The Mystery of the Detective

The Beginnings of Detectives and Detective Fiction in Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction

by Kim Orsel (May 19th 2006)


The New Oxford Dictionary of English summarises the story of detective fiction as “a story whose plot revolves around the investigation and solving of a crime.”¹ That definition appears to incorporate both the detective and the mystery element that are both essential to the detective story as a genre. Neither of these elements is entirely new, as the genre itself did not emerge suddenly and without preamble: its origins can be traced as far back in the history of English writing as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600) and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), developing in the works of Charles Dickens and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and coming to its full-fledged potential in the hands of Arthur Conan Doyle.

The difference between mystery in Shakespeare’s plays and Fielding’s novel and mystery in the later detective fiction is that it functions only as a minor theme in the early works, where it is virtually indispensable in later detective fiction. Fielding is far more interested in human nature and different varieties of living as themes in Tom Jones than he is with the mystery of Tom’s parentage. It remains a recurring theme, and to the reader the final revelation, the solution to the mystery, comes as a major surprise, but among the other themes it is almost secondary. The novel is not about the discovery of Tom’s parentage, as much as it perhaps is about the true discovery of Tom’s personality. Similarly in Hamlet the mystery is solved, if it can be called that, quite early on in the play by the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father telling his son who is responsible for his death; “But know, though noble youth, The Serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown.”² The play itself is more about how Hamlet deals with exacting (or failing to exact) the punishment to avenge that crime than anything else. He does not investigate the murder nor does he feel the need to find proof of what the ghost has told him. To Hamlet Claudius is guilty, and his duty is that of a son who must revenge his father. Where Charles Dickens uses mystery elements in his writing, for example in Oliver Twist (1838), they do not constitute a major theme, and as Ian Ousby puts it: “When detection is necessary to the progress of a plot or to the culmination of a story, this function is sketchily and hastily attached to the role of one of the main characters, [like] to Mr. Brownlow in Oliver Twist.”³ There is mystery, but it functions more as a plot device than a theme, and though a character does become a detective of sorts, most of the detecting takes place outside the narrative, while its findings are used as a kind of deus ex machina.

Exactly because in the nineteenth century detective fiction was only starting to develop as a popular genre, and far from being taken seriously in the realm of literature, it is difficult to pinpoint where exactly and with what work of fiction the genre began. According to Ian Ousby, “Caleb Williams is the first work of English fiction to display a sustained interest in the theme of detection.” (20) This 1794 novel by William Godwin describes how a servant by sheer inquisitiveness wriggles out of his master that he has murdered a neighbour. The servant, by the name of Caleb Williams, has no proof, nor does he wish to accuse Squire Falkland, but his master becomes uneasy with his secret discovered, and subsequently accuses Williams unfairly of stealing resulting in his arrest and imprisonment. Williams escapes and is doggedly pursued by Falkland until they come face to face and Williams must reveal Falklands secret to ensure his own innocence. The detective element, in which Williams tries to discover Falkland’s secret out of curiosity and Falkland in turn pursues Williams after his escape from prison, is certainly more present in this novel than it has been before, but it ultimately seems incidental, just as the mystery element is too weak to stand on its own and constitute the beginning of the detective genre. It remains firstly a socio-critical novel that uses mystery and detective elements as plot devices, even if those elements are developed further than was previously the case. In a way, Godwin sets the tone for the further development of detective fiction by incorporating it in a novel, a tone that Dickens later on continues in a lesser degree, but to call it a forerunner of detection fiction goes too far; to describe it as a building block, one among many, would be more accurate. If Caleb Williams is a detective at all, he is one by accident, and all in all his accidental detecting does not last very long until it forces him to flee from his vindictive master. His personal motives in accusing his master once he has no more choice are obvious; it is the only way he can save his own life and reputation. No crime is solved or investigated; it is discovered and ultimately revealed seemingly against the desire of any of the characters.

In his 1860 novel The Woman in White (1860) Wilkie Collins evolves the basic plot of the accidental detective into something new: his hero, Walter Hartright, comes to the aid two half-sisters, one of whom, Laura Fairlie, he falls in love with, in order to eventually rescue them from two villains who are after Laura’s fortune (one of them the man who Laura has promised her dying father to marry). Together with the other sister, Marian Halcombe, Hartright takes on the detective role in the novel, and through their eyes the narrative proceeds. The secret from the past in Sensation novels tends to be a secret of identity, and such is the case here, albeit in a very surprising manner: once Laura is married, the woman in white of the title is ultimately interred under Laura’s name at her death, and Laura herself is lured to London and placed into an asylum under the woman’s name. Collins presents his story by way of an epistolary novel; each of his characters tells part of the story and the reader is not quite certain which narrative to trust and which to look at more critically. This enhances the detective element more than it ever was before, forcing the reader to become a kind of detective as well. Collins uses the technique to the same effect in The Moonstone (1868) and in this novel he introduces several detectives, both amateur and professional, among them Sergeant Cuff, earning praise of T.S. Eliot in the 1928 introduction of the novel as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.”⁴ Collins introduces the professional detective as a main character in a novel whose main involvement in the case is the solving of it.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) explores similar social themes as Wilkie Collins does in The Woman in White, namely the social position of women in society. But where Collins’s feminist comment on how vulnerable women can be in a society dominated by men is obvious but carefully centred around villainous men, Braddon’s feminist critique is far more hidden. Her female hero is made into a villain by the apparently heroic male characters of the novel, where she has really only acted in her own defence to the injustice that was done to her by her husband, who left her to fend for herself and their son on her own by going off to seek a fortune in Australia. Laura Fairlie is rescued because she adheres to the male perspective of how women should behave; Lady Audley is condemned because she has instead chosen to be assertive, a typically male characteristic. As detective fiction Lady Audley’s Secret is a difficult but interesting novel; because one of its hidden layers is concerned with gender the reader can never be quite certain how to take things, but at the same time, the novel presents some interesting themes that will recur in later detective fiction. In a way, Helen Talboys, who becomes Lady Audley, resembles the tragic side of Sherlock Holmes more than Robert Audley does. She too pays the price of playing her part too well. In fact, her changing of identities, though far more subtle, resembles the many disguises Holmes uses throughout his investigations. They both use the anonymity that the city of London can provide to step back and change into different people to serve their own purposes; Holmes detecting and Helen Talboys seeking a new identity that will enable her to make a new living. But it would go too far to call Lady Audley the novel’s detective, this role is clearly reserved for Robert Audley.

So while The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret resemble one another, there are notable differences. Marian Halcombe, Walter Hartright and Robert Audley can all be cast as kind of amateur detectives, but they have distinctly different motives for investigation. Both Halcombe and Hartright investigate their mystery because it concerns someone they care for and love, Hartright may even have a kind of moral duty towards his former pupil, where Audley’s investigation begins in a much more impulsive manner: “But come what may, I'll go up to town after him [Talboys] the first thing to-morrow morning; and, sooner than be balked in finding him, I'll go to the very end of the world.”⁵ He begins his investigation because he cannot understand why George Talboys has left his company so suddenly, and soon begins to believe that his friend has come to some harm. In the course of his investigation Audley uncovers more than he initially bargained for, only to discover that he has exposed a secret of quite another kind, and his friend has come to no harm when the novel comes to its seemingly happy end. Audley acts much more like a detective than Hartright and Halcombe, running around and asking everyone that he believes can give him information questions, but always in a detective-like fashion: his way of questioning is clear and straightforward when he questions the stationmaster about George Talboys’s departure, but he becomes far more careful when in the presence of potentially hostile informants who he is not certain he can trust, like Captain Maldon and Lady Audley. The question as to why there never is any police involvement has a straightforward answer: Audley’s investigation starts out as a private inquiry after a friend, but soon becomes an investigation into a private family affair when he discovers his uncle’s wife may not be who she pretends to be. For this kind of investigation, where none of the information must be revealed to the public because it would damage the family’s name, the amateur detective is perfectly appropriate.

Ian Ousby suggests that the model of the role of the amateur detective “is conveniently doubled with that of the conventional male romantic lead. With a few gestures toward the theme of detection, the detective is assimilated into pre-existing conventional formulae ... The procedure was established by Miss Braddon with the character of Robert Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret.” He concludes that “The roles of detective and conventional romantic hero are combined, the details of detective work being subordinated to a stress on chivalric duty and romantic attachment.” (136) While the heart of his argument is solid, a slight problem with Ousby’s conclusion is that where it does ring true for Walter Hartright, it does not necessarily for Robert Audley or Marian Halcombe. Audley has already begun his investigation into the disappearance of George Talboys by the time he meets Talboys’s sister Clara, who will become his romantic interest. Even if he partly continues his quest for the truth for her sake, he certainly began it for his own satisfaction. The other mystery he encounters, one lying at the basis of it all, that of the true identity of his aunt, is more of a personal matter. He may want to find out what the fate of George Talboys is for the sake of both himself and Talboys’s sister, but the true identity of Lady Audley is much more a family affair. Marian Halcombe falls short of Ousby’s conclusion mostly because of her gender; her actions are out of loyalty and goodwill for her sister, out of love, even if she is no male romantic lead.

The world of detective fiction seems to have laid some of its foundations on authors borrowing from each other. Collins supposedly based Sergeant Cuff on Dickens’s Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1952-1953); Braddon was inspired by The Woman in White for Lady Audley’s Secret, and according to Margaret Drabble the classic English detective novel “owes its greatest debt”⁶ to Edgar Allan Poe. If that is so, it is only the case because Poe’s prototypical Auguste Dupin (1841) inspired someone else to create the fictional detective without equal. A character who has since rightfully taken his place in literary history as The Great Detective, and whose name has become so deeply rooted in society and collective consciousness that even to this day it is still synonymous with deduction, detecting and crime fighting. Any detecting character following in his footsteps will inevitably be compared to him, while a great many will have been inspired by him: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Ousby remarks that “Doyle’s achievement was to create a stereotype of the private detective as complete and as expressive of its time as the earlier stereotype of the police detective had been.” (136) But in fact Sherlock Holmes is very little like other detectives. To call him a stereotype is to underrate the innovative nature of Conan Doyle’s creation and apply negative connotations where none are really applicable.

As Collins uses his epistolary method to mislead or at least force the reader to reconsider the reliability of characters and become a kind of detective, Conan Doyle brings in the narrative trick of having the majority of the stories retold by Dr John Watson, Holmes’s friend and chronicler, who becomes a kind of audience surrogate. The reader is often as much in the dark as Watson, and while all the information necessary to solve the mystery is given during the story, the revelation is still surprising. What makes Holmes such a miraculous detective in the eyes of Watson as well as the reader is that Watson lacks the imagination to see what Holmes sees: one of Holmes’s strengths is that he can transfer himself into the criminal mind and can deduct the details of a crime backed up by his factual findings. Watson may see the clues, but he lacks the ability to apply them to a satisfactory extent, as becomes clear in The Adventure of the Empty House (1903). While Watson has seen the room in which the victim was killed, and has been able to investigate it, he cannot solve the case without Holmes’s help. Holmes has meanwhile solved the case without ever having seen the room in which the murder took place. He uses the information he has at his disposal to make the necessary deductions. Situated in-between, since there is only Watson as a guide, the reader is expertly lured into the game.

Sherlock Holmes is very different from Walter Hartright and Robert Audley. Audley comes closest to being a representative of the amateur detective, having some emotional involvement in the case but a stronger dedication towards his investigation than Hartright’s essentially emotional and chivalric motives. Holmes calls himself “a consulting detective”⁷ and supposes he is “the only one in the world.” (7) Robert Audley is an amateur, and does not pretend to be otherwise, though he does begin to believe he would make an adequate investigator; to Lady Audley’s “You seem to have quite a taste for discussing these horrible subjects ... you ought to have been a detective police officer.” he merrily replies “I sometimes think I should have been a good one.” (141) The ability to investigate can indeed be considered a welcome characteristic for a good barrister, but it does not make him a detective. Sherlock Holmes never seriously calls himself an amateur, but the manner in which he calls himself a detective and the way in which he often speaks of his Scotland Yard colleagues makes it clear he goes beyond the general interpretation of the word, as well as beyond the capabilities of professional detectives. He is not hampered by official rules. And although he often depends on clients to bring him his cases, his emotional cases are often to do with more personal vendettas like the one against Professor Moriarty and his criminal association. Despite this dependence on clients, he is not a professional detective either: he is the one both governments and individuals come to when the professionals have come up short.

At the same time Holmes and Audley are similar in that they are both outsiders in their respective societies. Holmes is both the Victorian investigator who wishes to protect and serve the law, as well as a shrewd observer of society, recognising and sometimes harshly criticising the society he moves around in. Though he is sometimes made out to be a schoolbook hero, he decidedly is not. It is his Bohemian that most resembles Robert Audley’s lazy way in the early chapters of Lady Audley’s Secret. But where Robert Audley’s personal quest in Lady Audley’s Secret is to be reformed, through his investigation of his aunt and his ultimate marriage to Clara, no such redemption is given or desired for or by Holmes; it is lack of cases that drive him to drugs, in the form of his “seven-per-cent solution”⁸ of cocaine and heroine, excessive smoking, violin-playing and general neurotic behaviour. His reformation comes only during the cases, when he can apply himself, and shows a persistent determination to discover the truth and punish the criminal; possibly Holmes’s only tragedy is that he cannot apply such determination in his personal life; detecting is his life. If Robert Audley is both detective and human being, capable of emotion, even of falling in love, he is the antithesis of Holmes. Audley can be both husband and amateur detective, though both adequately, not excellently. Holmes manages to excel in his detective work, but at the expense of his personal life. If the average is blessed with happiness, genius has to pay its price.

Sherlock Holmes, the amateur detective more able than the average professional investigator, and Robert Audley, are both different extremes of the prototype of what would become the successful amateur detective in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction of the 1920s, and together they form the sound bearings of British detective fiction, besides each being children of their time. Holmes embodies the nineteenth century criticism that the police were not doing an adequate job in fighting crime in the large cities, while at the same time he is too good to be true, reminding people that even Scotland Yard detectives are only human, and are merely doing the best they can. Audley is the dominant male who does not notice he is maintaining a status quo that keeps women in subservient positions, but who needs a woman to be reformed into a more worthy member of society. The criticism is below the surface, there to take or leave.

The two main prototypes of detectives emerge and develop in the nineteenth century; the professional detective and the amateur detective, illustrated respectively by Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Robert Audley, are merged to create a kind of detective that has the psychological inclination to solve crime and rid society of its villains, while not restricted to the tunnel vision many conventional police detectives suffer from. Holmes with his almost scientific approach to detecting is both a prototype for later detectives as well as the successful outcome of detective fiction finding its feet. It is interesting to note this evolution of the species; the police detective, followed by the amateur detective/male romantic lead, transformed into something which exists in-between; not quite a member of a police force, but not quite amateur and on his own either. This development would only continue to be worked out further by authors yet to come, with detectives sharing some characteristic or other with their predecessors. Whether imitated or parodied, never are the prototypes far removed, proving that they are strong enough to form the foundation for an entire genre that continues to grow to this day.


    ¹ The New Oxford English Dictionary,  ed. Judy Pearsall, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

    ² William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.5.39-40,in Stephen Greenblatt, gen. ed, The Norton Shakespeare, New York and London: Norton, 1997, p. 1685.

    ³ Ian Ousby, Bloodhounds of Heaven, The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard university Press, 1976, p. 82. All further quotations from the publication will be taken from this edition with page numbers noted in parentheses after said quotation.

    ⁴ T.S. Eliot, Introduction, in Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, London: Oxford University Press
1928, pp v-xii.

    ⁵ Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, Oxford: University Press, 1998, page 278. All further quotations from the novel will be taken from this edition with page numbers noted in parentheses after said quotation.

    ⁶ The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    ⁷ Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, Penguin Books, 1981, p. 23. All further quotations from the novel will be taken from this edition with page numbers noted in parentheses after said quotation.

    ⁸ Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 8.