Lucy Worsley’s The Art of the English Murder is a fascinating look at how the detective novel was born from crime reporting, and how, eventually, detective fiction gave way to the darker American-style thriller of the Cold War era. Here, Worsley picks the 10 best fictional detectives.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Britons were flooding from the countryside into towns and cities. Their lives were safer now from nature and its dangers — famine, wild animals, disease. Their thoughts turned instead to the stranger living next door. Who was he? What might he do? Could he be a murderer, like the criminals who filled the pages of the cheap newspapers they read?
And so crowded cities like London needed a new professional: the detective. He, or she, was a super-hero for the age. In their scary new urban world, the Victorians found it reassuring to read about crimes being solved and justice served, which is why so many of our great fictional detectives were birthed during that period. Here is a list of the best of them.
1. Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, 1817) – Could the boy-chasing, pleasure-seeking Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey —a young lady ‘in training for a heroine’ — really be described as a ‘detective’? But Miss Morland finds herself an amateur one when she is invited to stay in a country house (the spooky-sounding ‘abbey’ of the title) and finds herself suspecting that her host may have done away with his wife. She gathers clues, explores locked chests, seeks hidden passages. Ultimately, she fails to find any mystery at all. Silly, but lovable, Miss Morland!
Of course the brilliant Jane Austen was satirizing the genre of the Gothic novel, in which vulnerable but plucky heroines are threatened by cruel counts and escape from remote castles, facing danger and mystery. It was these Gothic novels that paved the way for the detective story.
2. Susan Hopley (The Adventures of Susan Hopley or Circumstantial Evidence by Catherine Crowe, 1841) – Unnoticed, unsuspected, the maidservant Susan Hopley goes about her daily tasks. And, like Catherine Morland, she finds time to solve crime — but Susan Hopley makes rather a better job of it. She follows excellent crime scene procedure: “Her most earnest desire … was to go over the house that had been the scene of the catastrophe, and inspect every part of it.”
Not even the police were doing this consistently well in 1841. Susan Hopley was indeed a character ahead of her time. In fact, reviewers were baffled. “We hardly know what to say of this book,” wrote one. “It perplexes us extremely … [Y]ou are struck with the trifling minutenesses [of the clues] yet find them not so trifling as you first supposed.”
That could be a description of an Agatha Christie, yet Catherine Crowe wrote this domestic story full of tiny, telling detail eighty years before Christie began.
3. Inspector Bucket (Bleak House by Charles Dickens 1852) – Inspector Bucket is often named as the first ‘proper’ fictional detective, although his crime-solving strand is only one of many in Charles Dickens’s magnificent Bleak House.
In real life, Dickens was friendly with Inspector Charles Field, one of the first members of the original ‘Detective Branch’ of Scotland Yard. Dickens put many of Field’s physical tics and quirks into his fictional counterpart.
4. Sergeant Cuff (The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins 1868) – Oh, the mysterious Sergeant Cuff. Like many of his fellow fictional detectives, he remains inscrutable and we don’t know what he’s thinking. He ultimately fails to solve the mystery of the stolen jewel that lies at the heart of Collins’s masterful ‘sensation novel,’ one of the most addictively readable books ever written.
Wilkie too was inspired by real life: in 1860, another Scotland Yard man — Inspector Jack Whicher —had failed to solve a notorious country house murder in a Wiltshire village. The ‘Rode Hill House’ murder must have been committed by one of the family in the house that night: exactly the same set-up as The Moonstone.
5. Mrs. Paschal (Revelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward, 1864) – Mrs. Paschal was one of the very first professional female detectives, actually receiving payment for her services. Fretting that readers would find her independence rather racy, Hayward makes her a widow of slender means. She solved her crimes in the cheap, yellow-covered paperback books sold on Britain’s new railway stations.
Paschal also takes an admirable relish in her work: ‘It was necessary to have nerve and strength, cunning and confidence, resources unlimited.’ At one point, needing to chase a criminal down a hatch into a cellar, Mrs. Paschal simply takes off her cumbersome crinoline and abandons it. Emancipation!
6. Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1888) – No list would be complete without the greatest detective who never lived. Holmes was perfectly up-to-date with forensic science techniques, and he had extensive medical knowledge and analytical skills. In the very first story, A Study in Scarlet (1887), he acts as a CSI, going over the room with his magnifying glass. And so the legend was born. Recruits to the French police were instructed to read Sherlock Holmes to learn good investigative techniques.
7. Hercule Poirot (The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, 1920) – Sherlock Holmes was gallant, active, and unafraid to use violence to apprehend a criminal. Poirot was the first of the more sedentary sleuths of the Golden Age of detective fiction between the wars.
Christie characters like Miss Marple and the pernickety Poirot (‘a speck of dust on his coat would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound’) became the heroes of plots containing very little violence. Solving crime became rather like doing a crossword puzzle. That was because, after the horrors of World War One, no one wanted to spend their leisure time reading about blood.
8. Harriet Vane (Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1930) – Harriet Vane is my own favorite sleuth. Sayers had already had great success with her aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey when Harriet Vane appeared in the dock in Strong Poison,accused of poisoning her ex-lover. Wimsey gets her exonerated, and they become partners in crime — and eventually in life as husband and wife.
Sayers uses her character Harriet Vane (also a detective novelist) to express biting and striking views on questions like whether women should work, whether they should marry, and the importance of the life of the mind. Wonderful stuff.
9. Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, 1938) – ‘Cosy crime’ dominated the British publishing industry between the wars. Murders seemed to happen mainly in country house libraries, and the characters became clichéd. It all got a bit boring.
A breath of fresh air arrived in 1938 with Raymond Chandler’s amoral, laconic, ‘hard-boiled’ detective, Philip Marlowe. Although Chandler was educated at Dulwich College in London, he ended up on America’s west coast. His short, sharp novels brought violence back into crime fiction.
10. Ida Arnold (Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, 1938) – It’s hardly doing justice to Brighton Rock to describe it as genre fiction, but a killing and a murderer are the heart of this book about faith and God.
The good-hearted but blowsy heroine Ida Arnold, our detective figure, goes after a killer with a truly modern mind. Pinkie, the young anti-hero, lacks motive apart from a nihilistic passion for violence and death. With its seamy, seaside-resort setting, its lonely and hopeless characters and its bleak outlook on life,Brighton Rock has much in common with the hard-edged noirfiction soon to come.