is a crucial element of the successful hard boiled hero. Notable hard boiled authors, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler tended to demonstrate their character’s toughness not by winning fights but by taking a beating “like a man” or by “staying cool” and avoiding a sticky situation with sharp repartee and one-liners. These character traits, while initially innovative, soon became as cliched as those of the Golden Age detectives and their predecessors. [30] It was Hollywood that later epitomized the detective story in 1941 with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart.

The formula was set in place and while modernized over the years it remains fundamentally the same today and detective fiction still falls mainly into two camps; hard and soft. In conclusion, the detective story has progressed and evolved since the time of Vidocq until today. As it continued to develop, the stories became more and more involved, and followed more and more specific formulas. The characters developed from somewhat rough with Vidocq to very well-polished with Nick Carter. Even the covers of these stories improved, particularly in England.

Undoubtedly, the most influential writer of detective stories was Edgar Allan Poe, who pioneered the writing of detective stories. His work influenced all writers after him in an inextricable way. In the end, the detective story is a tremendous part of literary history. It will and continue to be an unrivaled and unique genre. Bibliography Carlson, Eric W. A Companion to Poe Studies. London: Greenwood Press, 1996. Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion Books, 1960. Gruber, Frank. The Pulp Jungle. Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1967. Hutchisson, James M.

Poe. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. McCullough, David Willis. City Sleuths and Tough Guys. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Morn, Frank. The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982. Nyman, Jopi. Men Alone: Masculinity, Individualism, and Hard-Boiled Fiction. Amsterdam: Rodopi Bv Editions, 1997. Pearson, Edmund. Dime Novels. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1929. Pinkerton, Allan. The Molly Maguires and the Detectives. New York: Haskell House Publishing, 1972. Roth, Marty.

Fair and Foul Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective Fiction. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1995. Ruehlmann, William. Saint with a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye. New York: New York University Press, 1974. Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. New York: H. Holt and Co. , 1921. Westlake, Donald E. , and J. Madison Davis. Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. ———————– [1] William Ruehlmann, Saint with a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye (New York: New York University Press, 1974), 22. 2] David Willis McCullough, City Sleuths and Tough Guys (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), 30-32. [3] Donald E. Westlake and J. Madison Davis, Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 5. [4] Ibid. , 15. [5] Ibid. , 22. [6] Ibid. , 28. [7] James M. Hutchisson, Poe (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 298-99. [8] Ibid. , 309, 331, 360. [9] Frank Morn, The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), 14-22. [10] Ruehlmann, 26, 28. 11] Allan Pinkerton, The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (New York: Haskell House Publishing, 1972), 17. [12] “Conan Doyle as He Appears Here. ” New York Times, 3 October 1894. [13] Eric W. Carlson, A Companion to Poe Studies (London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 139-42. [14] Edmund Pearson, Dime Novels (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1929), 21. [15] Ibid. , 46. [16] Ibid. , 93-94. [17] Ibid. , 202-3. [18] Ibid. , 138-39. [19] Ibid. , 139. [20] Ibid. , 141. [21] Ibid. , 191-96. [22] Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (New York: H.

Holt and Co. , 1921), 9. [23] Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion Books, 1960), 476. [24] James M. Cain, “Man Merriwell,” Saturday Evening Post (June 11, 1927): 45-51. [25] Marty Roth, Fair and Foul Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective Fiction (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 6-10. [26] Ibid. , 17. [27] Pearson, 210. [28] Frank Gruber, The Pulp Jungle (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1967), 40. [29] Jopi Nyman, Men Alone: Masculinity, Individualism, and Hard-Boiled Fiction (Amsterdam: Rodopi Bv Editions, 1997), 271. [30] Ibid. , 371.

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