The nineteenth century saw a radical alteration in attitudes toward crime and criminals, with the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, followed by the founding of its detective division in 1842. As Ernest Mandel reminds us in his classic study of the crime genre, Delightful Murder, the late 1820’s saw a crucial turning point in the literary representation of the criminal, who had, throughout the eighteenth century, been depicted as a kind of folk hero, as typified by Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743). The recodification of the criminal law in Britain to protect the property interests of a growing middle class, along with a reduction in the number of petty hanging offenses, combined to help gradually change the perception of the Law from a means of oppressing people to a means of protecting them. Hence, the newly-professionalized officers of the law came to be perceived as heroes, both in fiction and in fact, and as the popularity of detective police grew, so did public enthusiasm for literary depictions of the inspector at work.

The detective story we know today did not come into existence until the 1840’s, and even then the genre took time to evolve from the short story, to the novel featuring a detective, to the full-blown detective novel—the first of these being The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins. The first detective to appear in literature in English was created by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s debonair chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, made his debut in the short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” first published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841. He was brought back in “The Mystery of Marie Rôget” (1850) and “The Purloined Letter” (dated 1845, but first published in “The Gift annual in 1844). Like the later Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s detective is an amateur who gradually becomes a consultant to the official Prefect when cases appear too tough to crack by the regular means. Dupin is particularly remarkable for having made his appearance before the establishment of the detective police at Scotland Yard and, as Julian Symons has commented, “it is a tribute to Poe’s inventive genius that his stories had so little to do with actual police operations.” If Poe drew upon any source at all, it was almost certainly (in spite of Dupin’s protestations to the contrary) the memoirs of criminal-turned-detective and memoirist, François Eugene Vidocq. Mike Ashley commented in a previous issue of The Strand that, “Although the character of Dupin is not based specifically on Vidocq, he was very clearly developed from the world that Vidocq had created.” It may seem strange that, although never having visited France, Poe was able to create a trilogy of detective stories that seemed to capture the atmosphere of nineteenth-century Paris so well. However, it is evident that in Poe’s mind a great detective could only be French—like Vidocq. A view which is exemplified by his decision to set “The Mystery of Marie Rôget” in Paris even though the case it was based on, the apparent murder of Mary Cecelia Rogers, took place in New York. *

Dupin’s modes of investigation and his treatment of each case as a cerebral exercise greatly influenced subsequent literary incarnations of the detective, most notably the great Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, Dupin is a semiotician, or one who studies and interprets signs, gathering his evidence from the minutiae at the scene of the crime and bringing a phenomenal knowledge of human behavior to bear on his analyses. Whilst many readers come away disappointed or frustrated with the revelation at the end of the first locked room mystery, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin’s gradual cataloging of the evidence around him to reveal the unanticipated identity of the murderer is a breath-taking example of what we might today describe as “thinking out of the box.” The subsequent two Dupin stories are widely regarded as less impressive than the original. Nevertheless, “The Purloined Letter” has been highly influential in psychological studies of the detective, and speculation that Dupin and his criminal mastermind adversary Minister D- could be one and the same served to heighten interest in uncovering parallels between the policeman’s mind and that of the criminal.

Although not a detective by profession, Poe’s decadent aristocrat indubitably contributed to the depiction of the next significant literary detective—Inspector Bucket of Bleak House (1851-3), an officer of the law. Bucket’s creator, Charles Dickens, was a great admirer of Poe’s work, to the extent that he met with Poe in Philadelphia during his 1842 tour of America and undertook (without success) to find him a publisher in England. Dickens was fascinated by all aspects of law enforcement, particularly prisons, punishment, and the emerging detective police force, occasionally even accompanying policemen on their nightly rounds in the slum areas of London and writing several accounts of these excursions for his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens scholar Philip Collins has suggested that Dickens saw the detective police as heroes, and this viewpoint is certainly borne out by his interactions with members of the force, along with his literary and journalistic representations of them.

Dickens eventually became friends with the detective Charles Frederick Field (1805-1874), immortalized in his article “On Duty With Inspector Field” and widely regarded as the model for Inspector Bucket. Bucket is credited as being the first detective to appear in an English novel. He stands out as the one figure in the world of confusion that is Bleak House who never loses control. The narrative of Bleak House has a dual structure, shifting between the third-person recollections of the young, naïve Esther Summerson and a more sinister present-tense narrative by a cynical omniscient narrator whose identity is never revealed. Literary critics have categorized these two narratives as the “public” narrative (i.e. the overview offered by the omniscient voice) and the “private” one (Esther’s narrative, which is limited to accounts of her domestic circle). With the exception of Bucket, all of the characters in the novel are harmed in some way (usually by contracting an illness) when they step beyond their immediate sphere into the wider world of the city. Like the nocturnal Dupin, however, Bucket is a master of the labyrinthine metropolis, appearing unexpectedly and thriving on unpredictability. He declares gleefully, “you don’t know what I’m going to do five minutes from now,” and constantly takes both the reader and the other characters by surprise with his omnipresence.

Chris Brooks in his book Signs for the Times: Symbolic Realism in the Mid-Victorian World (1984) described Inspector Bucket as the “moral hero of Bleak House,” and Bucket certainly functions as a force for good in a corrupt and pestilential London that has been reduced to a condition of stasis by the larger forces of the Law. Bucket is able to negotiate both the public and private worlds of the novel, largely because he has constructed a public (professional) and a private (domestic) self. He expounds upon these completely separate identities after spending a pleasant afternoon in the company of Trooper George (a murder suspect) and the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet and their children, enjoying the Bagnets’ hospitality. Just before he proceeds to arrest George, Bucket announces, “Duty is duty, and friendship is friendship. I never want the two to clash if I can help it.” Unlike that later bastion of divisions between public and private, Wemmick of Great Expectations (1861), Bucket does not rigidly delineate the boundaries between the two conditions and is notable for his kindness to a number of characters, particularly the novel’s slightly cloying heroine. Moreover, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, Bucket finally ensnares the murderer of the lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn by luring her into his home and persuading his wife to befriend her. Bucket, then, embodies the pragmatism that to this day characterizes the detective who must get his man at any cost, including his own principles, but who at the same time works for the greater good.

In contrast to the driven qualities of his predecessor Mr. Bucket, Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff of The Moonstone (initially published in All the Year Round) is markedly less committed to his work. Whilst Cuff has a formidable reputation, his physical appearance belies his immense powers of deduction. Gabriel Betteredge, the Verinder family steward, in recounting his first impressions of Cuff, conveys a sense of anti-climax and disappointment at the appearance of the great detective:

“. . . out got a grizzled, elderly man, so miserably lean that he looked as if he had not got an ounce of flesh on his bones in any part of him. He was dressed all in decent black, with a white cravat round his neck. His walk was soft; his voice was melancholy; his long lanky fingers were hooked like claws. He might have been a parson, or an undertaker—or anything else you like, except what he really was.”

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