Detective fever: why we are addicted to Sherlock Holmes and Victorian crime

Trinity academic Clare Clarke looks at writers and characters in Sherlock’s shadow and selects 12 of the best, including “the Irish Sherlock”, to satisfy your cravings


In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), famously described by TS Eliot as the “first” and “best” English detective novel, over and over again characters become infected with what they call “the detective-fever.” “Detective-fever” causes the novel’s head of house, Gabriel Betteredge, a man for whom the novel Robinson Crusoe normally provides all the worldly excitement he needs, to abandon his duties and plunge headlong into the case of a missing diamond along with Sergeant Cuff.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when Arthur Conan Doyle revived detective Sherlock Holmes, star of two commercially and critically disappointing novellas, for the monthly family magazine, The Strand, “detective-fever” engulfed the Victorian reading public. The periodical’s already decent sales figures boomed at over 500,000 copies per issue; in his memoir, former editor Reginald Pound describes how libraries opened late on the Strand’s publication day – the third Thursday of the month – so great was the clamour for the latest Holmes instalment.

Doyle famously killed off Sherlock at the height of his popularity with the late-Victorian reading public. In the December 1893 edition of The Strand, Holmes disappeared over the Reichenbach Falls, swallowed up by a “dreadful caldron of swirling water and seething foam” during a struggle with his arch-rival, Professor Moriarty.

I’ve never found any evidence to support apocryphal stories of city clerks wearing black armbands after Sherlock’s death, but the public (and indeed, the editors of the Strand) were unhappy with this early departure and Doyle eventually relented and “resurrected” Sherlock, bringing him back in 1901, 1903, 1908, 1914 and 1921.

Our “detective-fever” for Sherlock and Victorian crime has never really gone away: Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories remain some of the bestselling books of all time, alongside the King James Bible, the Koran and now Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey. In London, one can take a Sherlock Holmes walking tour, visit the Sherlock Holmes museum at 221B Baker Street, and have a drink in the Sherlock Holmes pub. And the BBC’s knowing new television adaptation, Sherlock, which first aired in 2010, has spawned new brands of “detective-fever”, not least with armies of female fans, self-styled “Cumberbitches”. On Sherlock’s heels came other neo-Victorian detective delights: Ripper Street and Penny Dreadful.

After a year-long hiatus, Sherlock returned to our screens on January 1st for its highly-anticipated standalone feature-length “Victorian” special. The Abominable Bride was pleasingly replete with hansom cabs, foggy streets, meerschaum pipes and deerstalker hats, returning Sherlock (if only temporarily) to the period in which detection was born and in which he truly belongs. As Watson put it: “You’re Sherlock Holmes, just wear the damn hat!”

For fans of Sherlock, once again infected with “detective-fever” and desperate for their next fix of Victorian detectivism, the good news is that Sherlock was not the whole story of crime, but rather just one among hundreds of popular 19th-century detectives, many of whom which are now coming back into print on the back of Victorian crime fiction’s latest surge in popularity. Here are 10 of the best: the game is afoot!

The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841); The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842); and The Purloined Letter (1844), by Edgar Allan Poe

The detective genre is generally taken to have been born in the US of the 1840s, with Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, starring the Parisian investigative hero, Chevalier Auguste Dupin. These stories showcase Poe’s aptitude for the bizarre and outré. They are genre-bending gothic detective stories, often more bloody and gory than any of their 19th-century detective fiction descendants. And, in a year where true-crime programmes The Jinx, Serial and, most recently, Making a Murderer have dominated headlines and obsessed crime fans, Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget reminds us that links between crime fiction and true crime were present at the genre’s very beginnings. The story was Poe’s attempt to solve in fiction the real-life murder of Mary Cecelia Rodgers, dubbed the Beautiful Cigar Girl, whose body was found dumped in New York’s Hudson River in July 1841.

Bleak House (1852-3) and assorted journalism, by Charles Dickens

Acclaimed novelist and journalist Charles Dickens was engrossed in every aspect of the world of Victorian crime – from the police to the courts to the criminal underworld. According to his friend and colleague George Augustus Sala, Dickens’s favourite topic of conversation was always the latest trial, police case or murder. This interest manifested itself in a number of articles such as A Detective Police Party and On Duty with Inspector Field for his magazine, Household Words, in which Dickens interviewed and /or accompanied London police officers on their investigations. (These articles can be read in full at the Dickens Journal Online website.)

One of the detectives, Charley Field, described by Dickens as a “sagacious” and “vigilant” man with “a shrewd eye”, inspired Inspector Bucket, the skilled detective featured in Bleak House (1852-3) – traditionally recognised as the first English novel featuring a police detective as hero.

The Moonstone (1868), by Wilkie Collins

TS Eliot didn’t call this the first and best English detective novel for no reason. This is a riot of a book: 600-plus pages of red herrings, wild goose chases, and unreliable narrators, loosely based on the real-life 1860 Road Hill Murder Case. This case in turn inspired Kate Summerscale’s Samuel Johnson Prize-winning book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), which interweaves forensic details with a rollicking read on the rise of the Victorian detective hero. In Collins’s novel, the eponymous moonstone, a priceless yet cursed Indian diamond given to Rachel Verinder, a spoiled young heiress, goes missing on the night of her 18th birthday. Suspicion falls on a hunchbacked housemaid, a troupe of Indian jugglers and on Rachel herself. With the help of manservant Betteredge, boy detective Gooseberry and handsome young lawyer Franklin Blake, the grizzled Sergeant Cuff (based on the real-life Inspector Jonathan Whicher, one of Dickens’s interviewees) tackles the mystery.

The Leavenworth Case (1878), by Anna Katharine Green

American author Anna Katharine Green is often referred to as the “mother of the mystery novel”, yet this cracking murder mystery (published by Penguin) is not widely known outside of the US, where Yale Law School, among others, assigns it as a case study in the pitfalls of relying on circumstantial evidence.

A locked-room mystery, of the type pioneered by Poe in The Murders in the Rue Morgue and popularised in stories such as Doyle’s The Speckled Band, this novel follows the murder of millionaire Horatio Leavenworth, shot through the head in the library of his New York City brownstone. His two beautiful nieces, Eleanore and Mary, who will inherit his fortune, are immediately suspected.

Opening with a coroner’s inquest, and doubtless drawing upon the experiences of her prominent New York barrister father, Green’s novel follows the labyrinthine legal processes, questions of inheritance and ballistic investigations that surround the Leavenworth Case.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), by Fergus Hume

In the year before the publication of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Hume’s Australian murder mystery novel sold more than 400,000 copies. The novel pivots around the discovery of the body of an unknown man, murdered during a hansom cab journey from a gentleman’s club in Melbourne’s city centre. Suspicion falls on members of the city’s social elite, before it’s revealed that the murder was connected to the blackmail of Mark Frettlby – the richest man in the colonies.

Just as Californian hardboiled crime writers like Hammett and Chandler would later suggest, Hume’s novel shows that success in a land of new beginnings is often founded on dark and disreputable secrets and crimes.

The Big Bow Mystery (1891), by Israel Zangwill

Known as the Dickens of the ghetto, Jewish author Israel Zangwill’s subversive and intriguing The Big Bow Mystery was published in the immediate wake of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for the Strand. The Big Bow Mystery yokes the crime fiction formula of a locked-room mystery, pioneered by Poe, on to a fascinating tragicomic portrait of life in an East London slum – the type of novel for which Zangwill later would come to be known.

The novel tells the story of the murder of a middle-class philanthropist. His body is found in a locked bedroom which displays no sign of an intruder and contains no murder weapon. The list of suspects is a coterie of East End working-class residents, including a leading trade unionist, the victim’s impoverished landlady, a retired detective from the Met’s detective branch and a hack journalist.

The result is an intriguing and often self-conscious experiment with the conventions of the detective genre, which offers insights into the many links between crime, poverty, policing and the press in the East End.

A Prince of Swindlers (1897), by Guy Boothby

This collection of six short crime stories was first published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The series follows the adventures of Detective Klimo, the most talked about detective in London. Working from his Park Lane mansion, his clients include the cream of London society who consult him when their jewels or paintings are stolen. The twist is that Klimo’s alter-ego is gentleman burglar Simon Carne, a master of disguise who has travelled to England from India to profit from the wealth collected in the Imperial Metropolis for the Queen’s jubilee celebrations. A new edition of the collection was published by Penguin in 2015.

The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894), by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

Prim and professional, Loveday Brooke is the first female detective created by a female author. Appearing more than 25 years before female detectives were officially employed by the Metropolitan Police, Loveday Brooke is frequently asked by the police to assist with cases where a “feminine” perspective is required. Pirkis’s gendered twist to the Victorian detective genre sees Brooke’s “female methods” – such as gossip and gaining the trust of servants – trouncing those of her male contemporaries and often exonerating wrongly-suspected females.

The Dorrington Deed Box (1897), by Arthur Morrison

Sherlock Holmes often provocatively asserted that he believed he would have made “a highly efficient criminal”, an aspect of his character upon which modern adaptations have been quick to expand.

In this collection of short stories, Arthur Morrison’s Horace Dorrington takes this notion to its furthest extreme. Dorrington is a charming East End criminal, now part of the London establishment, with a very successful private detective business in the prosperous West End of the Victorian metropolis. He is always on the lookout for an “opening for any piece of rascality by which he might make more of the case than by serving his client loyally” and, throughout his adventures, lies to, steals from, poisons, blackmails and attempts to kill various clients and criminals.

The clients Dorrington meets are themselves self-serving, corrupt and often criminal and the Metropolitan Police are almost entirely absent. The result is a thrillingly chaotic and unsettling portrait of a late-Victorian London pervaded by greed and crime, which foreshadows the hardboiled detective genre.

Paul Beck, the Rule of Thumb Detective (1898), by M McDonnell Bodkin

Invented by Irish barrister Matthew McDonnell Bodkin, Paul Beck has been called “the Irish Sherlock Holmes”. Beck first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine and his adventures were collected as Paul Beck, The Rule of Thumb Detective in 1898. The “rule of thumb” of the title refers to Beck’s purported common sense, blundering approach: “I just go by the rule of thumb and muddle and puzzle out my cases as best I can.” This characteristic is disingenuous – in fact, Beck is a master of disguise with encyclopaedic scientific knowledge and is an expert in decoding both physical evidence and intellectual puzzles. The collection’s first story, By a Hair’s Breadth, sees Beck utilising his knowledge of the new technology of X-rays.

Clare Clarke is assistant professor of nineteenth-century popular literature at Trinity College Dublin. Her book, Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015 and won the HRF Keating Prize. She is currently working on her second book, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, due out in 2017.

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