The First Detective

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

The Moonstone

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?

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10 Romantic Gothic Stories You Should Read Before You Run Hysterically Into the Moors Never to be Seen (Alive) Again

As I was looking for resources through the hit and miss machine that is Google, I kept coming across goth dating sites… this is not relevant, I just thought you should know the level of people in pseudo-Victorian garb staring whimsically off into space that I had to endure to research this was relatively high compared with other topics I have written about.

Romanticism and the Gothic overlap so much that it is probably easier to define was isn’t Romantic Gothic and it might take less time. So rather than go over a definition of Gothic Romanticism that is so similar to the millions of others out there, not to mention our introductory episode, I thought I would give you a list of a few of my favourite stories that deal in Gothic Romanticism that we haven’t covered on The FrankenPod podcast:

 

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Byam Shaw‘s illustration for Poe‘s The Murders in the Rue Morgue in “Selected Tales of Mystery” (London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 1909) on the page to face p. 284 with caption “The sailor’s face flushed up; he started to his feet and grasped his cudgel”

The Murders in The Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)

Falling into the category of both the genius detective (pre-Holmes I might add) and urban gothic, and with at least one very clear example of gothic excess (that is the fate of the victims in the story and their killer). Dupain is a delight and in my opinion far more likeable and intriguing than his successor Holmes.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue is as much fun as you can possibly have with a corpse shoved up a chimney.

Available for free at Project Gutenberg as part of  The Works of Edgar Allan Poe Part 1

There is also an excellent dramatisation of Murders in the Rue Morgue that was released as part of The Rivals Audio drama on BBC Radio 4 with the eternally adorable James Fleet inserted into the narrative as Inspector Lestrade, who is an Arthur Conan Doyle creation. The thread of the series is that Lestrade, of Sherlock Holmes fame, is basically offering examples of detectives who are better than Holmes, and Dupain played by the incomparable Andrew Scott is his first example.

 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

This was the first gothic novel I ever read and it has a very special place in my heart to rival Frankenstein. Pop culture has entirely ruined the ending for new readers unless they are 10 like I was. If you do let a 10-year-old read it, maybe go for a kid’s edition to minimise nightmares. Still worth a read despite the spoilers. Doubling you guys! More Doubling!

Available for free at Project Gutenberg 

 

Stoker_-_Dracula,_Sonzogno,_Milano,_1922.djvuDracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

I know that there are other vampire stories that pave the way to Dracula (some of which we will talk about on the podcast), but none of them quite achieve the drama and the sense of formidable invasion the way the Bram Stoker does. He has brought together a lot of ideas surrounding vampires and made them into an incredibly compelling novel that still holds up. It is also insanely problematic as most novels of its time are so easily outraged should tread carefully as with all these books really.

Available for free on Project Gutenberg

 

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

Another childhood favourite of mine of which you are less likely to know the big twist. And you know what, like a lot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels even if you have read it, the solutions are either so complicated and outlandish or unexpectedly pedestrian that the reader often has difficulty recalling the exact circumstances of the crime and the solution to the riddle. But that is a genius detective novel for you, their leaps of inductive reasoning (not deductive as any first-year critical thinking student will tell you) are incredibly entertaining but often don’t stand up to scrutiny. A fantastic story though, possibly the best in the Holmes canon.

Available for free on Project Gutenberg

 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

Du Maurier, I would hazard to say is one of the great geniuses of gothic romanticism. Often eclipsed by her predecessors, the Bronte’s (for there are more than cursory similarities) she crafts books that paint a bleak, yet compelling picture of the world surrounding a young girl who is generally a damsel in distress. Her damsels in distress are often isolated without a clear ally. She uses tropes artfully, without letting them becomes cliches, and creates a few new narrative devices that will be deployed often and with great enthusiasm by her successors.

Available to buy at The Book Depository

 

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Frontispiece illustration from the book, The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

This is stretching the definition of gothic I know, and most people would turn to Collins’ other, more conventionally romantic gothic novel The Woman in White. I am ashamed to say I haven’t read it yet. The Moonstone is part detective novel, part romance, part scathing indictment on contemporary society and colonialism.

Available for free at Project Gutenberg

 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817)

Yes, Jane Austen. This is possibly one of the most cleverly crafted gothic novels and yet, it started life as a parody of one of the most influential stories of gothic romanticism of its time; The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Catherine Morland, the hero of the piece, encounters many tropes of gothic fiction, but they are all overcome with a practicality and wit that is so uniquely Austen.

Available for free at Project Gutenberg

 

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)

We could easily call this sensation fiction narrative a proto-detective novel. If the style of dress and manner of speech were 70 years in the future you could easily see this novel fitting in with the detective noir genre. There is double-crossing, murder, mistaken identity, a femme fatale and private investigator of a kind.

Available for free at Project Gutenberg as part of The World’s Greatest Books Volume 2

 

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (1848)

If you are going to read a Bronte novel, might I humbly suggest this epistolary novel by possibly the least appreciated Bronte aside from Branwell? There are remarkably less awful people who you are supposed to sympathise with and decidedly less harmful relationships. It’s not a hugely popular opinion but I’ll take Anne Bronte over her sisters (and obviously Branwell) any day.

Available for free at Project Gutenberg

 

 

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