Gaslight and Fog

John Pemble

  • BuyThe Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England by Haia Shpayer-Makov
    Oxford, 429 pp, £30.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 957740 8

‘Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?’ snapped Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker in 1945. He refused to find out who did, because he’d already discovered that Agatha Christie’s books were garbage and that he couldn’t put them down. This is what you’d expect. Wilson was a literary prude, and detective stories are literature’s oldest profession. They do one thing, they do it once, then they go off to jumble sales and charity bookshops to do it for someone else – unless they feature Sherlock Holmes. He seldom turns up with Poirot and Miss Marple in trays of second-hand pulp, but haunts the libraries, loos and luggage of people like T.S. Eliot, Ronald Knox, Eric Newby, Vladimir Nabokov and Umberto Eco. He even made it into Edmund Wilson’s bedroom. Although Holmes is a private detective, he’s frequently consulted by Scotland Yard and repeatedly succeeds where it fails. This leads Haia Shpayer-Makov to read in the Holmes saga a powerful argument for privatising the police. Its message, she claims in The Ascent of the Detective, is unequivocal: ‘Effective crime investigation requires the input of the commercial sector.’

What’s so special about Holmes? He’s hardly an original. He first appeared in the 1880s, when almost everyone in Britain who wrote or read was writing or reading about detectives – even though actual detectives were thin on the ground. The CID, founded in 1842 as the Detective Department at Scotland Yard, had by 1890 only 300 members – barely more than 2 per cent of the Metropolitan Police – yet its activities attracted a swarm of journalists and boosted the circulation of their papers. Private detectives were probably even fewer, because Victorian Britain never had anything comparable to Pinkerton’s. Furthermore, they worked chiefly on divorce and libel cases, taking little part in the investigation of crime, and so didn’t figure much in the press.

In fiction, however, they were paramount. Here they eclipsed outlaw heroes of folk tradition – Dick Turpin, Jonathan Wild, Dick Sheppard – and usurped the leadership of the police in the fight against delinquency and disorder. The prolific Stephen Knight has calculated that Sherlock Holmes had at least 13 predecessors, some of them women. Most were quickly forgotten, and there was every reason to suppose that Holmes would soon disappear too. He’s a derivative of the detective heroes of Edgar Allan Poe and Emile Gaboriau, matched with a Boswell figure (Watson) to act as stooge and narrator, with a few added clichés from the Victorian literary bazaar. Dickens and the melodrama supplied fog and gaslight; Stevenson, Wilde and Pater props and accessories: revolver, boxing gloves, jack-knife, briar pipe, jewelled snuffbox, Stradivarius violin, a penchant for recondite chemistry, cocaine, Sarasate and the polyphonic motets of Lassus – and eyelids that are a little weary, like the Mona Lisa’s. When he first appeared, in the novella A Study in Scarlet in 1887, no one took much notice. But when Arthur Conan Doyle repackaged Holmes and Watson in short stories for the Strand Magazine, the trifle improvised for pin money by a struggling young doctor soon turned into an apotheosis that bemused, enriched and finally exasperated him. He tried to exorcise the incubus by killing Holmes off, but resurrected him in order to appease public outrage and keep the pot boiling.

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[*] Orion, 304 pp., £18.99, November 2011, 978 1 4091 3382 7.