Birth of Detective Fiction: Sherlock Holmes
Where did detective fiction come from? That’s elementary, my dear Watson…Well, not quite.
Detective fiction began to emerge very slowly in the nineteenth century from authors like Maurits Hansen, William Evans Burton, and Emile Gaboriau. Most of these works culminated in short stories, which unfortunately did not see huge success. 1841 was when detective fiction truly came onto the literary scene, with the publication of Edgar Alan Poe’s short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. This tale served as the introduction for Poe’s hero C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin became the first ever detective featured in serial mysteries—he reappeared in The Mystery of Marie Roget in 1843 and The Purloined Letter in 1845. Poe’s stories illustrated that this new genre was popular enough to spawn successful sequels. Poe attributed the success of these stories to a secret formula that he created to write the perfect mystery. He was convinced that with his formula all you needed was to change a few variables, and a new story would unravel itself for you. These initial stories became the subject of great controversy. Never before had the method of crime solving been so explicitly followed- even if it was only fictional. This was complicated too because Poe’s second story, The Mystery of Marie Roget, was his hypothesis for what happened during the real murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers in 1841. Aside from some of the scandal around the story, it was still widely popular and helped to pave the way for later mysteries.
Charles Dickens, one of Britain’s literary paragons, even explored the new genre while writing Bleak House. This novel is the first story that begins to truly resemble the modern conception of detective fiction. The story of Detective Bucket investigating the murder of the odious lawyer, Tulkinghorn, sounds like a synopsis that could be easily taken from a contemporary novel. The work of Dickens in this novel and that of his friend, Wilkie Collins, developed some of the commons tropes of detective fiction that became iconic during the twentieth century. These include: robberies at an English country house, the idea of an “inside job,” red herrings, professional investigators, useless and usually bothersome local police, including false suspects to throw off the reader, always making the villain the least likely of suspects, the traditional locked room murder, reconstructing the crime, and implementing a final and essential plot twist.
Despite the early development of these ideas, it wasn’t until a Scotsman published a short-story in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in November of 1887. This story, A Study in Scarlett, was the debut of the illustrious Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first great literary success. Conan initially hoped to publish some of his Holmes stories in order to supplement his tiny income. He had no idea, however, that the Sherlock Holmes would become an iconic character that would solve all of his financial woes. The story was published as a book by Ward Lock one year later. Doyle wrote one other Holmes story, The Sign of Four, when commissioned by Lippincott, an American publisher, in 1890. It was when Doyle published a series in Strand magazine entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, that the stories finally gained unparalleled popularity. When Doyle tried to kill off Holmes in his second series, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, people were so displeased that some fans took to wearing black armbands until Doyle conceded to revive the beloved detective. By the end of his life Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels that followed Holmes and Watson on all of their adventures. These stories have since inspired hundreds of plays, movies, television series, and other adaptations.
It was Doyle who, despite the efforts of earlier authors, established the demand for detective fiction that made the coming Golden Era possible.
If you are interested in producing a play influenced by the birth of detective fiction check out titles like The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, or any of our other Holmes plays.
The Golden-Era: Agatha Christie
The Golden Era of detective fiction spanned from roughly 1920 to 1940, during the interwar period. This time period is so aptly named because it was during these years that authors like Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the Queen of Mystery herself—Agatha Christie—made their debuts.
Detectives during this period still greatly resembled their famed predecessor, Sherlock Holmes. Hercules Poirot, Miss Marple, and Lord Peter Wimsey—some of the most notable heroes from this era—solved crimes through their use of logic and intuition ala Sherlock Holmes. Detective stories were very much about the intellectual struggle to gather clues and deduce how they fit together, not the rough and tumble that would come in later years. Detective fiction during this period, though widely enjoyed, was also primarily a genre dominated by British authors. British author, Stephen Knight, coined the term “clue-puzzle” to describe these stories as they were entirely driven by the plot. While character development may have been a vehicle through which to bend or alter the plot, it never was allowed to take a primary focus in these stories.
While many of these stories dealt contemporary issues— colonization, espionage, etc.—they still relied heavily on the tropes that were established by Dickens and Collins and made popular by Conan Doyle. These included the final plots twists, red herrings, incompetent constables, false suspects, unlikely villains, and country house crimes.
While pastoral settings continued to be popular for many mysteries during the Golden Era, some authors also chose to escape the British Isle through their stories. As many areas wavered on independence, many authors chose to place their stories in British colonies. Christie, in particular, was influenced by her husband’s archaeological pursuits to write a handful of stories occurring in Egypt—including one of her most infamous tales, Death on the Nile.
Agatha Christie was undoubtedly the most popular author to emerge from this period. During her career she wrote a total of 66 detective novels, 150 short stories, and 6 plays (not including others which have been more recently adapted for the stage). Since the publication of her first novel in 1920, Agatha Christie has sold over 2 billion books. She has only been outsold by the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, which have both been in publication at least 300 years longer than her titles. She is also one of the most widely translated authors ever—her books appear in over one hundred languages. She has subsequently been dubbed “The Queen of Crime.” Her play, The Mousetrap, celebrates its sixtieth year running in the West End in November.
While authors from this period, like Christie and Sayers, continued to write stories well into the 1960’s, the Golden Era began to ebb with the onset of WWII. During this period, patriotism throughout many countries encouraged the idolization of men in uniform—which led to the later development and popularity of police detectives. Despite the end of this era, many of these titles are still in print today and many of the featured detectives during this period, including Poirot and Miss Marple, have starred in their own television series or film adaptations.
Plays that developed out of the Golden Era include The Mousetrap, Appointment with Death, Murder on the Nile, Witness for Prosecution, and Something’s Afoot.
The Hard-Boiled American Detectives
The hard-boiled genre is a uniquely American division of mystery-thrillers that developed during the same interwar period as the British Golden Era. British detectives up to this point were known for a level of astuteness; they used keen insight and observation to solve mysteries and they never became romantically involved with any damsels that come knocking at their door. The American hardboiled is the exact opposite. To help establish the contrast between the two, some people referred to British detective fiction of the time as “soft-boiled.” While for the British detective solving a murder may compare to putting together a tidy puzzle, the hardboiled detective goes about solving his case as if he were taking part in a boxing match—with guns ablazing. They comb the streets looking for clues and aren’t afraid of throwing blows or pulling their gun on any villainous individual. When thinking of hardboiled detectives images of low-drawn fedoras come to mind. Beautiful, but devilish, femme fatales. Guys who call women “dolls” or “broads.” The shadowy face of Humphrey Bogart.
Black Mask Magazine, which premiered in 1921, was the major vehicle through which hard-boiled detectives became popular in America. The magazine published short-stories by emerging American mystery writers which led the publishing of the first hardboiled novel in 1923. This novel, written by Caroll John Daly, was The Knights of the Open Palm. It featured a sharp dialogue, a hard-knuckled detective, and a racy storyline. After Daly set the precedent, authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were able to move beyond writing short-stories for Black Mask. They subsequently produced best-selling books like The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Big Sleep, and Farewell, My Lovely. These American novels perpetuated the success of the hardboiled genre and helped it not only become a popular genre for movies, but theatre as well. These noir-detectives lost their popularity, like the Golden Era detectives, with the emergence of the police detectives following the Second World War.
If you’re looking to produce a hardboiled mystery at your theatre look into titles like Gunmetal Blues by Craig Bohmler, Marion Adler, and Scott Wentworth or Murder is My Business by James Reach (a stage adaptation of the Mike Shayne series by Brett Halliday).
As patriotism rose during the WWII, popularity turned from private investigators to public officers—the police detective. This new genre was almost like redemption for the police force who had been thoroughly mocked by detective fiction up until this point. Beginning with Dickens and Collins, the police in most detective novels had been depicted as incompetent fools; unable to solve a case without the assistance of the idolized private detective like Holmes or Poirot. One of the most infamous examples of this stock character is Inspector Lestrade from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Although he worked for the infamous Scotland Yard, he constantly turned to Holmes to solve the most puzzling mysteries for them. Similarly, Inspector Japp appears in Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels. Another detective from Scotland Yard, he is never able to solve a mystery without Hercules Poirot’s aid.
When the police detective began to emerge in the 1940’s and 50’s, these bumbling constables were banished from mystery novels. The new police detective was sure of himself and together, with the help of his friends on the force, could solve any mystery put to him.
One of the most infamous series of police procedurals was the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter. Morse appeared in thirteen books before handing his cases over to his assistant, Inspector Lewis. This series, which began in 1975, has spawned two different BBC series and stage play written by Alma Cullen in 2010. The eager reception of police mysteries spawned a dramatic outpouring of new novels, movies, and television series. Popular show like Dragnet, NCIS, Monk, Criminal Minds, Psych, Bones, Columbo, Castle, Law & Order, and Miami Vice all flourished because of the development of police procedurals.
The Female Sleuths
The latest subgenre of detective novels to gain popularity is those featuring female sleuths. Of course female detective aren’t new. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series proved decades ago that female detectives could be wildly popular. Arthur Conan Doyle even employed Irene Adler in many of his Holmes stories. And of course most young girls have read a Nancy Drew novel or two, or her modern descendant Harriet the Spy. Despite Miss Marple’s success and the appearance of dozens of other female investigators, the detective genre remained heavily dominated by males until the last twenty years or so.
Authors are popping up all over the place with stories depicting new female sleuths. Author Laurie R. King has created a fictional, sleuthing wife for Sherlock Holmes in her series featuring Mary Russell. Current best-selling author Gillian Flynn has two novels featuring female investigators. Charlaine Harris, Janet Evanovich, Rhys Bowen, Tasha Alexander, Jacqueline Winspear, Jessica Fletcher, and Sarah Dunant are just a handful of the many authors now featuring both amateur and professional female sleuths.
Female detectives are appearing throughout popular television shows as well. Kathy Reich’s bestselling series about forensic-anthropologist Temperance Brennan has been turned into the long-running TV series Bones. Olivia Benson has become the lead character on Law & Order SVU. Castle has swapped traditional gender roles by introducing a female detective, Kate Beckett, and her male amateur-sidekick. Veronica Mars was not only a female but also a teenage detective. It seems that every major television network now has a female detective starring in one of their series.
And that’s not to mention other adaptations, like our favorite female cartoon-detectives—Velma and Daphne. Jinkies!
If you would and your theatre would like to depict a kick-butt female detective in one of your productions check out plays like Trixie True, Teen Detective or the sequel, Trixie, the Teen Detective and the Mystery of Gravestead Manor, by Cynthia Mercati. For a classic look at female detectives read A Murder is Announced, Agatha Christie’s adaptations of one of her beloved Miss Marple stories.
This article is part of the first ever November Mystery Month, in honor of the 60th Anniversary of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Throughout the month, we will be highlighting some of the many mysteries in our catalogue through Facebook, Twitter and [Breaking Character]. Learn more about November Mystery Month HERE.