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.
It took some time for the neat formula that is now characteristic of the genre to be refined: the early detectives aren’t ingenious or methodical, neither god nor father figure, just industrious and lucky. Clues turn out not to be clues and much of the detective work consists of waiting, watching and following. A piece of luck changes everything and then there’s a race against time. The plots are often absurd, but in ways proscribed by later writers – using the supernatural or outside agents to explain away the mystery, for example. Where they were successful later writers knew what to take from them – plot twists and red herrings, eccentric habits and loyal sidekicks – while their failures inspired cleverer ways to disarm readers.
Three of the books that fell by the wayside have recently been reissued by the British Library. The Notting Hill Mystery, advertised as ‘the first detective novel’, was published in 1862, six years before The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot, not altogether correctly, called ‘the first, the longest and the best’ of detective novels. The Female Detective, a collection of stories, came soon afterwards in 1864, and Revelations of a Lady Detective the same year; all were serialised.
The Notting Hill Mystery is presented as a dossier of evidence collected by an insurance agent, Ralph Henderson, investigating the mysterious death of a woman whose husband had taken out five life insurance policies for her. The evidence includes letters by most of the characters – the servants have terrible spelling – spanning 27 years, as well as diary entries, pencil notes, memoranda, a marriage certificate, witness statements, a plan of the victim’s house, a facsimile of a fragment of a letter in French, a transcript of the fragment and then an attempt to complete and translate it. The book’s author, Charles Adams, may have been trying to compensate for the flimsy plot. Twin girls, who share a psychic ability to feel each other’s pain, are separated as children when the younger, Catherine, is stolen by Gypsies. The elder, Gertie, grows up and gets married but is always unwell. She comes under the influence of Baron R**, a mesmerist, who claims he can help her, and seems to do so with the assistance of a medium, a young woman who turns out to be … her lost sister! The confusing difference in their appearance – Catherine’s extremely large feet – is accounted for by her tightrope-walking career. When the Baron discovers Gertie is about to inherit a large fortune he decides to take advantage of the twins’ psychic connection. He marries Catherine and uses his hypnotic skill to make her sleepwalk and drink poison. She survives but, because of their psychic connection, the poison kills her weaker sister. Gertie’s overwrought husband is accused of the murder: desperate at the thought of the scaffold, he turns to the Baron, who provides him with the means to end it all. Now that the heiress and her husband are out of the picture, the Baron only needs to compel Catherine to drink poison again – a little more this time – and the fortune, plus the life insurance, is his.
The identity of the murderer is never in doubt, but the novel is no less engrossing for that. Henderson has to work out how the Baron did it and prove it before he gets away. That the Baron is an intellectual adversary makes it all the more exciting (Van Dine’s 11th rule: ‘The culprit must be a decidedly worthwhile person – one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion’) but the convoluted explanation – twins, hypnotism, psychic powers, tightrope-walking – gives the author an unfair advantage. (Van Dine’s 14th rule: ‘The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific.’) The Notting Hill Mystery followed the epistolary tradition of police casebooks popular in the mid-19th century, but in presenting the evidence systematically and showing the workings of the detective, Adams hit on something central to the detective mystery: the suspense created by revealing one narrative through another.
The trick is not to make the deduction too easy, or justice too certain, so that the reader is surprised when the solution that was so cleverly hidden in plain sight becomes visible. (Van Dine’s 15th rule: ‘The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent – provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it.’) A fair deception is crucial, and a good writer conceals the deception in the plot. Adams’s letters, statements and diary entries aren’t always as revealing as they seem. He may have been inspired by the multiple narrators of The Woman in White: like witnesses presenting their evidence the characters contradict and expose themselves. Agatha Christie’s famously unfair mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is written as a diary, proving just how unreliable ‘honest’ narrators can be. Sayers tried the same trick in The Documents in the Case, her only crime novel not featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but it was her least successful book: too many competing voices drowned out the plot. (Van Dine’s 16th rule: ‘A detective novel should contain … no literary dallying with side-issues … They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyse it, and bring it to a successful conclusion.’)
The public’s taste for murder gave some 19th-century crimes a long life. Especially gory examples appeared first in the papers, on the stage not long afterwards, and then thinly disguised as fiction. The most famous cases sent shivers through the century: the Road Hill House murder, the Red Barn murder, the Ratcliffe Highway murder, the Elstree murder. The Notting Hill Mystery played on popular concerns about privacy and secrecy, poisoning, unnatural control, about hidden pasts and what might be going on behind closed doors. Arsenic was plentiful. Life insurance in particular was feared and not without justification. Mary Ann Cotton managed to do away with three husbands, 15 children and stepchildren, her mother, a friend and her lover, claiming life insurance almost every time, before anyone thought something might be going on. Six of her children died in one year, but then it wasn’t unusual for several children in a family to die and tests for poison, when they were carried out, weren’t very reliable. A parliamentary ruling prohibited burial insurance of more than £3 for children under ten, though it was later dropped from the statute book: it was too hard to prove that it had deterred anyone.
Before the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, policing was carried out by unpaid parish constables elected by the local justice of the peace; the City had its own system of beadles and watchmen charged with maintaining order and apprehending miscreants. Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners, the first detective force, were introduced in 1749, and individuals could employ private thief-takers (often former thieves) to catch criminals and put them before a magistrate, but it took the success – and commercial necessity – of the Marine Police Force, established in 1798, to make a publicly funded Met conceivable. Its non-military credentials (the men were conspicuously unarmed and dressed in blue, rather than red) didn’t make the new force any more trusted, or liked. In 1842 the Detective Branch of Scotland Yard was created, with two inspectors and six sergeants. There was no ‘science’ of detection and barely anything in the way of forensics. The Road Hill House murder of 1860, which should have been a great success for the young department, was a terrible failure. Jack Whicher failed to prove that Constance Kent had murdered her baby half-brother whose body had been found in an outhouse horribly slashed.The public in any case suspected the boy’s father, Samuel Kent, a known adulterer, and when the 16-year-old Constance was acquitted they turned against her accusers (she later admitted to the crime).
For writers, the private detective was a neat solution to an untidy problem. He could uncover secrets and solve crimes without the publicity and intrusiveness that came with the police; even better, he could beat them at their own game. He didn’t necessarily remain loyal to the party who engaged him, but would always see that justice was done, and not always as the law configured it. Nearly all the great fictional detectives work outside the official channels and most of them are toffs. They have more money, time, education, freedom than the working bobby and their crime-solving, if not an eccentric hobby, is a matter of connoisseurship, like tisanes and incunabula and rare tobaccos. There seems a natural affinity between the detective’s discernment in things material and things human, and, as Sayers described, it’s fun to write about: ‘Lord Peter’s large income … cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet.’
Though the most popular British detectives have nearly all been posh men, the early detectives weren’t. Almost sixty years before women were hired as police officers, the first female detectives, Mrs Paschal and Miss Gladden, were travelling the country in the pages of yellowbacks, apprehending criminals and aiding baffled policemen. Yellowbacks, not unlike the crime novels of today, were mostly sold at W.H. Smith’s in railway stations. Routledge alone had a collection of more than 1200. The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester appeared in May 1864. ‘Forrester’ was a pseudonym – the author’s actual name was James Ware – chosen to capitalise on the fame of the Forrester brothers, former Bow Street Runners; Ware’s earlier police ‘casebooks’ under that name had led readers to speculate that the Forresters were the real authors.
Ware’s heroine, Miss Gladden, usually known as ‘G’, is a matter-of-fact, hard-working, hands-on detective. She has no boss, takes only Sundays off, and defends herself, and her trade, in the book’s opening pages:
Who am I? It can matter little who I am. It may be that I took to the trade … because I had no other means of making a living; or it may be that for the work of detection I had a longing which I could not overcome. It may be that I am a widow working for my children – or I may be an unmarried woman … I write in order to show … that the profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised … I am aware that the female detective may be regarded with even more aversion than her brother in profession … the reader will comprehend that the woman detective has far greater opportunities than a man.
Because it ‘matters little’ who G is, she can pass unnoticed. Just as Miss Marple’s apparent harmlessness is an invitation to confide, G and Mrs Paschal eavesdrop and collect confidences without raising suspicion. Mrs Paschal takes a job as a housemaid to penetrate the household of a thieving countess, while G dresses up as a nun to infiltrate a convent and rescue an heiress. There are advantages to belonging to the second sex if you want to do things secretively. Disguise is easier when no one really looks at you, as is gaining information when no one feels threatened by you. The female detective notices things the male wouldn’t: that an old dress was worn instead of a best, that a room is too tidy to belong to a lady, that a girl bit her fingernails or had dark circles under her eyes.
G has the organised mind of a detective: independent, impatient with trivialities, logical, and orderly to a fault. In ‘The Unknown Weapon’, the most complex of the stories, she has to solve an especially knotty murder. Graham Petleigh, the destitute son of a miserly squire is found dead outside his father’s country house. What and where is the murder weapon? Why was a large black trunk delivered to the house on the day of the murder and where has it gone now? Why won’t the squire offer a reward for information? The inquest brings nothing useful to light. G calls it ‘one of the weakest inquiries of that kind which had ever taken place … characterised by no order, no comprehension, no common sense’. The dim-witted constable is pushed aside as G takes charge. She analyses the victim’s clothing – it rained the night of the murder yet his clothes were not wet. She interviews the villagers and realises that the trunk wasn’t removed. And then a chance remark casts the affair in a new light. G deducts that Petleigh, desperate for cash, had arranged to be delivered to the house inside a large trunk. He had intended to steal the silver in the night and escape before anyone woke up. But the housekeeper, Mrs Quinion, realised that someone was hiding there and stabbed at a hole in the trunk with an arrow taken from the library. When she discovered what she’d done she dragged the body into the yard and hid the trunk, overdoing her ‘unconcealed-concealment’ by covering it with a bright pink tablecloth. G has read ‘The Purloined Letter’ and knows that things are hidden best in plain sight: she discovers the trunk and pieces together what happened on the evening of the murder. Quinion is to be her Irene Adler, however: ‘I acknowledge,’ G says after Quinion’s escape, ‘she conquered me.’
Mrs Paschal is a less attractive character and Revelations of a Lady Detective reads like a funny, ten-story manual on how not to write detective fiction. Paschal is employed as a freelance detective by the police and is always sure to show Colonel Warner, her boss, the ‘prompt and passive obedience which always pleased him’. She can be a bit pious: momentary envy of a wealthy suspect is countered by the happy thought that she is ‘not, like her, an object of suspicion and mistrust to the police’ and her long ruminations are always three steps behind the reader. She has trouble recognising a woman she knows disguised as a man – ‘he was a person of small size, and dressed in an odd way … This puzzled me more than ever’ – and she never stops talking: ‘but I had seen a few things in my life which appeared scarcely susceptible of explanation at first, but which, eliminated by the calm light of reason and dissected by the keen knife of judgment, were in a short time as plain as the sun at noonday’. Although she throws off her crinoline when action is required, she forgets her gun and gets stuck in a blocked passageway while the baddy gets away. She’s asked to guard a mafia defector but goes to visit a friend and is surprised to learn the next day that the man has been murdered. (Van Dine’s 13th rule: ‘Secret societies … have no place in a detective story.’) She tracks down and spies on the gang responsible; they catch her at it, and she has to call for the police to rescue her. She has an unfortunate habit of revealing her feminine side: ‘I showed that I was a woman and swooned away.’ In the case of a murdered young woman, she is on the trail of the wrong person (the police have it right) when she runs into the criminal by accident, whereupon he falls over, breaks his leg and admits to the crime. ‘I have all along,’ she declares, ‘been upon a false scent.’ Perhaps the stories were written by a disgruntled policeman.
Despite Mrs Paschal, female detectives have thrived. They easily outnumber fictional female spies, explorers or police officers. And women wrote many of the books: as Lucy Worsley points out in A Very British Murder,G and Mrs Paschal were preceded by the amateur sleuth Susan Hopley, the ‘dea vindix who unties all knots’, created by Catherine Crowe. She even stole a few months on Dupin. Adventures of Susan Hopley was published in February 1841 and became a bestseller, though critics complained that ‘it perplexes us extremely,’ with the incidents ‘at first minute and carelessly thrown in’ becoming ‘matters of great importance and elaborate art’. The story has a corpse, an inheritance, a disappearance and a wrongful accusation. (Van Dine’s seventh rule: ‘There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better.’) Susan Hopley is companion and housekeeper to an elderly man in line to inherit part of a fortune. When the father of the other beneficiary, a young woman, is murdered, Hopley’s brother is accused: Hopley turns sleuth, and eventually vindicates him. (Van Dine’s 19th rule: ‘The motive should always be personal.’)
Crowe, whom Mary Elizabeth Braddon admired, fell out of favour (Dickens wrote that she had gone ‘stark mad – and stark naked – on the spirit-rapping imposition. She was found t’other day in the street, clothed only in her chastity, a pocket-handkerchief and a visiting card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went in that trim she would be invisible’) and is missing from both The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime (2011) and Mike Ashley’s recent collection of detective stories by women, Sisters in Crime,though both books bring to light some very good stories by long-languishing authors. Alongside, if not quite equal to, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey, we now have Anna Katharine Green, C.L. Pirkis, Mary Wilkins and Lucy Moberly.
It seems a shame now that so many of the authors of female detective stories felt obliged to provide sentimental endings, to make excuses for the heroine’s assertive actions, or to attribute their successes to ‘feminine’ sources of knowledge, from gossiping and eavesdropping to ‘women’s intuition’ – a running joke in the Poirot and Paul Temple stories – and psychic powers. Detective fiction has never been a progressive genre, but it celebrates independence and rule-breaking, and its intellectual triumphs have an egalitarian edge. ‘Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true,’ Sayers wrote. ‘Of course people read them for fun … But underneath they feed a hunger for justice … you offer to divert them, and you show them by stealth the orderly world in which we should all try to be living.’