The Classical English Detective Novel. Part I

Part I: The Background.

In 1887, in Beeton's Christmas Annual,the literary world made its very first encounter with the character destined to become the greatest detective in the world, namely Sherlock Holmes. Since that day, he and his inevitable companion, Dr. John Watson, these two paragons of virtue and order, have saved "damsels in distress" from fates "worse than death", the world from "evil geniuses" and the peace of mind of the "meek" that they may still inherit the earth.

In addition to that, they have provided a more than ample income for a multitude of publishers, printers, ghost-writers, dramatists, writers for radio, TV and moving pictures, film directors and actors, from William Gillette and Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett. Not to mention illustrators from Sidney Paget to Ronald Searle.

This is no small achievement, and it was all done by a modest Victorian doctor of medicine with too little patients and too much spare time.

His name was Arthur Conan Doyle, and it was mainly while waiting for the patients to show up, that he, out of boredom, embarked upon that series of adventure which started with A Study in Scarlet in 1887 and ended with Shoscombe Old Place in 1927, three years before his death.

There's scarcely any need to elaborate on the exploits of the "Maestro". He's the fons et origo of the whole genre. This does not mean, however, that he had no predecessors, far from it. If we reckon 1887 as Year 0 in relation to mystery fiction, we must acknowledge Poe's "John the Baptist" to Doyle's "Christ".

It is almost an axiom that Edgar Allan Poe wrote the very first detective story in history without ever employing the word "detective". It is obvious that Conan Doyle modelled his duo directly after Poe's Chevalier Auguste Dupin and his anonymous narrator.

They appeared for the first time on April 1st, 1841 in Graham's Magazine, a Philadelphia periodical, in the "gruesome" account of The Murders in Rue Morgue.

Poe wrote another two stories with Dupin: The Mystery of Marie Rôget (1843) and The Purloined Letter (1844-45).

Together with a few other short stories which he wrote, his literary output is incredibly original. From these few scant pages can be derived the five recipes upon which nine tenths of all later whodunits are made.

Another influence on Doyle was the Frenchman Émile Gaboriau who created M. Lecoq whose techniques Holmes adapted and used so much more efficiently.

Conan Doyle became the breakthrough of detective fiction. He wrote 4 novels and 57 short stories about Sherlock, of which the latter were published in Strand Magazine, and although the author killed his hero in a fit of disgust, he was forced to revive him by public demand.

It seems that the impact of Doyle's four novels i.e. A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1889), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) and The Valley of Fear (1915), was so tremendous that no real innovations, with very few exceptions, were made for a period of over 20 years.

The short story, on the other hand, had its true "Golden Age" in the years 1890-1920. A multitude of fascinating characters, now totally forgotten, leaped from the pages of various magazines into the minds of the readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have to insert a note of explanation concerning the title of this essay. The word "English" in it is not a misnomer. Nor is it to be regarded as a geographical assignation, but rather as a set of criteria and rules, laid down and cultivated mainly by the English detective mystery writers of the 20s and 30s. Great names of which we will hear more later on.

The Sherlock Holmes novels are not strictly "classical" within the meaning of the act, insofar as they fail to fulfil some of the criteria demanded.

What then, are these criteria?

They were not very many, and the breaking of some was likely to be accepted as long as attention to others was upheld. A rule not to be taken too seriously was the one that prohibited the introduction of 1: Chinamen, and 2: Master villains, which obviously is to be seen as a reaction to fictitious characters such as Dr. Fu Manchu, Professor Moriarty, Carl Peterson, etc.

Others of the so called "Ten Commandments" were certainly not to be trifled with. For instance, the rule about never letting the detective find a clew which is not immediately submitted to the reader for inspection. Nothing must be withheld. The facts may be shuffled away before your very eyes in the best "Houdini" style, but they must be presented.

Another rule was that no mystery must have a supernatural solution. A rule which has been broken but once, and that by one of the greatest masters of the craft. The culprit being John Dickson Carr, whose The Burning Court is the exception that confirms the established rule. With these few rules in mind, let's go back to the chronology.

After Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, writers literally went out of their way to create heroes that were, if possible, even more eccentric than Sherlock ever was, and not altogether without a certain amount of success.

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is a bit beside the point as it has no hero detective. It's a story about the psychology of crime, and it deserves to be mentioned anyway. Stevenson wrote other stories or studies in horror psychology, viz, The New Arabian Nights and Markheim.

While we're at it we might as well take a look at the female detectives of the period. Detective fiction seems to be an area where a happy absence of discrimination exists.

The first female detective in literature appeared anonymously in London in 1861. In a book of short stories called The Experiences of a Lady detective, featuring Mrs. Paschal. She was followed by a stream of women detectives such as, Loveday Brooke (1894), from the detective agency in Lynch Court, by Catherine Louise Pirkis. Lois Cailey from Miss Cailey's Adventures (1899), by Grant Allen. Other ladies such as Dora Myrl (1900), who later on in 1909 married the male detective of the series, Paul Beck. Dora Myrl was written by M. McDonald Bodkin. Baroness Orczy, famous for her great adventure books about The Scarlet Pimpernel, published Lady Molly of Scotland Yard in 1910.

The Baroness had created another detective in 1901, The Old Man in the Corner, which is one of my own favourites. He's probably the first and almost the only armchair detective within the meaning of the act. I only recall one other, namely the one and only Nero Wolfe.

The "Old Man" spent all his time at a corner table in a Lyon's or an ABC, always twisting a bit of string. Miss Mary Burton, a reporter, brought him all his cases and facts by reading aloud to him from newspapers.

The year before, 1900, saw the debut of Arthur Morrison's books about Martin Hewitt "Investigator". They are today almost priceless collector's items.

In 1906, in an adventure novel, appeared, in the last chapters, a monstrosity, who was to star in his own right in two volumes of short stories. None other than Professor Augustus S. F. X. van Dusen, Ph.D, LLD, F.R.S., M.D. & M.D.S., for short, "The Thinking Machine", by Jacques Futrelles, who died prematurely, tragically and heroically in the "Titanic Disaster".

Ernest Bramah, who is probably best known for his stories about the Chinese sage Kai Lung, invented the blind detective, Max Carrados, who is another of my favourites.

From about the same time dates G. K. Chesterton's clerical sleuth, Father Brown.

In America, in 1912, the occult detective - crystal and all - the "Astrogen" Kerby, who appeared in The Master of Mystery by Gelett Burgess, was introduced. The book was very cryptic and mysterious in the sense that it was published anonymously. However, if you take the first letter in each of the 24 short stories you get the following message: "The Author is Gelett Burgess" and if you take the last letters you get: "False to Life and False to Art".

This kind of thing is not unique. If you get the chance, try to read the first letter of each chapter of The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen and see what kind of message it yields.

The correspondence-course detective came in 1918 with Ellis Parker Butler's Philo Gubb.

Among the most outstanding detectives of this period is a really fine, but most neglected, figure from across the Atlantic. Samuel Hopkins Adams' Average Jones, from 1911. He is one of my absolute all time favourites. Mr Jones is an "Ad-Visor", i.e. he investigates fraudulent advertising in the press, and as the year suggests we are in the golden, or at least, the yellow age of newspaper publishing, with a lot more papers circulating than today, and no competition from radio and TV. Even the "silent movies" were in their infancy. D. W. Griffith was just about to move to California and discover Hollywood as the first of the tycoons, soon to be followed by the herd. It's incredible what you could become involved in through a newspaper advertisement in those days. For instance: how would you react if you encountered an add, written in Latin by a man who could speak no other language?

That's what happens to Mr Jones in one of the most original and intriguing detective short stories ever written. Another feature of this story is the fact that murder is not the subject matter. Murder was not mandatory in those days. But it does not subtract from The Man Who Spoke Latin. It's a fascinating story about a "lost" book containing a secret concerning Shakespeare and Bacon, and it doesn't take a soothsayer to find out from where Ellery Queen got the inspiration to the plot in their excellent novel The Last Case of Drury Lane, one of the classics, but more about this later.

Another absolutely original plot with the most surprising twist in the end is T. S. Stribling's Clues of the Carribees. The name of the detective hero is Paggioli a psychologist. He appeared in only that volume of short stories from 1929, and the last of the stories has the most original and unexpected ending in the whole of mystery fiction, The Murder of Roger Acroyd and The Last Case of Drury Lane included. However, from around 1945 Stribling began to write more Paggioli stories for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and these are supposed to be even better.

Melville Davisson Post's Uncle Abner from about 1905 is another great American detective, as was Craig Kennedy by Arthur B. Reeves around the First World War.

All these and many more constitute a treasure of suspense and entertainment, but almost all of them are totally forgotten by the readers and publishers of today. A great pity I think.

After this digression let us now consider the detective novel in the decades leading up to the "Golden Age".

In 1878, 9 years before A Study in Scarlet, an American lady, Anna Katherine Green, published an excellent book, The Leavenworth Case. This is the first detective novel written by an American Author, and what's more, it provides good reading even today. It's true that there were novels about before Conan Doyle, viz, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868), and even his brother-in-law, Charles Dickens, whose Bleak House (1856) is the first work, to my knowledge, employing the word "detective". One of the comparatively important characters in the book is "Inspector Bucket of the Detectives".

The detective force was a somewhat new phenomenon. Sureté of Paris had been founded at the end of the Napoleonic era, and in England a police force had been instituted in 1829 by the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel. The detectives and their uniformed colleagues were not very popular. Neither with the citizens of London, whom they were supposed to protect; nor with the criminal classes. Various nicknames were thrust upon them. Some still known and cherished, as for instance, peelers (Peel), bobbies (Robert) and cops or coppers (the first policemen wore copper buttons in their uniforms). The latter may even have originated in the US

Apart from these few English and American examples, the real and consistent market for the product until the publication of Sherlock Holmes was France.

The works of Émile Gaboriau set the style and quality for quite some time. Unfortunately they are not very readable today, as a matter of fact, the only novel from the period before A Study In Scarlet that stands up even today is The Leavenworth Case by A. K. Green which I have mentioned before. The Moonstone which has been acclaimed a great book, by such an esteemed critic as Mr. T. S. Eliot, is to my way of thinking long-winded and slow.

Dickens' Bleak House is, of course, well worth reading. Dickens is, after all, Dickens, but B.H. is readable for other reasons. As a detective novel it has too many irrelevant plots i.e. plots with no relation to the detective part of the book. I believe that an attempt was made, at sometime or other, to publish only the chapters dealing with inspector Bucket, but I never saw the thing, and so far as I know it failed to make an impact on the literary world. So in general it must be said again that apart from The Leavenworth Case the rest of the novels of the period should be mercifully left in the graceful state of oblivion, but, of course, they must be named as the literary milestones they are.

Oblivion also better suits The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus W. Hume (1887). It is really trash, but must be mentioned for the ironical fact that it became the best-seller of 1887 and A Study in Scarlet sold nothing that even slightly resembles the figures of the other. Today the horse drawn taxi would have been totally forgotten, had it not been for Holmes and Watson.

Go to Part II