Victorian Detective Fiction

An Introduction

Christopher Pittard, University of Newcastle

There are two points to consider when talking about Victorian detective fiction: firstly, that the detective story as a distinct genre is a product of the nineteenth century; and secondly, that only a small amount of the detective fiction produced at the time is still read and studied. For most people, Victorian detective fiction is constituted by the Sherlock Holmes stories (despite the fact that a number of these stories were written well into the twentieth century) and perhaps the trio of Dupin tales written by Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s. Some readers may also be aware of the detective story’s generic cousin, the sensation novel, and in particular the contribution of Wilkie Collins to the genre. Yet few are aware of the great body of work marking the transitional phase from the initial success of the detective story to the height of Holmes’ popularity in the early twentieth century. The continued academic popularity of these works overshadows the work of contemporary writers of detective novels such as B L Farjeon, Headon Hill, and M McDonnell Bodkin, to take three names. Any study of Victorian literature, including crime literature, must necessarily be a selective process.

Much of the recent criticism of Victorian detective fiction attempts to account for the appearance of the literary detective in the nineteenth century, often relating the success of such stories to a ‘Victorian’ desire for social and epistemological order (such an argument is frequently proposed for the success of Sherlock Holmes towards the end of the century). Although such an analysis is an ultimately reductive one, nevertheless a new kind of anxiety about the nature of crime was brought about by the changing nature of society in the late eighteenth century. The industrial revolution brought about not only the growth of the city (by 1851, over half of the population of Britain was located in urban areas), but also an economy which was beginning to set more value by its portable property than land. The theft of property thus became a real threat, especially in an environment where thousands of people were living in close proximity.  The establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1828 answered some of these anxieties – it also created the figure of the official police detective.

Criminality and Literature

Although fiction dealing with crime and mystery had been published well before the Victorian age, crime literature before 1800 had frequently focused on the criminal as the sympathetic hero. Changes in such representations were evident 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 details of ‘real life’ crimes. Although the focus was still on the criminal, the portrayal was far from sympathetic. 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 – for those going on long voyages.’ (9) By the start of the nineteenth century, then, crime writing was not only beginning to focus more on the mechanism of justice, but was becoming constructed as a commercial literature of relaxation. The success of the Newgate Calendar gave rise to a short lived sub-genre, the ‘Newgate novel,’ the fictional counterpart of the true crime stories detailed in the pages of the Calendar. One of the most successful of these novels, and certainly the most well-known, was Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837-9). The sympathetic portrayal of criminals became increasingly controversial; for instance, in the contemporary debate over ‘penny dreadfuls’, a series of papers detailing the exploits of criminals of, for the most part, the previous century. Reaching a height of popularity in the 1870s, the ‘dreadfuls’ were seen as causing crime among juveniles – the readership of the publications was predominantly young boys – and as John Springhall discusses, were frequently related to thefts and, in one case, a child’s suicide. Although the supposed criminal influence of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ was never fully established, such a debate illutstrated a growing anxiety about the representation of criminality. The focus shifted from the criminals to those who captured the criminals, and the rise of a literature of detection.

One of the earliest examples of this were the four volumes of the Memoires of Eugene-Francois Vidocq (the first head of the Parisian surete) published between 1828 and 1829. Vidocq’s position is particularly interesting, as before becoming a detective he had been an infamous forger and prison-breaker, 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 volumes themselves were ghost-written, and had their British parallel in the form of ‘yellowbacks’, so called because of their bright yellow covers. Although these publications encompassed all kinds of popular writing (including the sensation fiction of the 1860s), much of the output of the yellowback publishers was in ‘true’ crime stories. Ian Ousby describes these as ‘cheap and cheerful reading, [which] included a flood of books presented as the reminiscences of real policemen but actually fiction written by hacks’ (34). Of particular prominence in this field was William Russell, who wrote (amongst others) Recollections of a Police Officer (1856), Experiences of a French Detective Officer (1861), and Experiences of a Real Detective (1862).

The First Detectives

It would not be until the middle of the nineteenth century that the police detective made his literary debut. Although contemporary analyses of ‘classic’ detective fiction have often been concerned with the construction of ‘Englishness’ in the genre, the Victorian detective story was influenced by the work of overseas practitioners.

The most notable of these, was, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, and his trio of stories featuring the Parisian detective Dupin. Each of the stories are significant for study of the development of the detection genre. The first, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ (1841) pioneered the sub-genre of the ‘locked room’ mystery by presenting a seemingly impossible crime with a surprising solution, and Susan Sweeney has discussed the theoretical significance of the locked room for narratological theory. The second story, ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ (1843) is interesting both historically and structurally; historically, because the story is based upon the real New York murder case of Mary Rogers; structurally, because the narrative’s use of newspaper reports and textual sources anticipates the kind of fragmentary structure that would be used by Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White (1860). ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1845) has become significant in terms of psychoanalytic theory, following Jacques Lacan’s analysis of the story (concentrating on the different meanings of ‘letter’, and Lacan’s comparison of the conscious/unconscious to language), and Jacques Derrida’s reading of Lacan. But in a wider sense the stories are significant for introducing us to the figure of the detective in Dupin. Dupin would be a template for many of the detectives to appear in the late nineteenth century, in particular Sherlock Holmes (who repays the favour by dismissing Dupin as a ‘very inferior fellow’ in A Study in Scarlet), by placing an emphasis on intellect and ratiocination.  As Julian Symons notes in Bloody Murder, ‘Aristocratic, arrogant, and apparently omniscient, Dupin is what Poe often wished he could have been himself, an emotionless reasoning machine.’ (39)

The first British literary detective, however, would not appear until 1852. Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, presented Inspector Bucket, the detective who solves the murder of the lawyer Tulkinghorn. With Bucket, Dickens at once created the prototype of the literary detective, and emphasised his uncertain status in society, as the figure who stands halfway between respectable society and the criminals (who would, by the end of the nineteenth century, become configured as a race apart). Like Dupin, Bucket has an air of omniscience, and while not quite arrogant, his confrontation of Sir Leicester Dedlock during the course of his investigation is certainly self-assured. Yet there is not the same emphasis on purely intellectual detection; Bucket is only able to solve the mystery because he knows the city of London intimately, and can cross the boundaries the text presents, not only socially but in terms of the novel’s structure of two narrations. This dependence on the ‘footwork’ of detection has its basis in the fact that Bucket was not entirely the product of Dickens’ imagination, and was based to some extent on the figure of Inspector Charles Field of the London Detective Force, the subject of an article Dickens had written (‘On Duty With Inspector Field’) for his own magazine, Household Words, in 1851. Dickens’ fascination with the practice of detection continued in more articles for Household Words on the detective force, and in his later novels. Both Great Expectations (1860-1) and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) were informed by the sensation novel of the 1860s, and the latter in particular represented a move towards the detective fiction of the late nineteenth century.

Wilkie Collins and the Sensation Novel

Yet although the official detective had made a literary appearance, the rise of a new form of crime fiction after the mid-century put the emphasis firmly on the amateur sleuth and, at times, back onto the criminal. The ‘sensation novel’ rose to prominence in the 1860s as a genre of what Kathleen Tillotson has described as the ‘novel-with-a-secret.’ (xv) Although such secrets were not necessarily criminal ones their unravelling often involved a degree of criminal activity which, while not always central to the narrative, helped to make the novel all the more ‘sensational’; for instance, the murder story in Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne (1861) acts as a sub-plot to the adventures of Isabel Vane. The name ‘sensation novel’ has itself been the focus of much speculation; one reason for the genre’s name is the intention of the texts themselves in provoking a physical reaction (as Edmund Yates said of The Woman in White, Collins intended to inspire ‘the creepy effect, as of pounded ice dropped down the back.’ (Sweet xvi)), although other critics have proposed complementary theories. Thomas Boyle points to the use of the word ‘sensation’ in contemporary reports of trials, associating the term with the vicarious thrill of criminality, while Ann Cvetkovich suggests that the name can also apply to the phenomenal success of the genre – a real literary sensation.

Although East Lynne was one of the most popular novels of the later nineteenth century, the genre of sensation fiction was dominated by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins. Braddon’s earlier novels, in particular Three Times Dead (1860) and Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) presented narratives of crime and detection, but it was Collins who not only inaugurated the sensation sub-genre but delineated a closer relationship between it and detective fiction. The Woman in White is considered to be the first of the sensation novels, but his later work would indicate a move towards detective fiction. The Moonstone, published in 1868 (coincidentally, the year of the final public hanging in Britain), employed many of the techniques of sensation fiction, but was more oriented towards the solving of a central puzzle. Whereas the mystery of earlier sensation fiction had often been concerned with an undefined ‘secret’ (as in Lady Audley’s Secret, where the mystery surrounding Lady Audley is as important as the disappearance of George Talboys), The Moonstone represents a shift towards detective fiction in that the mystery was clearly defined. A later novel, The Law and the Lady (1875), 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; the rest of the novel followed a more conventional pattern of literary detection. The detective in that novel, Valeria Woodville, was an amateur (and furthermore, an early female detective); but The Moonstone hints at the role of the police detective in future crime fiction in the character of Sergeant Cuff. Cuff, however, is an ultimately ineffectual detective and, as Stephen Knight has argued, emphasises the contemporary role of the official detective as the employee of whoever wanted the mystery solved rather than the independent restorer of order.

The Popular Genre

By the last fifteen years of Victoria’s reign, detective fiction had become established as a genre in its own right, and one with a huge readership; as the Graphic noted in a review of Reginald Barrett’s 1888 novel Police-Sergeant C21, this work presented ‘a tale of criminal investigation, which will be welcomed by those – and they are many – who delight in that form of fiction’. The review was generally favourable towards Barrett’s novel (considering that the Graphic could often be scathing in its appraisal of similar works), comparing it to the work of the popular French detective author Emile Gaboriau. Yet the novel failed to make the impact of another tale of criminal investigation published in Britain in the previous year: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume, a British lawyer who had emigrated to New Zealand before settling in Melbourne, the novel’s settingSimilarly influenced by Gaboriau’s bestselling stories, Hume published his novel himself after numerous rejections (not, perhaps, without a hint of imperialist inverted snobbery – as Julian Symons notes, Australian publishers turned down the book in the belief that ‘no Colonial could write anything worth reading’ (60)). The novel was an immediate success, although not even Hume could have foreseen the extent of the novel’s popularity when he sold the rights to the book for £50. It was thus the publishers, the newly formed ‘Hansom Cab Publishing Company’, which took the considerable profits from British sales figures of 375,000 by 1898. Hume’s third novel, Madame Midas (1888), although using some of the characters and settings from Hansom Cab, failed to make the same impact. Although his first novel had not been well received critically, Madame Midas was dismissed even more peremptorily; ‘The style in which it is written is beneath contempt’ was the parting shot of the review in the Graphic. The prolific Hume wrote a further hundred and thirty five novels up to his death in 1932, encompassing the genres of science fiction and adventure as well as detection, but none enjoyed the success of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.

Although the publication of detective novels did not dwindle in the final decade of the nineteenth century, modern studies of the genre tend to identify this period as the ‘golden age’ of the short story of detection, reflected in such anthologies as Marie B Smith’s Golden Age Detective Stories (locating that period firmly at the end of the nineteenth century), and Hugh Greene’s trio of collections under the title of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The ethos behind this latter collection is interesting, as the characterisation of the fin de siecle as the age of the short story of detection is in no small part the work of The Strand Magazine. The Strand was launched in 1891 by George Newnes, an editor who had already experienced considerable commercial success with the periodical Tit-Bits. Newnes’ acute business sense, combined with a kind of public paternalism (perhaps best exemplified in the ‘Tit-Bits Insurance Scheme’, whereby the next-of-kin of anybody killed in a railway accident could claim insurance if the deceased had had a copy of Newnes’ magazine with them), suggested that the new magazine was guaranteed at least a degree of success, as well as providing the reading public with what Newnes described in the first issue as ‘cheap, healthful literature’. Such literature included regular ‘Illustrated Interviews’, ‘Portraits of Celebrities at Different Times of their Lives’ (with a significant emphasis on illustrations, as a display of publishing ability) – and detective stories. The first issue, surprisingly, was without fictitious crime (although it included an article entitled ‘A Night with the Thames Police’), but by the second number Grant Allen had provided the Strand’s first detective story, ‘Jerry Stokes’. Later in 1891, Conan Doyle began the series ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, presenting the first short stories of the detective he had introduced in Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887.

Doyle’s contribution to detective fiction is well known, and the Holmes formula was imitated by other contributors to the Strand, especially Arthur Morrison and his series ‘Martin Hewitt, Investigator’ (1894). Two more authors made a significant contribution to detective fiction in the Strand. The first of these, Grant Allen, had already provided the magazine with its first detective story. However, he continued contributing to the detective stories the magazine required with a number of series of stories: ‘An African Millionaire’ concerned the hunt for the villainous master of disguise Colonel Clay; while Allen wrote two series of stories featuring female detectives, ‘Miss Cayley’s Adventures’, and ‘Hilda Wade’, the latter being a nurse by profession. This combination of detection and medical discourse was particularly evident in the Strand, and especially in the many series of stories written by L T Meade with a number of collaborators. Her first two series, ‘Adventures from the Diary of a Doctor,’ featured Dr. Halifax as their protagonist, and indeed the second series would be written in conjunction with Clifford Halifax, MD. Although not all the entries in this series were strictly detective stories, the connection of crime with disease emphasised a growing discourse of crime as disease.

The work of criminal anthropologists such as Cesare Lombroso and Havelock Ellis towards the end of the nineteenth century located the tendency to criminality in the body, and even literary and artistic criticism such as Max Nordau’s  Degeneration (1892) fuelled fears that if Darwinian evolution could go forward, it could also go backwards. The criminal became a throwback to a more savage age, and crime itself became a social disease to be treated by the doctor detective.

Copyright © 2003 Christopher Pittard


Anon, Review of Reginald Barrett, Police-Sergeant C21. The Graphic, August 25th1888, 226.

– – – .  Review
of Fergus Hume, Madame Midas. The Graphic, September 29th 1888, 354.

Thomas Boyle, Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism. New York: Viking, 1989.

Ann Cvetkovich, Mized Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Detective Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

John P Muller and William J Richardson, eds. The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, And Psychoanalytic Reading. Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1988.

Ian Ousby, The Crime and Mystery Book: A Reader’s Companion. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

John Springhall, ”Pernicious Reading’? ‘The Penny Dreadful’ as Scapegoat for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime.’ Victorian Periodicals Review 27. 4 (1994).

Susan Sweeney, ‘Locked Rooms: Detective Fiction, Narrative Theory, and Self-Reflexivity.’ In Ronald G Walker and June M Frazer, eds. The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory. Illinois: Western Illinois University, 1990. 1-14.

Matthew Sweet, Introduction to Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. Revised Edition. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Kathleen Tillotson, ‘The Lighter Reading of the 1860s’. Introduction to Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. Boston: Dover, 1969.