Monday, June 27, 2005
Victorian Mystery and Detective Fiction: an evolving genre
Within Victorian society, mystery and detective fiction was overwhelmingly popular and was written for an audience of its time. This type of fiction used idiosyncratic language of its day, social standing was often portrayed and domestic conditions were exposed.
The Victorian mystery was ensconced within London, its sights, sounds of the streets and modes of transport, thus making it familiar to readers' minds. It is important to remember that the Victorian era spanned almost a century, and historic events should be considered when examining how this type of genre evolved.
Examples are Le Fanu's Gothic The murdered cousin, and Charles Dickens work and finally the detective character Sherlock Holmes. The Victorian reading public guided this genre, they wanted the location to be clearly identifiable making the stories familiar and enjoyable.
The Victorian mystery and detective story frequently used poison, such as nightshade or arsenic as a murder weapon. Sometimes stiletto daggers were used. Events that commonly took place were murder, forgery, robbery and mistaken identity. The genre had a well-paced plot; characters were black and white, incorporating good versus evil (Cox, 1992).
An important element of the genre is the description of the setting, usually a ghostly ambience is created. A good example of this is from The murdered cousin by J S Le Fanu: "I shall not soon forget the impression of sadness and of gloom which all that I saw produced upon my mind...there was an air of neglect and decay...the grey walls of Carrickleigh were visible...and bore unequivocal marks of antiquity; the time-worm, solemn aspect of the old building, the ruinous and deserted appearance of the whole place" (Cox, 1992).
The introduction of the detective in Victorian mystery is commonly attributed to Edgar Allan Poe and his story "The murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Here Poe develops a central detective character named Chevalier C August Dupin.
This is a defining point in the Victorian mystery and with the introduction of the detective, a formulaic approach arose. Aside from the central figure, there now was a formal process of "investigation, deduction and revelation" (Cox, 1992). Indeed, until this point, previous Victorian mystery could be construed as a form of sensationalist gothic literature.
The detective story uses the design of narrative with individual viewpoints. The reader is unable to be objective, and each character or witness has a motive. So, the victim could have been murdered by A, B or C and perhaps even, in any number of ways. This manipulative technique, where the reader is kept guessing and left uncertain, gives the author complete control and this still holds true today. Dorothy Sayers calls this the "fairplay rule" (Cox, 1992).
A series of events occurring in Victorian England contributed to detective fiction, evolving the genre and transforming it. Events such as: the "formation of the Bow Street Runners...the passing of Sir Robert Peel's Metroplitan Police Act of 1829 which established the Metropolitan Police and led to the setting up in 1842 of a special criminal Investigation Department dedicated to detective work" (Cox, 1992).
Furthermore the idea of the literary detective was introduced by Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House (1853), he uses a police detective.
The market for detective fiction grew and the reading public increasingly demanded sophisticated "crime and mystery with minuteness and particularly of a detective officer" (Cox, 1992). At this juncture the public is presented with one of the most legendary and renowned detectives of its time: Sherlock Holmes. The reading public embraced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character. Again, playing upon the familiar, Holmes was a figure who was "solid, contemporary...dominated by London and its suburbs" (Cox, 1992). Furthermore, Holmes empathised with his readers when he became "increasingly...articulate, indeed to defend the values of the broad middle stratum of English Society" (Cox, 1992). The public could associate with him, ordinary individuals could call upon him. It was not uncommon for mail addressed to Baker Street; pleas for Sherlock Holmes' help, his character being so embedded in Victorian society.
The Sherlock Holmes' stories were structured in a sequential fashion. Holmes and Watson would wait until consulted, or perhaps a newspaper story would catch the eye, observations would be made, analysed, until finally, with only Holmes knowing the truth, Watson and readers alike were enlightened, the mystery was solved. This formula using a central character, was repeated time and time again. In the end, Doyle tired of this structure and finally killed his character off. Regardless, Holmes and what followed were the professional amateur sleuth and consulting detective.
Before Sherlock Holmes, the detective novel would often result in a natural or providential turn of events. That is, it was not mere deductive power that brought a criminal to justice, but rather, an act of God. Holmes' rationality and analytical intelligence paralleled what was scientific and technical within that era. "Doyle consciously decentres the lurid details of acts of criminality in the interest of fictionalising the processes through which crime is detected" (Longhurst, 1989). With the advent of a new police force and new technological advances, such as fingerprinting, the emergence of a new discipline, criminology, it comes as no surprise that "most academic studies which puzzle over detective fiction argue that it is, at root, a literature of social and psychological adjustment" (Longhurst, 1989).
So prolific was the detective story, academics tried to contain this popular fiction. Developing a cultural canon, in an attempt to "codify...(and) in a sense to civilise the popular fiction industry" (Longhurst, 1989). Whether or not this attempt to contain the genre within a 'proper' literary form succeeded, it is clear that it is a category where "the mystery (is) a pleasurable puzzle or game, albeit a competitive one in which the reader is pitted against author/detective; seeking the mystery's solution before it is officially announced" (Longhurst, 1989).
Evolving from the Victorian 'thriller' or 'shocker', the mystery and detective novel is still today an immensly popular genre. If a timeline is to be drawn, it is easy to see from the Victorian era, how social forms, scientific progress and readers' desires have shaped the mystery and detective story, and that the writing of today's mystery has an easily identifiable structure that had its beginnings more than a hundred years ago.
Cox, Michael, 1992, Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection, an Oxford anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Longhurst, Derek (ed.), 1989, Gender, genre and narrative pleasure, Reading popular fiction, Unwin Hyman, Great Britain.