Why should detective fiction have emerged at this time? There are some conspicuous material factors. Industrialisation and the growth of literacy meant that more people than ever before were able to read. To satisfy this new market, new machinery was developed that could produce cheap books in vast numbers. Booksellers in Britain set up stalls in stations. Their best-sellers were sensationalist, the kind of stories sneered at by literary types: ‘the tawdry novels which flare in the bookshelves of our railway stations,’ the poet and critic Matthew Arnold complained in 1880, ‘and which seem designed, as so much else that is produced for the use of our middle class, for people with a low standard of life’. Unabashed, ordinary readers were hungry for this kind of stuff; when the first detective novels came along, they lapped them up.
Of course, detective fiction could hardly have come about if not for the advent of the detective himself. The Metropolitan Police in London created its ‘Detective Branch’ in 1842, and the first of its policemen to come to wide public notice was Jack Whicher, who was called in to investigate a notorious child murder in Wiltshire in 1860 (the subject of the recent book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale). Newspapers followed the Road Hill House case avidly, describing every twist and development, until there was barely a person in the country who did not have a theory about who had killed the three-year-old Francis Kent.
All of these elements were undoubtedly important. But why did detective stories become such huge best-sellers almost overnight? What accounted for the sudden fascination with the figure of the detective? The unlucky Francis Kent’s father happened to be a government factory inspector, another profession that emerged at around this time, and yet factory inspectors didn’t suddenly become heroes of the popular imagination.
Read More | “Unholy Mystery” | Jason Webster | Aeon