This post accompanies the podcast episode The First Detective Novel by The FrankenPod
The first detective novel is a hard thing to pinpoint, the detective and mystery narratives can be traced back to ancient civilization arguably visible in the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders and the play Oedipus Rex, though, let me be very clear that opinion is dramatically divided on both of these classifications. There are examples of early detective stories not just in early Anglo European narratives, but in just about every culture with a written tradition. And there are cultures with oral traditions that conform to a similar narrative pattern.
A mystery is introduced, many are baffled, but the mystery is overcome, often by a person with particular and peculiar gifts of insight.
So it seems we’ve always loved a mystery.
The Genius Detective
But it isn’t until the advent of the 19th-century genius detective that the genre becomes certain, defined and incredibly popular with a wide audience. This also has to do with the printing press and higher levels of literacy, particularly in women. It’s kind of funny when we see that a higher proportion of people identifying as female going a bit batshit for true, crime, and I count myself as one of them, and we are tempted to think this is a new phenomenon, but it’s been going on since at LEAST the birth of the novel. A lot of women dig something a little scary or salacious, enter the crime narrative.
C. Auguste Dupin
The man who is seen as the first modern detective is perhaps my absolute favourite the delightfully queer C. Auguste Dupin. Created by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841 and often read as merely a French protosherlock, but he is a detective I have a deep and abiding love for. He is a more relaxed breed of arrogant genius detective than the often violent Holmes and hangs out exclusively with dudes. He seems to potter around mysteries, make bets on the outcome and has that strange sportsman like attitude to crime, viewing it as a puzzle or a challenge that would be so popular amongst his successors, I am thinking specifically Jonathan Creek for some bizarre reason, that’s a weird reference that I think will have a limited resonance, Okay this is very important, if you know who jonathan creek is it is vital that you let me know of twitter as soon as possible @thefrankenpod, it can’t just be me out there in this 90s BBC drama wilderness. Maybe Poirot is a good comparison, I guess.
If you came for pure unadulterated Poe love you may have come to the wrong place, the guy was super problematic in ways too numerous to list without a dedicated episode. He did, however, pen some of the most thrilling and devastating short stories in the English language. I will never be able to reconcile those 2 things.
Anyway back to Dupin, the first story of Poe’s to feature Dupin is Murders in the Rue Morgue. I’m not going to spoil the end but…
If you are going to make Redacted the murderer then you are making an almost explicit comment on Darwinism.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue is thought to be the first Modern detective story, but it is not the first detective novel
Let us humour some other views on the first detective novel; T.S. Elliot asserts that Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone is the first and most complete detective novel, and it’s true that in terms of sheer quantity and narrative development you have to hand it to Collins for crafting a tale of intrigue that takes on Imperialism, Temperance and Superstition. A precious gem that has been taken from India and bequeathed Rachel Verinda, it then goes missing and what ensues is a narrative full of red herrings and plot twists that once or twice you may find yourself frustrated with Collins’s trickery. There are a few very good suspects and a few very good motives, and the solution is outlandish and wonderful. There is also an element of bait and switch, we don’t quite know who is the real detective, even that certainty is denied us.
I came late to the Wilkie Collins bandwagon, and the man might be sympathetic the characters from India he also indulges in some casual racism which will grate on most modern readers. He is often seen as condemning racism simply because he has written racist characters unsympathetically, and for his time you know, he was a rather progressive dude.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon
But all that being said let me tell you a tale, the tale of a femme fatale, a tale penned by a woman, condemning women, giving them an unparalleled level of agency and shining a light on the injustices of the marriage act. Lady Audley’s Secret written in 1862 by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 6 years before The Moonstone, provides much of we would look for in a modern detective novel. Barrister Robert Audley, yet another candidate for the most insufferable man in literature thinks there is something up with his uncle’s pretty new wife. He is the least interesting of the detectives detailed, but the villain is the most morally confronting.
I’m not going to give away the ending because it’s an important piece of proto detective, sensation fiction.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon is one of those 19th-century badass women who had a long-term relationship and children out of wedlock, shock horror. Not so shocking when you read her fiction which almost always condemns the institution of marriage. A remarkable scandalous woman, who wrote incredible detective fiction, and not an underage cousin marriage in sight, I’m looking at you, Edgar Allan Poe.
Does the male detective have an intrinsic hatred and distrust of women in particular, or is it just an ultimate distrust of the human race in general, manifesting differently by virtue of the subservient status of women in literature?