Victorian Literature Detective Fiction
Anne Humpherys
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0022


The standard history of Victorian detective fiction (in which a detective works to solve a specific crime or mystery) starts with Edgar Allan Poe’s three Dupin stories (1841–1846), followed by the detectives of Charles Dickens (Bucket in Bleak House [1852–1853]) and Wilkie Collins (Cuff in The Moonstone [1868]) and culminating in the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet in 1887. These texts and writers were for the most part the only ones subjected to critical study. Sometimes early histories of detective history would briefly mention other English precursors to Sherlock Holmes, including William Godwin, Things as They Are, or Caleb Williams (1794); the Newgate Calendar (1774), Thomas Gaspey, Richmond: Scenes from the Life of a Bow Street Runner (1827); or William Russell, Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer, by “Waters” (1856). Since the 1990s, however, following on the increased interest in popular culture and the recovery of texts by women writers, attention has grown to other writers of detective fiction, either earlier or contemporary with the Sherlock Holmes stories though many critical works still treat only the Sherlock Holmes stories. Much of 19th-century detective fiction was published in periodicals, the form of Victorian detective fiction being primarily the short story, though there were a handful of novels and novellas. The genre of detective fiction novels as it came down into the early 20th century was essentially established in the last decade of the 19th century.

General Overviews

Considerable critical work on detective, mystery, and crime fiction has been undertaken in the last hundred years. Most of the earlier analyses of 19th-century fictional detectives treat only Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and selected works by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. However, some general critical works are useful in understanding the genre and its early history. Some of the practitioners of detective fiction, such as Howard Haycraft and Robin Winks, have written about the genre (see Haycraft 1983 and Winks 1988). Symons 1993 constructs its development and Cawelti 1976 and Porter 1981 analyze its formal properties. Knight 1980 and Mandel 1986 identify its context and recurrent themes. Knight 2010 provides a dense and comprehensive overview from 1840 to 2007.

  • Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    A foundational study of the typology and characteristics of popular fiction with two chapters on the classic detective story.

  • Haycraft, Howard, ed. The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1983.

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    A collection of essays by fifty-three critics and detective-story writers, first published in 1946 (New York: Grosset & Dunlap). Contains all the important critical essays written prior to 1946. There are several pieces on Sherlock Holmes and one on the first hundred years of detective fiction.

  • Knight, Stephen. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-05458-9E-mail Citation »

    Lengthy analysis of a few cases, including Dupin and Holmes. Identifies rationality and alienation as key traits of the detective.

  • Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction since 1800: Detective, Death, Diversity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-02021-5E-mail Citation »

    Arguably the most comprehensive overview, surveying an increasing field of British and American writers and formats from the late 18th century to 2007. Analyzes types such as the locked room mystery. The section “Diversity” traces new directions in terms of gender and class. Contains a glossary, a chronology, an index, and a useful bibliography of primary and secondary works. First published in 2004, the 2010 edition has been updated.

  • Mandel, Ernest. Delightful Murders: A Social History of the Crime Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

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    A Marxist analysis of the popularity of detective fiction. Discusses Dupin and Holmes.

  • Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

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    A critical study of how writers of detective fiction use standard literary devices to fulfill the dual mission of forwarding the action and prolonging suspense. Also identifies the genre as socially conservative.

  • Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. 3d ed. New York: Mysterious, 1993.

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    A seminal work and crucial in establishing the genre as worthy of academic study.

  • Winks, Robin, ed. Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. 2d ed. Woodstock, VT: Countryman, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important collection of some of the early best-known critical essays, including those by W. H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Wilson, and Jacques Barzun.

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