Friday 22 May 2009


Turn left at the Book Of Kells, go up the stairs, and you're in the Long Room of the Trinity College Library, which looks as if you've stepped into library heaven. Displayed in five cases in the narrow room flanked by towering stacks of books is 'The Body In The Library: The Origins of Detective Fiction', and in this economical display those origins are surprisingly well-covered, and very well illustrated.

Trinity starts with William Godwin's Things As They Are (1794), which is a very solid place to start, not because it's a detective story per se, but because it lays out the parameters for much of what follows. It's the story of a man who becomes convinced his employer is a murderer, and his obsession winds up ruining both men once they get entangled with the justice system. As the exhibition notes point out, the book 'portrays the legal system as a cancer at the heart of society', which isn't surprising, because Godwin, an anarchist, believed most things could be sorted out between people if they just talked. As you might imagine, this was not the best basis on which to invent the detective story. Yet it had its influence. As the exhibition astutely points out, 'with the exception of the hard-boiled detective story developed in the US in the 1920s, detective fiction portrays the rule of law as essentially good, under-pinning social order'. Although more exceptions to that rule have developed since the hey-day of the hard-boiled, this does define the classic schism in the detective novel, whether 'solving' a crime returns us to a perfect world or an imperfect one. Of course, using the title of an Agatha Christie story for the exhibition signals where its concentration lies.

The imperfect side was reflected in the fact that the 'true crime' genre was, even in the early 19th century, a powerful influence as well. On display is an 1825 anthology of the Newgate Calendar, a chronicle of crime, as well as an 1827 English translation of the memoirs of Eugene-Francois Vidocq, forger, thief, conman and informer, who became the first head of the Surete. The book was a huge influence on Poe, and presumably on Conan Doyle as well. One of the best moments of the exhibition came in comparing the illustrations in various editions of Poe's 'Rue Morgue' (we assume it was the influence of Vidocq that made Poe choose a Frenchman, Dupin, as his hero in what is generally accepted as the first detective story). The 1841 Graham's Magazine illustration gives way to 1909's Byam Shaw's drawing of Dupin as a Sidney Paget Holmes, while ten years later, in Harraps, the Irish stained-glass artist Harry Clark portrays the orangutan villain as a monster straight from a tale of horror.

In Britain, Inspector Bucket and Bleak House debuted in Household Words in 1853. In 1868, Wilkie Collins' Moonstone appeared in All Year Round, which had absorbed Household Words, and was billed as being a weekly 'conducted by Charles Dickens'. Within twenty years, a genre's boundaries would be defined, and it's easy to see those boundaries in illustration.

Paget, of course, is central to the first half of the exhibition. His early Holmes is almost ethereal, emphasizing the intellectual powers of his ratiocination; yet it's the action of the famous drawing of Holmes and Moriarty locked in deadly embrace as they tumble over Reichenbach Falls that remains etched since childhood in my mind. By 1914, Frank Wiles' front piece for Valley Of Fear shows a harder, leaner, older Holmes, something more of an action man, halfway to the Basil Rathbone cinema version which defined the character for many people. Holmes inspired floods of imitators, and looking at the Paget illustrations in the Strand for Arthur Morrison's lawyer detective Hewitt, who comes complete with his own Watson, in the shape of the journalist Brett, you realise Paget (or the Strand's editors) saw where this trend was going, and helped it get there.

Morrison broke new ground, however, with Horace Dorrington, a private investigator who makes his living swindling the helpless and hopeless clients who come for his help. And so did Anna Katharine Green, an American, whose New York police detective Ebenezer Gryce was a huge sensation, starting with The Leavenworth Case (1878). The exhibition also contains a Routledge 'Railway Library' edition of her 1890 novel, A Matter Of Millions; the equivalent of today's paperbacks, these sold in huge quantities. Green was unusual, not only because she was a woman, but an American. Women, of course, would come to dominate the genre in just a few decades, but the suspicion of 'colonials' could run much stronger. The Australian Fergus Hume's Mystery Of The Hansom Cab sold 275,000 copies in its 1 shilling, 1888 edition, but it had been rejected by one publisher who said 'no colonial could write anything worth reading'. Hume had actually gone to a Melbourne bookseller and asked what were his best-sellers, and been told that 'mystery, murder, and descriptions of low-life' flew off the shelves. Not much has changed in the past 120 years.

Holmes, of course, was so popular he quickly invited parody, most famously by Robert Barr, the Canadian writing as Luke Sharp, whose Eugene Valmont stories, collected in 1906, feature a detective who usually gets most everything wrong. He also spawned all sorts of gimmicked variations: Joseph Futrelle's 'Thinking Machine',and the blind Max Carrados setting the tone for dozens of pulpsters who would follow in the 1930s. AEW Mason's Gabriel Hanaud, of the Surete, is shown looking very much like Holmes in an illustration that looks very much like Pagets.

The emphasis on the puzzle aspect of detective stories grows from this impulse, and it was fascinating to be reminded of the way clues would insinuate themselves, Laurence Sterne like, into the fabric of books. SS Van Dine's Canary Murder Case, a Philo Vance mystery, contains a facsimile of a crucial telegram, while Ngaio Marsh's Vintage Murder actually has a pull-out explanation of how pulleys crucial to the plot are worked. It's nothing to do with the exhibition, but when The Canary Murder Case was filmed, it was with William Powell and Louise Brooks, and you don't get much better casting for detective and canary than that! Few of the sophisticate detectives who solved puzzles could do so with Powell's natural humour. M McDonnell-Bodkin's Paul Beck , the 'Rule of Thumb Detective' seems to provide a sort of DIY approach to detection for the reader. Again, there is a crucial exception to prove the rule; R. Austin Freeman pioneered the inverted story-line; revealing all and then explaining how it came to be.

Marsh and Van Dine (colonials had become acceptable by now) bear out another aspect of the most crucial refinement in the classic detective, which seems obvious when you look at the covers and illustrations of the books themselves, and highlights the influence of EC Bently and Trent's Last Case (1913). His gentleman sleuth (a gentleman journalist, how quaint!) set the tone for a legion of followers. Some are completely forgotten, like HC Bailey's Reginald Fortune, but many continue to enthrall fans of the 'serious intellectual' detective story, as when the Observer enthused over Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham (see my essay on their 'must read' crime novels here, and my analysis of the Guardian's 'Telegraph Crossword Theory of Crime Fiction' here). Trent's legion of followers is represented by the likes of Van Dine, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr, as well as the big three of Marsh, Christie and Dorothy Sayers (nothing by Margery Allingham, who really deserves to be considered part of a big four). But even as the trio those three remind us, if Anna Katharine Green didn't necessarily, of the crucial role of women in the crime genre, and here I was pleased to discover two names.

Another Canadian-born writer, Grant Allen, is most famous today for the 'new woman' novel The Woman Who Did (1895), but also wrote Miss Caxley's Adventures, which appeared in the Strand starting in 1898 and 1899, and was issued as a book in 1899, and whose female heroine was a relatively new departure. Whether this makes him the Wally Lamb of Victorian fiction, I don't know, but Allen did write two novels using a female pseudonym. Miss Caxley certainly qualifies as forgotten, and I've seen few traces of her elsewhere. Allen's Colonel Clay is also cited as a forerunner of Arsene Lupin, and what I found particularly interesting was that Allen died at Hindhead in Surrey, his house near to his friend Conan Doyle's home, and not far from where I live now.

The successor to Anna Katharine Green was Emma Murdoch Van Deventer, another American woman, who wrote best-sellers under the pen-name Lawrence L Lynch. Her novel No Proof, from 1895, is on exhibit, but it led me to wonder exactly how much influence these women who came before might have had on the big three (four) who followed.

I was raised on classic detective novels, which my mother devoured, and I was fully versed in Christie by the time I was 12. But by 15 I'd set them aside, first for spies and then for hard-boiled detectives, so Trinity College provided an enlightening look back. Many of these writers, and their detectives, are anything but forgotten now, and many of those who seem obscure have been reprinted, and will continue to be whenever there is a Holmes revival. But it was refreshing to have my eyes opened to Grant Allen and Anna Katharine Green, and to see the relative importance and popularity of the genre early on. I just kept thinking of those monks writing the Book of Kells, and wondered if some pulpster somewhere was their 19th or 20th century equivalent.

'The Body In The Library' runs in The Long Room of the library at Trinity College Dublin though 15 June


tig said...

This is really fascinting and I learned stuff. I would love to get over the exhib but sadly it's not going to happen. Thanks for bringing it to a wider audience.

pattinase (abbott) said...

What a lovely post this was, Michael. I thank you so much for such a delightful history lesson. It was my pleasure to be in Dublin once for a week and I am anxious to come back.

Jon Jermey said...

Readers who want to learn more about these neglected authors and their works should visit the Golden Age of Detective Fiction wiki at

where they also will find links to our Yahoo mailing list.

julia jones said...

Quite right to deplore the absence of Margery Allingham as she herself was such an experimental writer, rarely writing the same book twice and regularly pushing at the boundaries of the form.

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Anonymous said...

Better late than never - a year late! I was Google'ing Green and Hume and landed on your site, where you mention Green and Hume in the same paragraph (regarding suspicion of woman authors, I presume, and colonial authors). I'm reading Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab and, in chapter 7, he references , disparagingly I think, Green's The Leavenworth Case:

"Puts one in mind of 'The Leavenworth Case,' and all that sort of thing," said Felix, whose reading was of the lightest description.

Great blog,