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Elementary My Dear Watson – The ABCs of the Detective Fiction

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen”, Mary Roberts Rhineheart elucidates on one of the many reasons readers in droves flock to the detective novel year after year- one of the highest sales in fiction reported have been the detective and mystery novel. The thrill of traversing the unknown, the dire need of release from mundane in the pages of a good thriller, the pleasure coursing through tracing the investigator’s mental map is immensely pleasurable.

Tales of mystery have always intrigue mankind as a whole. Sophocles’ magnum opus Oedipus Rex (written around 500 BCE) is centred around the detective like central character vigorously inquiring into the mystery of the incomprehensible horrors of his marriage and his progeny. The story is furnished with all the elements that would compose a modern era detective story – a close circle of suspects, a rational probe in the face of all consuming ,non-human destiny thwarting him. The account of the innocent Susanna, her false defamation and the consequent prevail of innocence owing to Daniel’s skillful cross examination as recounted in the story of Susanna and the Elders from the Old testament also portray an element of skillful, rational probing for unveiling the truth. Both the narratives are one of the many instances from classical literature highlighting man’s unquenchable thirst for the mysterious and the onion peel of mysteries.

The detective fiction as a genre was formally introduced in the English language fold when Edgar Allen Poe conceptualised Detective C. Auguste Dupin, an eccentric French detective and the term ratiocination: marking the usage of astute observation, cold hard facts and impressive use of deductive and inductive reasoning to draw concussions. Three of Poe’s works are centred around Dupin (an interesting etymological origin meaning deception in French) – “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”. All gained immense popularity and the last of the tripartite garnered a world of attention and accolades from scholars and critics for the unique take on contextually locating the novel in the purview of the rising aspirations of the middle class – Dupin does his own investigation and gets paid for it- not through the guidance of a higher truth seeking alone. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins was the British detective cum crime fiction novel that is touted by the likes of TS Eliot as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe”.

The crime novel and in retrospect the detective novel can be historically located in the context of the Industrial Revolution. Crime and its investigation had always been prevalent as a convenient plot device to further the course of the narrative – but the genre emerged as the central plot on its own during the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England.

As Ben MacIntyre writing for The Times of London aptly comments, “Science will track down the malefactors and allow honest souls to sleep at night”, is a modus operandi expediting the detective fiction. The British Industrial Age was in full swing- and crime was steadily on the rise. The metropolitan was not equipped to accommodate the sudden influx of crowds- civic amenities, public sanitation and so on was severely compromised. Black smog engulfed the city and quality of life was down to its dregs. The rate of production of new jobs was incongruous to the rapid rise of population. Crime rates skyrocketed as people faced tremendous deprivations and civil unrest forced the authorities to conceive of the first centralized police force of the city- the London Metropolitan Police Force. The force gained massive popularity and as prevention of crime and identifying perpetrators gained gravity, the Detective force was introduced in the official folds of fighting crime. Thus a lot of interest was garnered around detectives and their activities.

The rise of skepticism and the questioning inquisitive outlook naturally called into question the Victorian favour of the occult and the fierce pursuit of logical means to an end gained popular favour. The influx of rural denizens juxtaposed the cultural ethos of two widely disparate class levels. People began questioning their material conditions- the need of the hour was the discourse centred around critical analytic thinking. Newspapers became even more of a staple as observed in the contemporary scene and the public was actively engaging on social issues involving disparity, discrimination and issues of public and civic importance. The immense popularity and mass circulation of the Newgate Calendar chronicling life events and personal (albeit coloured) shows the great topical and of course, sensational value the magazines held for the common masses.

No article on detective fiction can be considered complete without any mention of the detective residing at 221B Baker Street. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is indisputably the greatest detective literary troves have known till date- spawning numerous small screen and silver screen adaptations till date. In a self referential status of a “consulting detective” , Sherlock Holmes and his confidante Dr. James Watson arguably form one of the most eccentric and iconic duos cracking down on crime- often in collaboration with the Scotland Yard. Holmes’ popularity lies beyond his terrific reasoning and analytic capabilities ; he is apparently infallible but is not truly so. Armed with an imposing physique standing at 6 inches and a vast extensive expertise of the anatomy, forensics, chemicals and their usages and surprisingly, music (his skills with the violin are sublime) the socially challenged enigmatic detective debuted in “A Study in Scarlet” (1887). Doyle endowed him with super intelligence and made him a social recluse- with a recreational dependence on opium for clarity in thought patterns. In a mark unforeseen in world history, Doyle’s decision to kill his brainchild in an accident was met with immense uproar. Doyle’s primary readership was the rising middle and working classes, a class that the aristocracy disdainfully looked on as the intellectually unfavorable category. Holmes’ enigma is what spurred his popularity and he was stylised as a personal hero for many.

The 1920s to 30s are popularly called the Golden Era of crime fiction and Agatha Christie emerged the undisputed queen of the generation. With marvelous characters like Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence she introduced an antithesis to Holmes’ physical eccentricities : Poirot would rather think from his armchair than rush about, magnifying glass in hand, searching for clues (a dig at Holmes characterisation). With around 43 novels recounting Poirot’s “little grey cells” uncovering devious truths , Christie built on the tradition of her predecessors with wry, sharp satires of typically English personalities.

Modern detective fiction owes its structural framework to many of these genre literature now regarded as worthy of attention and detailed analysis- the “locked room “ mystery trope and the comparatively simple minded sidekick figure introduced by Poe and perfected by Doyle. Dr. Watson often serves as the reader’s view into Holme’s exercises in the course of investigation- his fascination with Holmes translates into the enthralling magnetism readers hold for him. Many of the elements Collins introduced in his novel including the English countryside, the multifaceted narration, the bumbling, well meaning but broadly inefficient local police constantly thwarted in wits by the celebrated detective, a red herring to throw the reader off track and culminate in greater suspense of unexpected outcomes. The whodunit genre ( where the audience engages in the same detection process as the detective to draw his own conclusions along with the detective) rose to great prominence during the Golden age of crime fiction by the likes of Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and so on.

An increase of around 120,000 more crime and revenge novels in the UK print markets. A market so largely profitable that JK Rowling has entered the fray too with her critically acclaimed series on embittered detective Cormoran Strike. French novelist Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander is a deeply troubled man investigating crimes and Donna Leon’s Italian detective Guido Brunnetti is a dappled gentlemanly detective enjoying harmony in social and romantic afflictions. No matter the nationality or the age, detective novels truly are elementary in the average bookworm’s and in the uninitiated’s reading list.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

Picture Credits: theguardian.com / Robert Viglasky / BBC / PA



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