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The Origins of Detective Fiction

A Brief History of Crime & Mystery Books

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Detective fiction, as we know it today, truly began in 1841 when Edgar Allan Poe introduced Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin in the short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Two women were brutally murdered in a baffling and grotesque manner, the police appear baffled, Dupin leads his own investigation and succeeds were the regular authorities have failed, so setting in stone the basis of countless detective fiction novels to come.
Some suggest that Voltaire's Zadig was the catalyst, though whilst not without some foundation, most agree that it was Poe who initially brought all the main ingredients together for the first time.
Dupin was to enjoy two further outings in The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842-43) and The Purloined Letter (1845). With these well crafted and occasionally ingenious plots Poe originated, the now formulaic, basic subplot and requirements of the detective fiction story; A brilliant detective and a baffling crime which requires superior intelligence to solve. Helped along by a doting friend or colleague who chronicles the case. The police initially assume a position of scepticism and disdain only to be humbled and amazed as the case is unfurled before them at the end.

It was perhaps inevitable that with the establishing of police forces around the world it was only a matter of time before we saw the 'memoirs' of real detectives appearing. The most famous was of Eugene Francois Vidocq who was the first head of the French Surete in 1812. His four volume set of memoirs (published between 1828 and 1829) were a huge success. Although published under the name Vidocq they were in fact ghost written by two writers. Vidocq acquired a legendary reputation despite the fact the accounts were largely fictional.
'I am Vidocq, and I arrest you'

This genre reached the peak of its success with the advent of the 'yellowbacks', so called because of the distinctive yellow covers, they were cheaply produced throw-away publications that usually appealed to the readers more lurid instincts.
The first notable title was Recollections of a Detective Police Officer by 'Waters'. It first appeared in yellowback format in 1856 and was subsequently reprinted ad nauseam as well as being translated into French and published in the US as a 'dime novel.'

This then is how the genre continued with what was often little more than hack journalism with little or no literary merit. This unsatisfactory situation was suitably addressed in 1859 by Wilkie Collins with his classic novel The Woman in White, a book which is, still today, a fabulous read.
This saw some much needed literary input into the genre and was followed by other such notable titles as Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862), The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins again and Charles Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

This much needed injection of quality writing did not spell the end of the 'pulps' though, indeed far from it. Such was the appetite for crime and mystery stories amongst the populus at large that publishers turned out masses of pulp titles with varying degrees of success. Most were literally one shot publications of a disposable nature, though some did find commercial success. The most notable being The Mystery of the Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume. There seems little to indicate why it was so successful but successful it was having sold 375,000 copies in Britian alone by 1898.
The book was initially, due to indifference from publishers, self published by Hume in an edition of 5,000. The book was an immediate success and quickly ran into multiple reprints, but despite this Hume sold the rights to the story for a mere 50. The right were bought by a group of investors who subsequently published it under the imprint of 'The Hansom Cab Publishing Company.'

This then gives us a basic overview of the origins, growth and status of detective fiction at the time. Little else was to change until the arrival of 'The World's Greatest Detective'.

Move onto Sherlock Holmes
Or see The Golden Age of detective fiction      Hard boiled crime fiction

Text © 2004 R.D. Collins

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