Detective Fiction Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Detective Fiction

The following entry provides critical commentary on major themes, authors, and works associated with the detective fiction genre during the nineteenth century.

Crime and detection have been common elements in world literature, as exemplified in the biblical stories of Cain and Abel and Susanna and the Elders, as well as in works by Sophocles, William Shakespeare, and Voltaire. Despite the long history of crime and detection in literature, detective fiction as a full-fledged genre first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century in the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” first published in Graham's Magazine in 1841, and several subsequent “tales of ratiocination,” Poe created the archetypal pattern for stories of detection: a bizarre crime is committed, a brilliant, seemingly omniscient, detective investigates, solves the puzzle with the aid of superior logical reasoning, and the perpetrator is unmasked. The protagonist of Poe's stories, the perspicacious but eccentric C. Auguste Dupin, inspired generations of subsequent sleuths.

Particular political, social, and ideological forces unique to the nineteenth century are often cited by critics as factors contributing to the emergence of the detective fiction genre during this era. With the advent of bourgeois societies, criminals, who in autocratic societies enjoyed, in the popular imagination, the reputation of heroic rebels, eventually became viewed as a menace by a social class interested in safeguarding its property. At the same time the police, regarded in the eighteenth century as an organization dedicated to protecting autocrats, rose in popular esteem. Once maligned as agents of corrupt kings, members of the police force were now valued for the protection they provided, and the figure of the law enforcement officer became an acceptable protagonist in literature. In the intellectual realm, the Enlightenment brought about a profound respect for the power of reasoning, as well as an overwhelming faith in the ability of science to solve social problems. This paved the way for the development of a new literary hero, the detective-scientist. These protagonists were often gentlemen possessed of such admired traits as scientific knowledge and superior intellect, and they elicited much enthusiasm among nineteenth-century readers.

While Poe's tales of ratiocination were relatively unknown in his own country during his lifetime, they strongly influenced the development of detective prose, and literature in general, in France and England during the 1850s and 1860s. Although not exclusively concerned with crime detection, novels by Emile Gaboriau, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins featured, among other elements, the efforts of policemen to solve crimes in much the same manner as Poe's Dupin. The policeman-hero introduced by these writers inspired the growth of the French roman policier and the American police novel, branches of detective fiction that have flourished in the twentieth century. Other novelists of the time—Mary Elizabeth Braddon in England and Anna Katharine Green in America, for example—created the domestic detective novel in which crime investigation is combined with realistic representations of everyday life, a form of detective fiction that further developed in the twentieth century. By the 1890s, the short story form had eclipsed the novel's popularity, and a number of short works established a new standard for detective prose. The Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which feature the deductive powers of an eccentric amateur detective, are the best known examples of these. Having crystallized and popularized certain elements of Poe's stories, Doyle established a narrative form that exerted considerable influence on later detective prose.

Twentieth-century readings of detective fiction revealed the genre's complexity, alerting critics that these texts contained more than brilliant intellectual gymnastics. For example, commentators, particularly scholars analyzing the works of Collins and Dickens, noted a peculiar authorial ambivalence regarding crime. In fact, the shady world of crime came to symbolize a particular shadow in the Victorian psyche: the dark, and often repressed, reality of England's imperialist policies. Crime novels, particularly works by Collins, also shed light on the social problems of Victorian England, including poverty, discrimination, and domestic violence against women. In Collins's works, for example, critics discerned an effort to explain the mechanism whereby social and psychological forces conspire to place women in such desperate situations that crime seems like the only rational solution. Finally, in works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) commentators saw symptoms of a malaise more profound than the Victorian crisis of conscience: the disintegration of the personality.

Freudian readings, from the earliest critical efforts to the Neo-Freudianism of Jacques Lacan, approached detective prose from a clinical point of view. In fact, critics openly likened the process of criminal detection to psychoanalysis, arguing that the analyst, like the sleuth, searches for the truth. However, since the dominant intellectual paradigms underpinning twentieth-century criticism essentially dispensed with the idea of personal identity, this became a problematic interpretation. While in Freud's construct the ego still retained some relevance, albeit controlled by the id's overwhelming power, in Neo-Freudian thought, as exemplified by Jacques Lacan, there is only a linguistic symbolic order, into which a person is born. According to Lacan, a person's unconscious is totally determined by a symbolic order which is imposed on an individual. Taking a cue from the semantic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, who divided the semantic universe into “signifiers” (signs, symbols) and “signifieds” (the realities that these signs denote), Lacan posited that signifiers do not denote anything, thus effectively separating the world of signs, as well as the world of psyche, as a self-referential universe. Lacan used Poe's “The Purloined Letter” (1845) to illustrate his theory. According to Lacan, Poe's remarkable story about an ingeniously misplaced letter shows how a signifier (the letter) exerts enormous power over people without referring to anything in particular. Indeed, there are vague hints about the content of the letter throughout the story, but the reader is constantly focused on the object itself, or more specifically, on the absence of it. Thanks to Lacan, and to his detractors, Poe's stories are among the archetypal texts of twentieth and early twenty-first century literary criticism.

Commentary on the importance of nineteenth-century detective fiction has also concentrated on the cultural significance of the hero and the function of the genre in literary history. The detective of this era was viewed, according to critics, as a kind of prophet of logical reasoning who becomes viewed as a sort of savior for his defense of moral order. At the same time, as Elliot L. Gilbert (see Further Reading) points out, the detective's inevitable failures in an increasingly mechanized and godless society reflect late nineteenth-century awareness of the limitations of the reasoning process. Thus, the genre of detective fiction in the nineteenth century is often viewed as a transition between Romantic faith in the perfectibility of the world and Victorian disillusionment with its harsh realities.