One of the reasons I wanted to set my new novel The Infidel Stain in 1841 is because that was the year in which Edgar Allan Poe gave birth to the detective story. Although we think of detective stories and thrillers as a modern invention the fact is that most of their themes: murder, the thrill of detection, and the use of a detective story structure to explore and imagine an entire world, were both familiar—and thrilling— to readers a hundred and fifty years ago.
Poe’s story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ has a brilliant but odd gentleman investigator who applies his special method of observation and deductive reasoning to a horrific and impossible-seeming crime, dim-witted police, a succession of clues, and the solution elegantly explained at the end.
Poe, however, was not operating in a vacuum. In England, gory murders had become the stock-in-trade of the new generation of cheap, pulp reads, the Penny Dreadfuls, and in Lloyd’s Weekly, the first of the weekly newspapers published in 1842, half the editorial space was given over to murder and crime: the readers loved it. The new detective branch of the Metropolitan police, set up in 1842 , excited both the public and Charles Dickens, who wrote a series of articles about their successes and became friends with the most famous, Inspector Field and took him as the inspiration for Inspector Bucket, the shrewd policeman in his 1853 Bleak House.
It was Dickens’ protégé, Wilkie Collins who came up with both the prototype mystery novel: The Woman in White in 1859, and the first detective novel, The Moonstone, in 1868. I reread this 18 months ago after I finished my first thriller, The Strangler Vine. It’s exceptionally good and has so many of the ingredients of later crime fiction: the country house setting, lots of red herrings and suspects, a crime reconstruction, a quietly clever, eccentric police inspector as well as the gentleman inquirer, and a great twist. To my surprise, however, I discovered that the male protagonist had the same name, ‘Blake’, as mine—and I had completely forgotten this. It seemed to me that the story must have been swirling around in my subconscious for years.
Around the geniuses of Victorian detective fiction, Dickens and Collins, and of course Conan-Doyle, however, plenty of other writers were filling the shelves with grubbier detectives—arguably the prototypes for the later down-at-heel shamuses of Raymond Chandler, who went to school in England. In Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s madly camp The Trail of the Serpent of 1861, Mr Peters, the working-class mute who communicates by sign language, catches the fiendish Jabez North. A year later Braddon created the crude but clever Grimstone of the Yard, in Aurora Floyd. A year after that Tom Taylor’s melodrama ‘The Ticket of Leave Man’, was such a huge hit, that the name of its investigating policeman, Hawkshaw became the standard slang for a detective for the next fifty years. So numerous had fictional detectives become that another popular writer, the prim Scottish Mrs Oliphant wrote crossly, the ‘literary detective is not a collaborateur we welcome with any pleasure into the republic of letters.’
How wrong she was.
It has respectable bits and unrespectable bits —respectable Dickens and Collins, but the fact that the best writing has survived means that we’ve forgotten just how much of the other stuff there was.
The Infidel Stain can be ordered from amazon here.