Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Wilkie Collins: A Crime Fiction Writer Ahead of His Time

(Hurricane Michael Edition)

IT SEEMS AS IF every time we turn around we find out something new about crime/
detective fiction. Today's revelation is the not-so-well-known fact that Charles Dickens's 
good pal Wilkie Collins might have been the first to introduce into crime stories that durable plot element used countless times by pupils enrolled in the Hardboiled School, the femme 
fatale. At any rate, it's certain that W.C. got there long before Hammett, Chandler, Goodis & Co.—1880, to be precise. Judging from what's available in print and on the World Wide Wobbly, we must conclude that, as a mystery/crime fiction author, Collins easily out-
classes Dickens. The story we have in mind in this regard is . . .

"Who Killed Zebedee?"
(a.k.a. "Mr. Policeman and the Cook").
By Wilkie Collins (1824-99).
First appearance: Bolton Weekly Journal, 24 December 1880.
Reprinted in Little Novels (1887; online HERE).
Short story (12-20 pages as a PDF).
Online in many places, including Prof. David Stewart's Library (HERE; PDF) and SFFAudio (HERE; PDF).

A tale of murder with a new twist—new, that is, for the 19th century . . .

Comment: If you streamlined Collins's Victorian prose into 20th century colloquial English and removed his name, you just might think Cornell Woolrich wrote it.

- We've already dealt with William Wilkie Collins several times, particulary with respect to his two classic novels, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868) (HERE), as well as: T. S. Eliot's take on The Moonstone (HERE); how Collins's crime fiction was a good fit for the Victorian frame of mind (HERE); and why, according to one author, The Moonstone is the only piece of detective fiction literature ever produced (HERE).
- Following in Poe's innovative literary footsteps, Collins added soon-to-be-commonplace elements to the detective story in The Moonstone—although there is some uncertainty about whether he was actually the first; see the Wikipedia subsection (HERE).

- Wikipedia has an uncharacteristically spoiler-free page about "Who Killed Zebedee?" (HERE); however, it's still better for you to read the story first.
- For a scholar's understanding of this work, see Ellen Harrington's "Failed Detectives and Dangerous Females: Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Detective Short Story" (2005) (HERE; especially pages 8—13), but, again, only after you've read the story.

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