Long Before Doyle: Early Whodunits
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.