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Notes & Links: The Origins of Mystery Fiction
Trying to unearth the origins of crime fiction is a bit like trying to find the source of art or music. Murder may be an unpleasant fact of life, but it is really just another way we express the essence of our human nature. Murder is not a social phenomenon like war or tyranny, instead it is the ultimate statement of our quest for personal power over the existential vagaries of an often unfriendly world. Of course, murder has been generally frowned upon for most of recorded history, and it clearly falls far beyond any arbitrary line of acceptable moral behaviour. To kill another human for personal gain, or as an act of retribution, is one of those big Ten Commandment sins that were cast in stone and handed down by Moses! We may all ignore some minor points of conduct, but murder almost always lies beyond the pale! It is, quite simply, an open declaration of war against the rules of civilized conduct and must be censured for the common good.
This prohibition of murder is a great idea in theory, and a necessary part of any civilized code of conduct, but it has never really caught on in the real world. In fact, our fascination with murder is never out of style! People go right on killing for personal gain or power; they kill in a fit of passion, take drastic measures to settle an old grudge, or simply kill for the sake of killing! And we all love to wallow in the gory details! It is one of life’s central dramas in any age, and wherever we encounter unnatural death, in fact or fiction, we all respond with a mixture of abject horror and undaunted fascination! It is all about the great game. That ultimate challenge of the unbridled ego against the constraints of a social order designed to keep us from being murdered in the dark of the night!
Still, our desire for personal gain is only one constant of our ‘civilized’ world, another constant is our deep need for safety and security, a force which drives us to demand a world of law and order, where those who flaunt the rules must pay dearly for there evil misdeeds!
The problem arises when these two basic constants come into conflict. We all want to be safe from the horrors of the nasty villain – until we become the villain in question! When this occurs, that same need for safety and security, drives us to save our skins at all costs! It forces us, like Cain, to lie or cheat, or even murder once again, in situations where we face dire consequences. The fear of the hangman’s noose is a powerful force that drives murder deep down into our subconscious depths, though it can never totally banish all those dark temptations that lurk in the darkest corners of our souls.
This is the dynamic inner struggle that provides all the prerequisites for the mystery story and the psychological roots of all crime fiction, and it also tends to open up a role for conflict resolution, creating a social requirement for someone who is willing to search for the truth at all costs. It is actually a quite necessary role in any moderately advanced society, and here enters the detective hero!
In the days when civilization was limited to small bands or tribes, it was the elders who weighed the evidence and handed down a verdict, usually ostracizing any offenders from the community, a very effective early version of the death penalty! Of course, in these closed communities, where everyone knew everybody else’s business, there was little need for deductive skills or cumbersome legal proceedings. The elders voted – and that was generally the end of the story!
However, as human civilization grew more complex, and large population centres began to emerge, it was not always so easy to determine which individual was responsible for a given crime. It is therefore in the early cultures of Egypt, Greece, Rome and China, that we see the beginnings of the first basic legal systems. In most cases, criminal investigations were conducted by some form of judge, who examined the facts, laid the charges, and often pronounced the final judgement.
This is really no different than the traditional system in England. The king appointed local magistrates, and a ‘reeve’, or magistrate, for the entire ‘shire’. This royal post, soon shortened to ‘sheriff’, involved collecting taxes and enforcing all laws and royal edicts. Most common petty crime was handled directly by a local magistrate, with more serious crimes being bumped up to the county ‘quarter sessions’. Only deadly crimes, or serious charges against the gentry, were bound over to the assize court. The job of initially investigating any suspicious death was often handled by a coroner, whose job was to decide the cause of death and name a suspect, if any was apparent. The sheriff’s men were then employed to find the suspect, a trial date was set, and the case was usually closed at the end of a noose, or by some even more nasty method. There was no village constable, no Scotland Yard. The magistrate or sheriff was law and order all rolled into one, until relatively modern times, when technology and organized crime finally forced us to make some major changes.
These early legal systems are quite clearly reflected in the literature of each period. Dorothy Sayers, in her 1928 introduction to ‘Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror’ (published in 1929 in the United States as the first Omnibus of Crime), identifies four ancient stories that are ancestors of the mystery genre: including two apocryphal Old Testament tales, which may date back as far as the 4th century BCE; while another is from Herodotus, dating to the 5th century BCE, and one an even older myth of Hercules.
The apocryphal biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, has Susanna falsely accused of adultery by two corrupt judges. Daniel successfully argues Susanna’s case by exposing the perjury of the judges, and clears her name. The other biblical case is Bel and The Dragon, also apocryphal, where the priests of Bel claim that the statue of the Dragon of Bel eats and drinks the offerings presented to it, when in reality they enter the temple and remove the offerings. Daniel solves the case by spreading a fine layer of dust on the floor, which reveals the priest’s footsteps, making him the first CSI!
In the mythological tale of Hercules and Cacus the Thief (see photo), Cacus, a fire-breathing giant and son of Vulcan, steals Hercules cows by walking them backwards into a cave, leaving false footprints in order to quite literally cover his tracks. Hercules regains his charges when a stolen cow answers the call of the herd. In Herodotus’s story of King Rhampsinitus and the thief, there is even a ‘locked-room mystery’ that involves a headless corpse in a sealed chamber and a slick trap to catch the wily thieves.
The Greek play, Oedipus the King, by Sophocles (c 430 BC), also draws on some elements of the detective story, with a murder mystery, a small group of suspects, and a gradual process of uncovering the truth. The solution, with Oedipus as both the ultimate cause of the crime and the sole force of law and authority, makes it a rather unique addition to the annals of crime fiction.
Another early example of the mystery genre is “The Three Apples”, from the tales narrated by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. A fisherman discovers a heavy, chest along the Tigris river and sells it to the Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who breaks it open only to discover the dead body of a young woman, cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja’far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime within three days or face execution. The vizier largely ignores the order, but the mystery is fortunately resolved by the murderer’s confession. Ja’far is then given another case, and again fails to find the culprit in the allotted time, but due to a chance discovery, he finally solves the murder through deductive reasoning, preventing his own execution.
The Gong’an fiction of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, is another source of early crime fiction. The hero of these novels is typically a traditional magisrate, based on historical personages such as Judge Bao (Bao Qingtian) or Judge Dee (Di Renjie). Although the historical characters may have lived in an earlier period (such as the Song or Tang dynasty) the novels are generally set in the later Ming or Manchu period. The Dutch mystery writer, Robert Van Gulik, began by translating an 18th century novel, ‘The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee’, then went on to write his own stories using the same format to create 16 new Judge Dee mysteries.
These Chinese stories are generally governed by three basic traditions, the detective is the local magistrate; the criminal is known from the start of the story, like a modern inverted mystery, and the reason for the crime unfolds during the course of the story. They also often contain supernatural elements, philosophical digressions, and a very large number of characters.
Some elements of the mystery genre emerged in English through the revenge tragedies of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period, though the context is usually one of restoring justice and social order, which has failed to be provided by the authority in question. Shakespeare’s Hamlet provides a good example of this concentration on restoring thwarted justice.
However, the first real development of the modern genre comes with the publication of ‘The Newgate Calendar’. The Newgate Calendar was originally a monthly bulletin of executions, produced by the Keeper of Newgate Prison in London, until publishers of cheap pamphlets known as ‘chapbooks’, began to embellish and reprint these very popular biographies of notorious criminals. Collected editions of these stories became common by the mid-18th century, and in 1774 a five volume bound edition was published. These accounts are highly sensational and drew on many unreliable sources, but together they form a dramatic social commentary on the period, and often dealt with popular public issues and figures. The Wikipedia entry notes: “Along with the Bible and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Calendar was famously in the top three works most likely to be found in the average home.”
Another literary milestone was the publishing of William Godwin’s, ‘Things as They Are, or Caleb Williams’, in 1794. This novel tells the story of a servant who accidentally discovers the secrets of his master, and is forced to flee for his life. If not exactly a murder mystery, it is one of the first criminal thrillers, and provides a quite unflattering vision of late 18th century justice. Again, it is an inverted story that begins with Caleb being pursued across Britain, before working back to the beginning of the story. Both Dickens and Poe read this work and noted Godwin’s style.
One of the biggest advances in the development of the crime novel came when the author, Henry Fielding, established the Bow Street Runners in 1749. As Dorothy Sayers notes so eloquently, the mystery genre could not really develop until the detective was invented, and this was the first attempt at a professional police service. Fielding had been a magistrate at the Bow Street Magistrate’s office and developed the Runners as a rudimentary police force to arrest offenders and bring them to his office. Fielding retired in 1754, but his blind brother, John, remained a magistrate for 26 years, and greatly expanded the Runners, which would eventually be absorbed by the police force of the City of London.
The development of the Bow Street Runners led to several interesting literary works. ‘Richmond: Scenes from the Life of a Bow Street Runner’ by Thomas Gaspey (often attributed to William Russell), was a work of fiction published in 1827. This was the first real collection of detective stories, and was later followed by three more instalments, ‘Recollections of a Police Officer’ (1856), ‘The French Detective Officer’ (1861), and ‘Experiences of a Real Detective’ (1862). These were all properly attributed to William Russell, though some editions of ‘Recollections of a Police Officer’ are simply authored by ‘Waters’.
Another recollection of this era can be found in ‘Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner’ by Henry Goddard. It was carefully reconstructed from the original notebook of Goddard by Patrick Pringle and published in 1957. This, of course, means it has little relevance to the history of the genre, but it still provides a fascinating insight into the early days of criminal investigation. Goddard remained a detective with the Runners until they were replaced by the Metropolitan Police in 1839, then worked as a private detective for several years. It should also be noted that ‘The Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner’ by T. F. Banks are not historical accounts, instead they are only a fairly accurate series of modern historical novels.
France was moving in the same direction. In 1809, Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857), established the French Surete, and in 1833, the world’s first private detective agency. Vidocq had begun life on the other side of the law, before becoming a police officer and later the first private detective. His four volume ‘Memoirs of Eugene Francois Vidocq’ marks a clear shift from the Robin Hood style robber protagonist to the image of a policeman hero.
Britain soon followed this lead in 1829, developing the Metropolitan Police Department of London (Scotland Yard). The first head of the department was Sir Robert Peel (hence ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’), and a detective bureau, the forerunner of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was formed in 1842.
The essay, ”On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” by Thomas De Quincey, first published in 1827 in Blackwood’s Magazine, was extremely important in defining this emerging genre. The essay is a fictional account of a speech to a gentleman’s club on the aesthetics of murder. It largely focuses on a series of murders, committed in 1811, likely by John Williams, along the Ratcliffe Highway near London. The essay became quite popular, and sparked several sequels. It was a major influence on the literary approach to crime, cited by several early authors, including G. K. Chesterton.
The 1830’s also saw the first publications of the ‘Penny Dreadful’ (or Penny Bloods) format. These short, cheap, pulp stories, commonly featured wild tales of murder and other horrible crimes. They proved to be immensely popular with the barely literate poor of England, and their influence on the mystery genre can be seen in the occasionally fantastic adventures of some later novelists such as Edgar Wallace, or even Agatha Christie in ‘The Big Four’. Other inexpensive novels, known as ‘yellow backs’, for their shiny yellow paper covers, were a cut above ‘The Penny Dreadfuls’, publishing ‘sensational’ works like those of Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens. There was also a deep connection between the development of the mystery, and the popular gothic novels which emerged during this era, often leading to a mixing of gothic horror stories, with the emerging mystery genre.
A few examples of the better crime stories from this very early period of the mystery genre, might include:
All of which finally leads us to the real birth of the detective story, and the first locked room mystery, with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in The Rue Morgue’ in 1841. Still, one of the best mysteries of all time!
Watch for our upcoming page on the history of Victorian Mystery fiction to continue this journey!
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Exploring the roots of the mystery genre!
The Pioneers of Literary Murder!