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.
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.
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 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.
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'.
Text © 2004 R.D. Collins
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