History of the Detective Story

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The changing cultural mythology of crime has given rise to many different popular genres. Some of these genres have been essentially adventure stories or melodramas, but one of the most prominent embodies the cultural mythology of detectives, criminals, police, and suspects in a classic form that is almost pure mystery. Edgar Allen Poe first noticeably expressed the traditional detective story in the 1840s, but it did not become a widely popular genre until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This rise in popularity of the detective story coincided with the success of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock Holmes is widely regarded as the most famous of all fictional detectives and is known for his intellectual prowess and reasoning skills. Although Doyle’s works are the most popular of detective fiction, Poe is responsible for originating the formula for what is commonly known as the detective story.

Frenchman Francois-Eugene Vidocq, in his Memoirs of Vidocq, introduced the idea of detection and the figure of the detective that would eventually stand at the center of the genre in the early nineteenth century. Vidocq was a confidant of at least two famous contemporary French writers and an inspiration for many others around the world. Having served as a soldier, privateer, smuggler, inmate, and secret police spy, Vidocq, at age twenty-four, credited himself with a duel for every year of his life. The Paris police accepted his offer for his "security services" in 1812, and shortly thereafter, he established his own department, the Surete, which became the French equivalent of the American F.B.I. In a typical year, William Ruehlmann reports, "Vidocq had twelve men working for him, and between them they made 811 arrests, including fifteen assassins, 341 thieves, and thirty-eight receivers of stolen property."[1] When Vidocq published his Memoirs in France in 1828, they were immediately popular and translated into English. Victor Hugo based not one but two characters in Les Miserables on Vidocq - both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Honore Balzac's character, Vautran, in Pere Goriot was also modeled after Vilocq. Edgar Allen Poe lauded Vilocq’s renowned crime-solving reputation in Murders in the Rue Morgue. The fugitive in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations was also inspired by Vidocq's real-life exploits.[2] England’s interest in crime stories blended with a strong, existing genre called the gothic novel. Most scholars attribute this genre to Horace Walpole, whose Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, established the horror story, to which Mary Shelley added scientific aspects with Frankenstein (1818). The gothic influence is said to account for the dark settings, unfathomable motivations, and preoccupation with brilliant or unexpected solutions in the detective/mystery genre. Among English writers, Vidocq most influenced Charles Dickens, who used detail and character from Vidocq's Memoirs for his Great Expectations.

In the United States, Edgar Allen Poe wrote five stories between 1840 and 1845 laying out the basic formula of the detective story. In “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe introduced an eccentric detective, C. Auguste Dupin, whose solutions were chronicled by an admiring, amiable narrator. Later detective stories, notably Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, became even more eccentric, and Poe's nameless narrator had his counterpart in the good-natured Dr. Watson.[3] In “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe introduced three common motifs of detective fiction: the wrongly suspected man, the crime in the locked room, and the solution by unexpected means.[4] Dupin solved the crime by reading the evidence better than the police did and by noticing clues that they had neglected, thus highlighting the importance of inference and observation. In a second story, “The Purloined Letter,” Poe invented the plot of the stolen document, the recovery of which ensures the safety of some...
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