British Mystery Fiction Analysis

Long Before Doyle: Early Whodunits

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although mystery and detective fiction is generally perceived as having arisen during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, its British antecedents go back much further. An early form of the genre, the “whodunit,” goes back at least to the eighteenth century. In stories of that classic form, either a professional or an amateur sleuth investigates a crime, usually a murder, identifies a list of suspects, and then narrows the list until the guilty party is identified. Elements of the whodunit can be found in the works of authors known primarily for other sorts of writing. A notable example is philosopher William Godwin’s Things as They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794, also known as Caleb Williams). This novel is sometimes regarded as the earliest example of detective fiction. A secretary suspected of the murder of his employer, Caleb Williams is relentlessly pursued across England by the authorities even though another person, an associate of the villainous murder victim, has committed the crime. How Williams is vindicated—the revelation of clues and witnesses that exonerate him—became a set of genre conventions used by later generations of mystery writers, whose own detectives use circumstantial evidence to clear their clients.

The popularity of Caleb Williams inspired other crime novels, such as George Walker’s Theodore Cyphon: Or, the Benevolent Jew (1796), which describes problems resulting from laws that oppress minorities. Only the cleverness of the hero in dealing with this oppression allows him to triumph over his foes. Like Caleb Williams, Cyphon is pursued and must take shelter in a poorhouse when he is suspected of a murder he has not committed.

Edward Bulwer Lytton, who is best known for his works of historical fiction, such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), also wrote a murder mystery, Pelham (1828). This book devotes considerable space to describing a crime, suspects, and clues that, eventually, reveal the true villain of the work. The hero, Henry Pelham, defends his friend Reginald Glanville against murder charges and exonerates him through an investigation of the existing physical evidence. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853) also depicts a murder, that of Mr. Tulkinghorn, which is solved by Inspector Bucket, one of the earliest literary examples of a police detective. In all of these stories, circumstantial evidence is used to determine which person, from a pool of suspects, is the actual culprit.

Sensation Novels

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1850’s and 1860’s, British authors started writing remarkable melodramatic thrillers that became known as sensation novels. One of the best known of these writers is Wilkie Collins, the author of The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). The first of these books is not exactly a murder mystery; it concerns the struggles of an art teacher, Walter Hartright, to discover the identity of a mysterious woman—possibly a fugitive from an asylum—found wandering on a road in Hampstead. The Moonstone, which shares a modified epistolary form with Collins’s earlier novel, concerns the tangled history and eventual theft of a large blue diamond given to a young woman by her uncle, a corrupt British army official in India. The Moonstone also provides an early example of detective fiction; Sergeant Cuff, the sleuth of the story, is a policeman, although he is hired privately to solve the case and acts more as a consulting detective than as an official representative of the law.

Another writer who shaped the genre of sensation fiction was Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). As in The Woman in White and The Moonstone, the plot of Lady Audley’s Secret is complex. Having received word of his wife, Helen’s, death while working in Australia, Braddon’s hero, George Talboys, returns to England and discovers his wife embroiled in a mystery of mistaken identity. Talboys gradually sorts out many clues that reveal a complex case of fraud and deception, following a methodology on which later detective fiction would rely.

A common technique in sensation fiction was revealing to readers full descriptions of the crimes being committed and the legal process that followed. Later mystery writers would tend to open their stories with the crimes having been committed already, so their plots involved only the unraveling of the mystery behind the crime. The idea of challenging readers to consider clues intellectually, rather than evoking their emotional responses to graphic portrayals of murder, was a key component of the other main form created in the mid-nineteenth century, the casebook form of detective writing.

Casebook Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Casebook fiction is a classic example of a genre of writing that came into being because of a dramatic social change. The rapid expansion of British cities as industrial centers during the early nineteenth century occasioned Sir Robert Peele’s creation of the London Metropolitan Police in 1828. Having an official police presence that was separate and distinct from the Crown relieved the anxiety of the new urbanized public. It also helped stimulate the creation of a new kind of fiction—police memoirs, or casebooks. Early nineteenth century writers began constructing comparatively realistic stories about police officials hunting criminals. Based in part on real-life case descriptions—notably the memoirs of the French detective Eugene-François Vidocq published in 1828-1829—the fictionalized British police casebooks were presented to a newly literate middle-class public hungry for stories involving murder and punishment. These books depicted police officers skilled at making clever deductions from evidence, tracking criminals, and disguising themselves.

Also known as yellowbacks because of their bright yellow covers, casebooks were written by authors such as William Russell, who used the pen name R. N. Waters; Andrew Forrester, Jr.; Charles Martel; and others. The books were essentially collections of short stories written in the first person and ostensibly related by real police officers and amateur sleuths working directly with the police on cases....

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Doyle and His Contemporaries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the late 1880’s, Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the great detective, and featured him in a series of short stories and novels. Doyle is generally regarded as the founder of modern mystery and detective fiction, and Sherlock Holmes is not only one of the most imitated characters in the genre, but also one who has been repeatedly parodied and used by other authors as the hero of new adventures. Holmes is the subject of fifty-six short stories collected in five anthologies but is the protagonist of only four novels: A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of the Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and The Valley of Fear (1914). All four novels follow the same pattern as Doyle’s short stories: Holmes, as a private detective, is asked by people to investigate possible criminal activities. For example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles Holmes is initially engaged to investigate the curious circumstances surrounding the death of country squire Sir Charles Baskerville. Dr. James Mortimer, a friend of the heir to Sir Charles’s estate, approaches Holmes because he fears that an age-old curse is threatening his friend, the young Henry Baskerville. In “The Red-Headed League,” a typical Holmes short story, the person who asks Holmes for help is not even sure that anything criminal has occurred. After being hired for a job he found both easy and profitable. he suddenly discovered that his job had...

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British Scientific Detection

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Arthur Conan Doyle and his contemporaries were fascinated with the scientific processes inherent in police investigations. The nineteenth century witnessed the discovery of fingerprints’ uses in identifying people, the invention of photography, and the development of the microscope. These developments helped put forensic investigations on a scientific base and gave new and exciting tools to real and fictional criminal investigators. Doyle, L. T. Meade, and Clifford Halifax all wrote about detectives skilled in the sciences and made scientific detection the primary focus of many of their mysteries.

L. T. Meade was the pen name of Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith (1854-1914), the prolific author mainly of books and stories for young women. She also wrote numerous stories of crime and detection, both alone and with collaborators. With Robert Eustace, the pen name of Eustace Robert Barton (1854-1943), she wrote The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1899), the saga of a sinister secret society. Another of their collaborations, The Secret of Emu Plain (1898), introduced the Master of Mystery, John Bell, who debunked the existence of ghosts in much the same manner as the real-life Harry Houdini. Bell’s insistence on rationality and scientific method is particularly significant in the story “The Secret of Emu Plain” (1898), in which he investigates the disappearance of a young man in Australia and must fight local superstitions. Meade’s other collaborations with Eustace include a number of stories published in The Strand Magazine. Most of these stories exhibit the deep respect for science that pervaded Victorian literature and use as their theme the use, or misuse, of new technology.

Victor L. Whitechurch, a technophile who was a contemporary of Meade, was a clergyman and railroad enthusiast who used trains as settings for many of his stories and mystery novels, which ranged from The Canon in Residence in 1904 to Murder at the College in 1932. His most interesting character was Godfrey Page, arguably the first railway detective, who appeared in six stories in Pearson’s Weekly that were later collected in The Investigations of Godfrey Page, Railwayac (1990). Whitechurch invented the word railwayac, short for “railway maniac,” to apply to people who get immensely excited about railroads—someone like Godfrey Page. It is primarily Page’s love of railroads that drives him to investigate mysteries connected with them.

The Golden Age, 1920-1945

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Sometimes called the cozy age because of the fondness of readers of that era for sentimentality and familial themes, the period between roughly 1920 and 1945 is more commonly known as the Golden Age because of the large amount of high-quality mystery fiction written then. Like the literary salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, writing circles among Golden Age writers abounded, serving as both support networks and critical forums for young writers. One such group that was started in 1928 by four prolific and talented intellectuals was the Detection Club. Its members emphasized the writing and publishing of mystery and detective fiction as the club’s primary purpose. Members included G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ronald Knox, along with many less-known writers.

Some members of the Detection Club collaborated in writing mystery novels. One member would write a chapter of a new mystery and then hand the plot and characters over to another writer to continue until an entire book was written. Participants were bound by certain rules: Each writer had to keep the final solution in mind and could not introduce complications merely to make the job more difficult for writers who followed or for eventual readers. Although this kind of collaborative effort produced works intended more for the amusement of the members than for publication, the process of writing and revision no doubt encouraged club members to help each other and work on their own books.

A founder member of the club and a prolific author, G. K. Chesterton wrote a large volume of essays on literature, economics, theology, and politics and even some poetry. He wrote only one novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1907), and collaborated on the Detection Club novel The Floating Admiral (1931), but he is popularly remembered as the author of forty-eight short stories featuring Father Brown, a...

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Late Twentieth Century Writers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One of the modern British crime writers credited with helping to move the mystery and detective genre to the level of mainstream literature is Ruth Rendell, who also writes a more romantic style of novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Born in 1930, Rendell was a reporter whose career foundered after she published an article about a dinner she had pretended to attend. The problem was that her article neglected to mention that the main speaker at the dinner had dropped dead in the middle of his speech. She eventually turned to writing fiction. In 1964, she introduced Inspector Reginald Wexford in From Doon with Death, the first of twenty books she would write about him. Wexford has a developed personality and life of his...

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Historical Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A striking trend in modern British crime fiction is the number of novelists who write about past eras. The earliest, and in many ways one of the best, of these writers is Ellis Peters, who introduced her twelfth century Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael in A Morbid Taste for Bones: A Medieval Whodunit in 1977. In his monastery herbarium at Shrewsbury Abbey, Brother Cadfael solves crimes through his understanding of the mysteries of the human heart and soul.

Peters’s Brother Cadfael Chronicles are set between the years 1135 and 1145, the period when King Stephen and Empress Maud fought a civil War In England. The order in which Peters has published the books parallels the historical sequence of the stories...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Bargainnier, Earl F., ed. Twelve Englishmen of Mystery. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1984. This volume contains chapters on Wilkie Collins, A. E. W. Mason, G. K. Chesterton, H. C. Bailey, Anthony Berkeley, Nicholas Blake, Michael Gilbert, Julian Symons, Dick Francis, Edmund Crispin, H. R. F. Keating, and Simon Brett.

Bleiler, Richard J., ed. Reference and Research Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction 2d ed. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 2004. Particularly useful volume that provides extensive coverage, with more than a thousand entries, of pseudonyms, biographical information, and lists of...

(The entire section is 372 words.)