Introduction to Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (1999).
By Ronald R. Thomas (born 1949).
Book excerpt (25 pages, 17 pages of text).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
(Note: SPOILERS for "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and Bleak House.)
"The history of detective fiction is deeply implicated with the history of forensic technology."It can be argued that modern forensics got its start in the pages of detective stories; the great French scientist Edmond Locard certainly thought so. Here we have Ronald Thomas's introduction to his book, which basically proves the point; in the preview he touches on intriguing ideas (e.g., "detective fiction might more accurately be described as 'novelistically anti-radical'")—but you'll have to get the book to see if he has successfully developed them (see "Resources," below).
"When Watson comes upon Holmes injecting his cocaine, the detective is also reading
a book. These three activities — taking a drug, being a detective, reading a book — are presented as substitutions for ordinary life and as symptoms of some unnamed nervous-ness. Together, these devices point back to a very real 'pathological and morbid process' at the center of Holmes's professional identity — and at the heart of this popular nineteenth-century literary form. . . . The Sherlock Holmes stories, like any detective narrative, function as our cocaine, our diversion from some historical reality. But they are also our work, written and read to transform what have become the unexamined routines of political life and the sometimes criminal cravings that leave their tracks upon the body."
"Each of these detective devices — fingerprint technology, forensic profiling, crime photography — is itself a nineteenth-century invention designed to convert the body [of the victim and/or the suspect] into a text to be read. Each also serves as a potent analogy for the literary detective that deploys it. Through these detectives and their devices, the mysteries of individual anatomy and person identity come to represent the general condition of the body politic itself."
"Detective fiction as a form is generally recognized as an invention of the nineteenth century, coincident with the development of the modern police force and the creation
of the modern bureaucratic state."
was available. At times, these texts seemed to call those technologies into being."
"The detective story often functioned as a kind of lie detector redefining truth for
its culture . . ."
of high Victorian realism were occasioned by condemnation of the cheap effects and immense popularity of nineteenth-century detective and sensation fiction."
"In recent decades, detective stories have provided the demonstration pieces of choice
for critics working in narrative theory, gender studies, popular culture, ideological critique, psychoanalysis, the new historicism, and cultural studies. . . . Such extensive critical attention has complicated what we mean by the term 'detective fiction,' and challenged
its traditional relegation into a specifiable generic catagory all its own."
"Together with the rise of cultural studies, critical legal studies, and the critique of the canon, modern criticism has begun to grant detective fiction a more prestigious place
in the house of 'legitimate' literature."
"As Dupin's independence from and competition with the official police contrasts with the middle-class professionalism of Dickens's Sergeant [sic] Bucket, so will the American literary detective's deployment of the devices of detection be somewhat more skeptical and tentative than his English counterparts throughout the nineteenth century . . ."
serious and more popular cash crop that would enable him to write what he regarded
as the really important literature of historical fiction — which, of course, became
nowhere near as successful with critics or with readers as his detective writing. On
the other hand, Raymond Chandler would maintain that the hard-boiled detective
fiction of Dashiell Hammett elevated the aesthetic of the dime novel to great American literature. Chandler would credit his predecessor with continuing the tradition of Walt Whitman and making possible the work of Hemingway."
". . . my reading of The Woman in White argues that the typical plot of a sensation novel — where a female body often vanishes and is recovered by a combination of legal and medical male expertise — represents a taking over of the terms of personal identity by an emerging class of professionals who compose a reconfigured patriarchal class."
"Those devices ['with which literary private eyes made the public world visible and legible'] were invariably aimed at making the body [of the victim and/or the criminal] write or speak for itself. The jagged lines of the heart recorded by the lie detector, the lineaments of the face imprinted on a mug shot, and the swirling patterns of the skin inscribed in the fingerprint all render the body as a kind of automatic writing machine. The detective narrative, in its deploy-ment of these forensic technologies and in its resemblance to them, helped to make nine-teenth-century persons legible for a modern technological culture."
- Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (1999, 341 pages) is widely available
from Cambridge University Press, Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, and other places, but it ain't cheap. Here's the Google Books description:
"This is a book about the relationship between the development of forensic science in the nineteenth century and the invention of the new literary genre of detective fiction in Britain and America. Ronald R. Thomas examines the criminal body as a site of interpretation and enforcement in a wide range of fictional examples, from Poe, Dickens and Hawthorne through Twain and Conan Doyle to Hammett, Chandler and Christie. He is especially concerned with the authority the literary detective manages to secure through the
'devices' — fingerprinting, photography, lie detectors — with which he discovers the
truth and establishes his expertise, and the way in which those devices relate to broader questions of cultural authority at decisive moments in the history of the genre. This is
an interdisciplinary project, framing readings of literary texts with an analysis of contem-poraneous developments in criminology, the rules of evidence, and modern scientific accounts of identity."
- Graham Law's 2000 review of the book can be found in The Wilkie Collins Journal (HERE):
"Thomas's study is thus a rich and complex one to which it is difficult to do full justice in the space available here. However, I cannot conclude without expressing a slight feeling of regret that this volume does not talk more about the French contribution to the development of detection and detective fiction."
- As for the English vs. American schools of detective fiction, see Karen Woodward's article (HERE).
- A previous Miscellaneous Monday also dealt with forensics; go (HERE).