How did she get those feet?

Alice Spawls

  • BuyThe Notting Hill Mystery: The First Detective Novel by Charles Warren Adams
    British Library, 312 pp, £8.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 7123 5859 0
  • BuyThe Female Detective: The Original Lady Detective by Andrew Forrester
    British Library, 328 pp, £8.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 7123 5878 1
  • BuyRevelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward
    British Library, 278 pp, £8.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 7123 5896 5

Little more than forty years separate Poe’s Dupin, the original fictional detective, and A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes’s first outing, but by the time Conan Doyle put pen to paper everyone was reading detective stories. In the intervening years they multiplied out of sensation and mystery novels, gothic melodramas, feuilletons, casebooks and crime reports and became a genre of their own. Few of the early works are read these days; fewer still are in print, overtaken by their more successful descendants in the two great schools of British detective writing. The late Victorian analytical style of Conan Doyle established the single-problem format: the case is presented, investigated – usually at some risk – and then solved; the explanation of its many subsidiary enigmas withheld until the dénouement. Like Dupin, Holmes is a gentleman amateur whose reasoning invariably outstrips the capabilities of the police. ‘All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience,’ Holmes says of his brother Mycroft, but he could just as well be talking of himself. The reader can’t hope to match his deductions, only marvel at the performance. The era of cold Victorian logic was succeeded by the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, with its cleverly arranged clues and psycho-social unravelling. In 1928 S.S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance, the American gentleman amateur, laid down Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories for the American Magazine. ‘The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery’ was the first rule. The Detection Club, whose members included Agatha Christie, Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, agreed. Their protagonists mix deduction with intuition and observation, making the impossible seem not only logical but obvious.

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[1] Bee Wilson reviewed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale in the LRB of 19 June 2008.

[2] BBC Books, 320 pp., £20, September 2013, 978 1 84990 634 3.

[3] Peter Owen, 284 pp., £9.99, May 2013, 978 0 7206 1516 6.