|Crime has featured in literature since Cain and Abel but this does
not mean there has to be a literature of crime and still less crime
fiction in the contemporary sense. This is a relatively recent
phenomenon and could not begin to exist till society had made a
significant lurch in the direction of the modern, which is to say when
it started to be scientific rather than superstitious, bourgeois rather
than aristocratic, urban rather than pastoral, and capitalist rather
Such a direction was becoming clear early in the eighteenth century and its literary first-fruit was the novel with its stress on psychological and social realism. The Age of Reason was on its way, though it might with equal justice have been called the Age of Acquisitive Individualism. For every rationalist philosopher, the age produced a thousand pickpockets and pirates, highwaymen and whores, whom moderately reasonable men usually feared, occasionally feted and were always fascinated by. The literature of crime which appears early in the century, providing a pre-history of true crime-fiction which does not appear till the next, reflects both this interest and this ambiguity.
In terms of fiction, the most significant strand in this new literature of crime was the picaresque tale, that loose, episodic, usually autobiographical account of the adventures and tricks of a wandering picaro or rogue. Its most important English manifestation hitherto had been Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), though translations of the principal native Spanish examples of the genre were popular throughout the seventeenth century.
But still more popular in the sense of being available to the widest audience were those accounts of crime fact provided in broadside ballads and chap-books. The new age was also the age of information and soon this wide fascination with sensational crime was being catered for by the developing popular press. Instant criminal biography, in its simplest form merely a pamphlet describing in outraged and sensational terms the latest gory crime, was another popular journalistic product, and later it was expanded with a full and rapidly conventionalised biographical apparatus.
There was no shortage of material for even the idlest hack. Eight times a year the City of London and County of Middlesex Sessions Papers were published, which gave reports, often verbatim, of the latest trials. Better still, on the morning after an execution the Ordinary, or Chaplain, of Newgate would publish his own account of the condemned man's last hours. With their concentration on the struggle for the man's soul rather than on the causes of his crime (usually conventionally catalogued as drink, bad company and Sabbath-breaking), these accounts can sound banal and tedious to the modern ear, but they were immensely popular.
Upmarket, the taste had long faded for those awful-waring stories of the fate of top people, the native version of which, A Mirror For Magistrates (1559), had remained a best seller throughout Elizabeth's reign, but the working classes were much more conservative and their love of the lurid was still accompanied by a fondness for the exemplary tale, and a medieval optimism that, with God's help, murder would out. It is the erosion of this optimism both by the secularization of society and by a vast increase in the incidence of crime that helps pave the way for the novel of detection. But at the start of the century, the public's trust was mainly in Providence, and criminal biographies were to some extent morality plays with real people and real blood.
It is this which gives them their peculiar flavour, peculiar that is to the modern palate which can find them moralizingly sucrose and sensationally bland. What was needed was a writer skilful enough to bring other qualities to bear, able to straddle the gulf between fact and fiction, journalism and literature. One was on his way.
Defoe (1660-1731) was that unusual thing in literature, a jack of all trades who became a master of many. A thorough-going professional journalist, he had a sharp nose for the commercially viable. In particular, he recognized the new market demand for "truth" and set about providing it even when he had to invent it. Nowhere is this process clearer than in his dealings with criminal biography.
Piracy was a peculiarly fascinating crime for all kinds of reasons and one of Defoe's most popular biographical works was A General History of The Pyrates (1724 and 1728} which recounts the lives of thirty or so real-life villains and also, without distinction, or at least one purely fictitious character. Earlier, in The King of Pirates (1719), he had already "fictionalized" one of the real pirates, Captain Avery, by composing two alleged letters from the captain, setting the record straight on points where previous "unreliable" biographies had misrepresented him!
Defoe used a similar technique in the case of Jack Sheppard, a notorious thief who became something of a public hero through his feats of escapology from the death-cells of the New Prison and of Newgate. In 1724, after this last escape and while sheppard was still at large, Defoe published a pamphlet containing the usual conventional short biography. Later the same year after the thief's recapture, there appeared another account of his crimes and escapes, allegedly composed by Sheppard himself as he awaited execution, but almost certainly written by Defoe. This particular kind of "realism" which deliberately blurs the line between fact and invention is a significant feature of crime-fiction from the nineteen century on. Defoe was such a master of these authenticating stratagems that in some cases it was more than a century before the full extent of his creative involvement was realized.
Other criminal biographies of real people include one of Jonathan Wild, the Thief-Taker, himself taken and executed in 1725. Unlike Sheppard who became a folk-hero, Wild was an object of universal hatred, mainly because he duped both criminals and law-abiding citizens alike. This conventional biography makes interesting reading alongside Fielding's fictionalized and satiric life, published in 1743.
The Six Notorious Street Robbers (1726) gives interesting details of criminal ingenuity and techniques, a feature which remains popular in certain kinds of modern crime-fiction. And in A Narrative of the Proceedings in France, for Discovering and Detecting the Murderers of the English Gentlemen, September 21, 1723 (1724), the title of which tells all, we find alongside the usual sensational details of crime a more than usually graphic account of the efforts put into tracking down the killers, including for the first time in my experience, that old stand-by of interrogation technique, the claim that the accomplice in the next room has cracked and revealed all.
Defoe's obsession with authenticity makes him naturally incline to the first person narrative form in most of those works which underpin his reputation as the first great novelist. Many of his narrators are rogues and criminals and we frequently find united those two strands of criminal literature already mentioned, the exemplary biography and picaresque tale.
Captain Singleton (1720) is the story of a kidnapped child who grows up to be a sailor, mutineer, pirate, explorer, and finally repents his roguery without giving up his gains which he settles down to enjoy in England. Colonel jacque (or Jack) (1722) is also a waif who grows up into bad company and wicked ways. His title is not a military rank, but merely a means of differentiation from two other Jacks. He is an amiable rogue, in some ways very much in the picaro tradition, but in others he is a very modern character, having an uncertainty of purpose and capacity for self-doubt (not the same as self-reproach) unusual in Defoe's heroes in their prime. His roguery is put down, to start with at least, to his disadvantaged circumstances and the sharp prick of necessity, In the story of his adventures, Defoe displays one of his finest narrative skills, his ability to depict men existing on their nerves, under constant threat of pursuit and capture. Nor does he restrict this skill, which must be the envy of many a modern flaccid thriller writer, to the depiction of men only for we find it used to tremendous effect in his two great whore-biographies, Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724).
The tradition from which these derive, like that of the male rogue, is both comic and moral-didactic. And if the heroine's criminal adventurous range is relatively limited, her comic opportunist range is compensatingly broad. Of the two books, Moll Flanders is far richer in comedy, though to tell the truth Moll is much more of a criminal than a whore. The narrative is loosely strung together on picaresque lines, Moll's scrapes and japes are interlarded with social and moral reflection, and she ends up at seventy, rich, respectable and reformed.
Roxana, though it has some surface similarities, is really a very different kind of work. The structure of the book is more elaborate than is usual with Defoe, who generally lets the autobiographical form itself dictate the shape. A French girl, she is brought up in England by her Huguenot parents who marry her off at fifteen. Her husband spends Roxana's dowry, sells his own business, and then abandons his wife and five children.
Now, in an age when the only advice such an admirer of the sex as Pope could give to unemancipated women was to be good-natured, the only choice for most of them was either to rely on the generosity of men, or prey on their stupidity and lust. Roxana assisted by her maid, Amy, dumps the children on their aunt, and sets out on a career as a high class whore. In the latter part of the novel, her past begins to threaten her, with Amy's discovery that Toxana's eldest daughter, Susan, abandoned all those years ago, is working in the kitchen of her Kensington home. Roxana does not wish to admit the relationship, at first for reasons of conscience, but later because, after marrying a Dutch merchant, she fears the power that Susan would have over her and the effect a full picture of her past would have on her husband. Susan meanwhile has begun to suspect the relationship and begins a long
pursuit of her mother. Amy threatens to get rid of the danger by murdering the girl. Roxana is horrified, but almost as horrified by the prospect of being confronted by her daughter.
The tension of pursuit, evasion, threat of discovery and threat of murder, builds up to a degree which anticipates the central dynamic of an important section of detective and thriller fiction. There lacks, however, either the denouement of the former or the action climax of the latter mode. The novel ends abruptly. Susan has probably (though it is never made explicit) been murdered, and Roxana says that after a few years of prosperity, she and Amy met with disasters which she sees as a punishment for the injury they both did to Susan. So the moral-didactic element prevails to the end, but the large step taken in the direction of much that is important in modern crime literature should not be ignored. Defoe is not a crime-writer in the modern sense, but as a writer on criminal matters, his importance and influence can hardly be overstressed.
After Defoe, novelists experimenting with their new-found powers explore a vast variety of techniques and topics. Crime figures of course, but not largely enough to merit special attention except perhaps in the novels of Smollett (1721-1771) where the picaresque tradition gets its liveliest British airing. The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) is notable for having as its "hero" a thorough-going villain with little of the picaro's saving amiability. It also contains elements of the Gothic, the late eighteenth century taste for which can at the same time be linked with the lust after sensationalism catered for in much criminal biography and with that longing for evidence of the supernatural which is a reaction against the age's secular spirit.
Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) is the first purely gothic novel m English, and the genre is developed in works such as Beckford's Vathek (1786), Lewis's The Monk (1795), Mrs Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1829). None of these is, properly speaking, a work of crime fiction. Their aim, even when naturalistic explanations are provided for apparently supernatural events, is simply to terrify. But they all contain crimes and they are the ancestors of the modern American "Gothic" genre in which a heroine in a remote situation finds herself threatened by dangers which are usually explained in conventional criminal terms.
But let us end where many historians of crime fiction begin. The political philosopher, William Godwin's The Adventures of Caleb 'Williams (1794) is frequently pointed to as the only true begetter of the classical crime novel. Certainly the plot, baldly stated, shows many generic resemblances. Williams suspects that his master, Falkland, has murdered a neighbour and framed one of his tenants by planting evidence. Falkland, fearing Williams' suspicions, fires him, frames him for theft, and thereafter systematically uses his wealth and influence to pursue and persecute him, despite all his efforts at evasion by flight and disguise. Finally Williams publicly accuses him, and Falkland confesses and dies.
The book's technical composition is interesting and relevant too. Godwin, knowing the situation he wished his hero to have reached in the latter part of the story, worked backwards to devise a logical route to this point. But though the technique bears some resemblance to that used by those crime-writers for whom the puzzle is all, Godwin's purpose was very different, and as exemplary in its way as that of A Mirror for Magistrates. He wants to demonstrate his thesis that man, born free and capable of perfect happiness if only he follows the dictates of pure reason, is corrupted and deflected by
society's institutions, in particular those of the law which places men in a false relation to each other.
Now, this is revolutionary stuff and the crime novel, certainly the detective story, is essentially conservative. The Age of Reason has not killed God but merely retired him. The detective is His agent, and pure reason will lead him to the solution of crimes, not to the dissolution of society. Detective stories may help to expiate guilt, as W. H. Auden suggests. They will never imply, as does Caleb Williams, that there is a way back into the Garden without paying off some divine landlord's arrears.
But it may be more than a pleasant irony that Caleb Williams is so often cited as the ancestor of a genre whose great absolute, The Law, it sets out to attack. This is simply one among many apparent contradictions that we find in the move from the literature of crime to the genre of crime-fiction. Perhaps they stem from the contradictory nature of crime itself. It is disgusting, it is fascinating; we find it incomprehensible, we feel the same impulses; we want the criminal to be caught, we want him to escape; he is a monster, he is a hero; he should be treated, he should be shot. There is no space here to discuss these ambivalences, but the paradox of Caleb Williams is not unique in a pre-history which begins with an author, Defoe, who must have come very close to losing the ability to distinguish between truth and fiction, and ends with another, Poe, whose ratiocinative stones arc set among tales of the most extraordinary and irrational Gothic horror.
One last irony: the first signposts on the road to "crime-fiction" are biographies of criminals who can be at the same time exemplars .of the certainty of divine wrath and popular heroes. The last signpost is the autobiography of a criminal whose "repentance" helped him to escape at least earthly retribution and who became a popular legend as a detective. Francois Eugene Vidocq in his Memoires (1828-1829) describes how from being a convicted criminal he moved by way of employment as a police informant to his appointment as Chef de la Surete. His "real-life" adventures often sound more unlikely than Defoe's fictions, but his influence on early nineteenth-century crime-writing was immense.
The movement from the literature of crime to genre "crime-fiction" is broadly a movement from the criminal as hero to the detective as hero. And this process is encapsulated in the life, and in the literature, of this one man. He confirms that the new myth of law and order has taken over from the old myth of divine providence. The stage is set for the appearance of the most popular, most prevalent and, apparently, most permanent literary genre ever known to mankind.
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