By Haia Shpayer-Makov.
First appearance: Law, Crime and History, 2011 (homepage HERE).
Article (29 pages, 130 notes).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
". . . the fictional private detective — whether amateur or professional — commonly outmatches the police detective."HERE'S AN ARTICLE that supplements last week's Thesis Thursday (HERE), which, as you may recall, dealt with how Victorian culture, with all of its brilliance and contradictions, produced the modern crime fiction genre.
Unlike so many researchers who tend to confine themselves to the Big Four—Dickens (HERE), Collins (HERE), Poe (HERE), and Doyle (HERE)—our author also includes in her survey the following lesser-known (now) but very popular (then) literary detective authors (with related links to destinations that we hope are still there):
~ Arthur Morrison (HERE) - Sleuth: Martin Hewitt
HERE) - Sleuths: Sir Richard Daunt and Lionel Macnaughten-Innes
~ Max Pemberton (HERE) - Sleuth: Bernard Sutton
~ Catherine Louisa Pirkis (HERE) - Sleuth: Loveday Brooke
HERE) - Sleuths: Dorcas Dene and Inspector Chance
~ Baroness Emmuska Orczy (HERE) - Sleuths: The Old Man in the Corner and Lady Molly
~ Headon Hill (HERE) - Sleuths: A Pinkerton detective and Sebastian Zambra
~ R. Austin Freeman (HERE) - Sleuth: Dr. Thorndyke
HERE) - Sleuths: Max Carrados and Louis Carlyle
~ B. Fletcher Robinson (HERE) - Sleuths: Addington Peace and Mr. Phillips
"The mechanics of detection and figures with an investigatory function appeared in fictional texts in Britain before the mid-nineteenth century, but it was approximately from
this period onwards that the detective in the modern sense gradually became a recognised
figure and the genre was acknowledged as a literary form. By the end of the century, just a few years after the creation of Sherlock Holmes and the establishment of his subsequent enormous popularity, the repertoire of detective characters in fiction was of an unprecedent-ed diversity, feeding the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for this fascinating figure. Despite such diversity, researchers have observed common themes related to the detective figure in British fiction. The recurrent nature of these themes has lent itself to varied ideological and contextual readings by scholars, mostly from a literary perspective. This article, by contrast, re-examines these and other themes and tropes in the context of police history."
Introduction - A Curious Fictional Convention:
"Even less realistic was the fictional motif of cooperation between police and professional private detectives, especially in narratives that depict the private detective as taking the leading role in an investigation, a theme rehearsed in many detective tales of the period. . . . in fact joint ventures were few and far between. In any event, private detectives were not, in reality, accorded equal status with police officers, nor did the figure of the gentlemanly detective have actual equivalents. . . . Yet although literary conventions about the superior acuity of the private detective bore little resemblance to reality, they dominated detective fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. While works of fiction are not meant to replicate real life, the curious recurrence of these themes in numerous literary texts suggests that they reflected existing social sensibilities and mindsets."
(1) Historical Context:
"Significantly, when the Metropolitan Police of London – the first professional force in England — was created in 1829, it did not have a detective department. When necessary, officers would temporarily shed their uniform and conduct investigations. To a great extent this arrangement was the result of the police reformers' desire to mitigate widespread opposition in the country to the notion of highly organised policing before and during the formation of the Metropolitan Police and the other modern police forces in subsequent decades. Such opposition emanated from different sectors of the population, all of which were united by a rhetoric which linked systematic policing with despotic government, oppressive intrusion into political and private life, and the possible curtailment of the liberties of freeborn Englishmen."
"Whether the detective literature of these decades was significantly different in its attitude to police detectives than later literary works or not, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, the superiority of the private detective became increasingly pronounced as a theme in the corpus of fictional texts. Yet not all private detective characters conformed to the image of high professionalism, nor were they consistently brilliant or triumphant in hunting criminals. Some of these unofficial fictional crime fighters were shown to be tainted by dishonesty. . . . Yet, as far as can be judged from an eclectic survey of the fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fictional private detectives, be they amateur or professional, continued to outnumber the official variety and to show greater abilities and accomplishments. Misgivings about the quality of police detectives in the literature of this period were not usually focused on their moral standing or intentions, but instead on their rational faculties. . . . What they often lacked, and emphatically so, was keen analytical abilities and a razor edge wit — essential ingredients in the making of a great fictional detective. . . . However, the inferiority of the police detective was a familiar element well before Holmes's emergence. . . . The convention in fiction that unofficial detectives were far more praiseworthy than their opposite numbers in the police, and that they were pivotal in enabling the police to capture criminals, reappeared, with certain variations, in a profusion of other texts during the 1890s. . . . On the whole, both private and police detectives in fiction used all the deceitful methods abhorred by those who had, in reality, opposed the establish-ment of more interventionary policing in the first half of the nineteenth century: notably manipulation, trickery, disguise, probing, spying, and intimacy with criminal elements. Conceivably, this reflected the wide acceptance by the late nineteenth century of such
means as intrinsic to actual detective work."
". . . [in the period between the world wars] the representation of police detectives in fiction gradually improved, even in works by Conan Doyle. In time they earned grudging respect from the master detective himself and were often essential to his work. Possibly the fact that police detectives in reality were getting a much improved press in the new century was a factor in delineating the official crime fighters in more complimentary terms. . . . In summary, fictional police detective characters generally were no longer subject to ridicule.
At the most, their depictions were subjected to a gentle mockery. It was, however, only in the course of the second half of the twentieth century that police detectives gained the profes-sional and social status in the media associated with them today. . . . It may be said that the police detective of this period emerged in the press as a kind of a [sic] plebeian knight."
(4) A Legacy of Self-Help:
". . . although the newly created police forces gradually expanded their mandate to react to the commission of crime, in mid-nineteenth century — the early days of detective fiction — it was perhaps natural for writers of fiction to assume that all kinds of people unconnected with the police would be involved in chasing offenders. This was the reality in which they lived. The retention of this motif in late-nineteenth century fiction suggests that
many people still thought in terms of self-help when it came to solving crime. Indeed, many of the private arrangements traditionally designed to help victims redress their grievances were still in operation. In fact, the number and diversity of private bodies and agents who carried out detective tasks actually expanded as the century progressed. Sometimes the police informally allowed private detectives to undertake tasks they themselves did not want to do (and, alternatively, provided services to private companies or individuals for a fee). This practice may have also fostered an awareness that even if detective departments were formed in the urban police forces in growing numbers in the latter part of the century, police success in solving crimes still relied to a large extent on people who were not detectives by profession. The actual number of official detectives in the country remained small . . . The implication may have been that many authors conceived private service not only as more efficient but also as preferable to public crime fighters. Still, in surveying the cumulative message of a vast array of fictional detective narratives, it is evident that the tacit desire was not to dispense with official authority, but to mend it. Although some crimes are resolved outside the legal system, intertwined in the narrative of many other texts is not only the need for law and order but also for the detective police force. Its performance may be denigrated,
but not its legitimacy."
"Evidence shows that the majority of real-life police detectives came from the working class, with a minority coming from the lower middle class. Conceivably, because people from these backgrounds were not associated in the public mind with glamour and important accomplishments, popular writers tended not to portray them as heroes, and certainly not as super-heroes, in the belief that the reading public, which was largely (though not exclusively)
middle class, would not easily identify with such heroes. As very little was known about real private detectives, authors were less bound by readers' expectations when it came to fleshing them out, and they could draw on their imagination more freely. The result was that fictional private detectives, particularly if they were the main investigators, were often depicted as having a middle- or upper-class identity, and so could be portrayed without reservation as highly talented or even as outstanding."
(6) A Need for More Professional Policing?:
"Unsurprisingly, most fictional detective texts were not concerned with crime in the streets and the petty crime suffered by the common people – which were the staple preoccupation of police detectives in real life, but which were not the material for mass appeal. Apart from mysteries and puzzles which did not involve violations of the law, fiction concentrated on murder, fraud, intricate theft, blackmail and bigamy. To deal with these, the authors seemed to prefer more sophisticated investigators. . . . Another idea in advocating the recruitment of more educated individuals into the detective service was that the police would benefit by incorporating middle class values and norms into their work. The success-ful fictional private detectives embodied autonomous thinking. Their activity was most often described as stemming from innate strength, freedom of action and resourcefulness rather than from external pressures emanating from bureaucratic regulations or from team work as in the 'police procedural'. In fact, even in depicting successful police detectives the emphasis of the narrative is on personal experience and achievement. They ordinarily did not appear as typical bureaucrats filling in forms and submitting reports to their senior officers, as in real life . . ."
"Essentially, what detective fiction offered was a kind of equilibrium between reliance on the individual and reliance on the state. It grappled with the interlocking and shifting relations between self-interest and social responsibility by negotiating a reconciliation between personal freedom and bureaucratic centralisation."
Typo: "The Case of the Lost Foreign"
- It would appear that Prof. Shpayer-Makov has expanded the ideas outlined in this article into a 429-page book: The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England (2011), which is for sale (HERE) and reviewed (HERE) and (HERE).