Victorian Literature Detective Fiction
by
Anne Humpherys
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0022

Introduction

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 previous century. 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 early critical study. Sometimes early histories of detective ficton would briefly mention other English precursors to Sherlock Holmes, including William Godwin, Things as They Are, or Caleb Williams (1794) and 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, as well as the theoretical turn, especially structuralism, attention has increased in other writers of detective fiction, either earlier or contemporary with the Sherlock Holmes stories though many critical works still treat only the Sherlock Holmes. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries as the canon of detective fiction has expanded, criticism has done so as well by focusing on 19th-century detective fiction in terms of genre, science, and the empire.

Overviews

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). Cawelti 1976 and Porter 1981 analyze its formal properties. Knight 1980 and Mandel 1986 identify its context and recurrent themes. Benstock and Stalley 1988 is an important reference work that contains biographies of more than fifty Victorian detective story writers. Later, Drexler 1998 relates Victorian detective fiction to other fictions in the second half of the century. Thomas 1996 reviews works that treat detective fiction as they would more canonized literature.

  • Benstock, Bernard, and Thomas F. Stalley, eds. British Mystery Writers, 1860–1919. Dictionary of Literary Biography 70. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    Biographical entries for fifty-three Victorian detective story writers.

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

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148700.001.0001E-mail Citation »

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

  • Drexler, Peter. “Mapping the Gaps: Detectives and Detective Themes in British Novels of the 1870s and 1880s.” In The Art of Murder: New Essays on Detective Fiction. Edited by H. Gustav Klaus and Stephen Knight, 77–89. Tubingen, Germany: Stauffenberg Verlag, 1998.

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    Explores the detective themes in novels not generally considered detective novels.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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 detectives.

  • 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.

  • Thomas, Ronald. “Victorian Detective Fiction and Legitimate Literature: Recent Directions in the Criticism.” Victorian Literature and Culture 24 (1996): 367–379.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150300004496E-mail Citation »

    Notes how contemporary critics use detective fiction to illustrate various critical methodologies. Reviews works that treat detective fiction as they would more canonized literature.

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