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The Detective Novel

Parantap Chakraborty

Detective fiction is perhaps one of the most popular literary genres of all time. One of the
sub-genres of detective fiction is the detective novel. The novel as a formwas already,
almost fully-developed before the emergence of the detective fiction. Though traces of
detection techniques can be found in texts as early as The Ramāyāna or even the tale of
"The Three Apples"2 from the Arabian Nights, it was in China that we find the first
tradition3 of the proper detective fiction.

Detective fiction in the West however took a long time to develop. The late
seventeenth & and early eighteenth century saw the rise of a new popular literary genre –
the novel. The early novels dealt a lot with crime but it had very little of detection in it.
The approach though would change in the following centuries. Ian Bell traces this to the
change to the development of a proper governmental policing system and judiciary.

The literature of the eighteenth century is suffused with crime, but handles it in a
wholly different way from that of the nineteenth and twentieth. Looking back across
those centuries, it is easy to trace this difference to the penal realities of the time: the
absence of any reliable system of policing, or of the detection of criminals on any routine
The ‘Bloody Code’5 proved to be an imperfect and inadequate legal system. It regarded
that the responsibility of catching and punishing a criminal rested solely with the
offended party. The novels of this period deal with the criminal as a sympathetic hero –
the prime example of this would be Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722). Attitudes
towards crime and criminals however underwent a change in the following decades. It
also changed the way The criminals were represented in literature. Changes can be found
in texts as early as 1773, and the publication of the first Newgate Calendar. Named after
the London prison, the Calendar was a series of collections of stories relating to details
of 'real life' crimes. Although the focus was still on the criminal, the portrayal was not
sympathetic by any means. As Stephen Knight points out in Form and Ideology in
Detective Fiction:
A short moral preface offered the stories as dreadful warnings; an early version
recommended the collection for the educational purposes of parents and also -
presumably as a diversion – or those going on long voyages.6
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, writings on crime had not only started
to focus more on the mechanism of justice, but was becoming projected as a commercial
literature of relaxation. The popularity of the calendar gave rise to a short-lived sub genre
called the ‘Newgate Novel’- The fictional counterpart of the true crime stories in the
Calendar. One of the most successful of these novels, and the most well known was
Dickens' Oliver Twist (1837-9). Things were changing in the law and order front; the
bloody code gradually disappeared and by 1829 London had a professional police force.
This would start to influence the representation of crime in print. During the same period
Eugene-Francois Vidocq’s7 Memoirs8 were published which would go on to influence the
British ‘yellowbacks’9. Ian Ousby describes these as cheap and cheerful reading, [which]

Inspector Bucket.included a flood of books presented as the reminiscences of real policemen but actually fiction written by hacks. [7] Eugène François Vidocq (July 23. and there were various other means – from bribery to the kind of apparent Christian repentance shown by the thief-heroine of Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders (1722) – of escaping the death penalty or commuting it to a lesser punishment such as [4] Bell.-( Bell. to solve the crime and find the murderer within three days.'The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Auguste Dupin certainly fits this description. [2] "The Three Apples". 1980. The code was partly self-defeating. A later novel.The Sign of the Four (published 1890). It would anticipate many features of the 20th century detective novel. Ian A. 'The Mystery of Marie Roget' (1843) and 'The Purloined Letter' (1845). the Victorian detective story was influenced by the work of overseas practitioners. and Experiences of a Real Detective (1862). as a figure who stands halfway between respectable society and the criminals 11. The Law and the Lady (1875). in the novel Les Misérables. Harun al-Rashid. [1] In the Indian Epic Ramayana Rama traces his abducted wife Sita. Experiences of a French Detective Officer (1861). through the clues she left. Form and Ideology in Detective Fiction. Harun orders his vizier.The hero of these novels is typically a traditional judge or similar official based on historical personages such as Judge Bao (Bao Qingtian) or Judge Dee (Di Renjie). [5] The main tool of law-enforcement was the fear of horrific punishment if caught: the so-called ‘Bloody Code’ which penalized even minor thefts with death.) With Bucket.Watson. “Eighteenth-Century Crime Writing”.12 The Moonstone represents a shift towards detective fiction in that the mystery was clearly defined. would be Charles Dickens'. Although the historical characters may have lived in an earlier period (such as the Song or Tang dynasty) the novels are often set in the later Ming or Manchu period. In this tale. as before becoming a detective he had been an .org) [3] A tradition of detective fiction is the Ming Dynasty Chinese detective fiction such as Bao Gong An) and the 18th century novel Di Gong An The latter was translated into English as Dee Goong An (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) by Dutch sinologist Robert Van Gulik. [8] …the four volumes of the Memoires of Eugene-Francois Vidocq (the first head of the Parisian surete) published between 1828 and 1829. Ja'far ibn Yahya. 1857) was a French criminal who later became the first director of Sûreté Nationale and one of the first modern private investigators. made the shift even more apparent 13. and emphasized his uncertain status in society. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1775 – May 11. or be executed if he fails his assignment (wikipedia. The Valley of Fear (1914–1915). Christopher Pittard notes that Although contemporary analyses of ‘classic’ detective fiction have often been concerned with the construction of ‘Englishness’ in the genre. Vidocq was Victor Hugo's inspiration for both reformed criminal Jean Valjean and his pursuer. who wrote (amongst others) Recollections of a Police Officer (1856). The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901– 1902). The first British literary detective. 2006. 2006. Dickens created the prototype of the literary detective. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective appears in 3 other novels (and also 56 short stories) . “Eighteenth-Century Crime Writing”.10 The first important fictional detective in English literature. The Woman in White (1860). Of particular prominence in this field was William Russell. The Parisian appeared in three short stories . one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). Ian A. The next important figure in the history of the detective novel is Dickens’ protégé Wilkie Collins who is credited with the first detective novel (gradually shifting from the ‘Sensational Novel11’). Vidocq's position is particularly interesting.Stephen. police inspector Javert.' (1841). in that juries who felt the punishment too great for the crime might well acquit. in the novel Bleak House (1852. (Wikipedia. a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph. who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. who then used the style and characters to write an original Judge Dee series.) [6] Knight . Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press. With A Study in Scarlet (1887) arrived the most popular fictional detective ever – Sherlock Holmes and his friend and assistant Dr J.

and the role of the detective as halfway between respectable society and the criminal would continue to be developed well into Victoria's reign. the rest of the novel followed a more conventional pattern of literary detection. The Law and the Lady (1875). The Moonstone.Christopher . published in 1868 (coincidentally. (Wikipedia. The detective in that novel. much of the output of the yellowback publishers was in 'true' crime [11] Ibid. Although these publications encompassed all kinds of popular writing (including the sensation fiction of the 1860s). where the mystery surrounding Lady Audley is as important as the disappearance of George Talboys).An Introduction’’ –(http:///crimeculture.. made the shift even more apparent by hinting at a 'secret' (What is Eustace Woodville concealing from his wife?) which was revealed halfway through the first volume. employed many of the techniques of sensation fiction.infamous forger and prison-breaker. [which] included a flood of books presented as the reminiscences of real policemen but actually fiction written by hacks' [10}. an early female detective). The Moonstone represents a shift towards detective fiction in that the mystery was clearly defined. but The Moonstone hints at the role of the police detective in future crime fiction in the character of Sergeant Cuff. ‘‘ The Woman in White is considered to be the first of the sensation novels. Valeria Woodville. ‘Victorian Crime Fiction . A later novel.An Introduction –(http:///crimeculture. Ian Ousby describes these as 'cheap and cheerful [9] so called because of their bright yellow covers. Christopher Pittard ‘‘Victorian Crime Fiction . ‘Victorian Crime Fiction . the year of the final public hanging in Britain). but was more oriented towards the solving of a central puzzle.An Introduction –(http:///crimeculture. was an amateur (and [13].10) A final twist in the plot.’’ .(Pittard . [12] The features are 1) A country house robbery 2) An "inside job"3) A celebrated investigator4) Bungling local constabulary5) Detective enquiries6) False suspects7) The "least likely suspect"8)A rudimentary "locked room" murder9) A reconstruction of the crime. Whereas the mystery of earlier sensation fiction had often been concerned with an undefined 'secret' (as in Lady Audley's Secret. but his later work would indicate a move towards detective fiction.