Sensitive as we are to the thematic possibilities of each month, The Tuesday Night Bloggers are beginning what I hope will be a much better year than 2017 with a discussion of “firsts.” The suggestion came from Kate at Cross-Examining Crime, and she said we could make this about anything we like. So I thought I’d honor what some consider to be the first official detectives, and the author for one of them may surprise you.
American schools tend to focus on Edgar Allan Poe as a master of the horror story. As students, we study “The Telltale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” As a teacher, I can tell you that all three of these stories can still be found in the modern English textbook, and fine tales they are!
True mystery fans must credit Poe as the father of the modern detective story. It all began in 1841 with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” With cunning skill, Poe builds up the atmosphere of mystery as he presents the baffling and brutal murders of a mother and her daughter by person or persons unknown! Anyone familiar with the story knows that it sort of degenerates into silliness at the end. However, “Rue Morgue” contains most of the elements that form the basis for future detective tales: the brilliant detective, the Watson figure, and the focus on ratiocination as the detective deduces his way logically throughout the case to the one and only solution.
The career of le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin is unforgivably brief: he solves only three cases for public record. He is a gentleman of reduced means, a bibliophile (who meets his friend and “Watson,” the unnamed narrator of all three stories, when they are both searching for the same book in the library), and completely lacking in any professional training. And yet his fondness for puzzles of all sorts draws him to the most inexplicable criminal events in Paris, the police prefect “G” consults with him over each case, and Dupin finds illumination where the police cannot.
Poe begins “Rue Morgue” with a lengthy discourse on the criminal analyst: “As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.” Soon after the narrator meets Dupin and they move into lodgings together, where the detective amazes his friend with his analytical abilities.
“(Dupin) boasted to me, with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms, and was wont to follow up such assertions by direct and very startling proofs of his intimate knowledge of my own.”
Dupin gives a vivid demonstration of this skill on a walk with his friend where he seems to read the other’s mind. When asked for an explanation, he begins, “I will explain, and that you may comprehend all clearly, we will first retrace the course of your meditations . . . the larger links of the chain run thus – Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer.” And then step by step with ingenious logic, Dupin makes sense out of what seems like magic.
Sound familiar, Holmes and Christie fans? The catalogue of deductions and the list of odd and seemingly unrelated items that strike all but the detective as nonsense are staple features of the Golden Age detective.
As I said, the mystery surrounding the Rue Morgue, while it amply demonstrates Dupin’s sleuthing skills, is ultimately a ridiculous exercise; we may hope to be able to deduce, along with Dupin, the identity of the killer, but Poe makes monkeys of us all. The other two stories, however, are brilliant. “The Purloined Letter” is psychologically astute and shows off what a great mystery writer must do: take a simple problem, spin it into a web of obfuscation, and then pierce the darkness with such simplicity that the gob-smacked reader will slap his forehead in bemused dismay. “The Mystery of Marie Roget” is the first murder mystery based on a true-life case, something most of the Golden Age writers loved to do. Read Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, which chronicles meetings between Berkeley, Sayers, Punshon and the like all discussing and drawing inspiration from real life crimes! Like these later writers, Poe used fiction as a means to explore the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers; he even sold the story as the actual “solution” to the real crime.
Forty-five years later, the logical descendant to Dupin would appear in the form of Sherlock Holmes in the novel A Study in Scarlet. Because they share so many qualities – the eccentric quirks, the tendency to ratiocinative tricks, the befuddled friend both detectives liked to impress – it would be easy to make the mistake of skipping over the intervening years. But then one would miss the actual first detective to appear in a novel, created by none other than – Charles Dickens!
I consider myself lucky in my relationship to Dickens for two reasons. First, I didn’t have to read him in high school, and second, my first experience was not A Tale of Two Cities! If you ask my former high school cronies how fond they are of Charles Dickens, they will tell you that they hated the man and his damned French-Revolution-Sidney-Carton-spewing-Madame-Defarge-knitting epic!
I first encountered Dickens as a sophomore in college in an English survey course run by an elderly and eccentric professor named Howard Hugo. The class was small, giving us a chance to dig deeply into books and actually discuss them (most of my classes at Berkeley were lecture courses for 500 or more students.) It was Professor Hugo who made the introductions with my first Dickens novel, Bleak House. It was love at first sight.
Bleak House is the longest and arguably the best of Dickens’ novels. The author was no stranger to imbuing his novels with mystery-like elements, most often centering around a character’s parentage (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby) or uncovering the evil machinations of a dastardly villain (David Copperfield) or even the identity of a mysterious benefactor (Great Expectations, which shares a place in my heart alongside Bleak House as my two favorite Dickens novels). The scope of Bleak House is huge, and its target is the law, most specifically the Court of Chancery. A dismal fog hangs, literally and figuratively, over the dozens of characters who struggle through the interminable bureaucracy attendant upon the central question: who is the right and legal heir to the Jarndyce fortune? Dickens’ aim is never to answer that question but to show the ruination of many lives sucked into the maw of this unwieldy legal system. The book contains ten character deaths, more than any other of the authors’ novels, including the first literary case in my knowledge of death by spontaneous combustion. And, most significant to this discussion, folded into Bleak House is a murder case, a genuine whodunit, which allows Dickens to introduce the first detective to ever appear in a novel and solve a murder.
The victim, appropriately to this tale, is a lawyer, one Mr. Tulkinghorn, who represents the interests of a member of the aristocracy, Sir Leicester Dedlock. (God, I love the names of Dickens’ characters! You have to go to the end of Dickens’ career to find a character named “Bradley” who, like myself, is a schoolteacher. Unfortunately, this character is named Bradley Headstone, so you can imagine how he turns out!) Mr. Tulkinghorn relishes gaining information and the power that its possession gives him over others. He suspects that Sir Leicester’s beautiful and cold wife, Honoria, harbors a dark secret from her past, and he is determined to suss it out. His gaining and wielding of this secret forms a large part of the plot and links many characters together, some of whom become suspects when Mr. Tulkinghorn is found dead on the floor of his office.
Long before the murder, in Chapter 22 to be precise, Mr. Tulkinghorn seeks out some information from a stationary store proprietor named Mr. Snagsby, and he brings a man with him to aid in his search:
“ . . . a person with a hat and stick in his hand, who was not there when (Snagsby) himself came in, and has not since entered by the door or by either of the windows. There is a press in the room, but its hinges have not creaked, nor has a step been audible upon the floor. Yet this third person stands there, with his attentive face, and his hat and stick in his hands, and his hands behind him, a composed and quiet listener. He is a stoutly built, steady-looking, sharp-eyed man in black, of about the middle age. Except that he looks at Mr. Snagsby as if he were going to take his portrait, there is nothing remarkable about him at first sight but his ghostly manner of appearing.”
This man is Inspector Bucket of Scotland Yard, who has a hand in most of the mysteries found in the book and who, through dogged perseverance and detective skill, unmasks Mr. Tulkinghorn’s killer at the end of the novel. Dicken’s description conveys much of the detective’s skill: the ability to blend in at will, to appear and disappear at a glance. Other than that, Bucket is one of the least eccentric characters in the Dickens universe. He reminds me a bit of Detective Columbo, with his self-effacing qualities, his beloved wife (who helps him solve the case!), and his ability to summon the personality to effectively deal with each person he meets. He is definitely on the side of the good guys (unlike the man who employs him), and he treats the angelic characters in Bleak House with sensitivity and kindness, even as he extracts the information he requires.
Bucket was actually based on a real-life person. Dickens was highly interested in the goings-on of the police and obtained permission to occasionally accompany constables on their nightly rounds. In this way, he met Charles Frederick Field, who had worked his way up to join the new Detective Branch at Scotland Yard. Field had always wanted to be an actor, another passion of Dickens’, and the two men became friends. Dickens had even written an essay the year before he started Bleak House called “On Duty with Inspector Field,” which provided strong research into the methods with which he would endow Inspector Bucket. As a nod to his acting pretensions, Field was fond of utilizing disguise in his work, and after he retired from the force, he worked for a few years as a private detective.
Bucket is the moral opposite of Tulkinghorn: both men live to ferret out the secrets of others, but the lawyer does it to increase his power over the lives of others while Bucket only reveals what is necessary to right wrongs. In a novel where so many characters’ lives are ruined by the law, Bucket stands as an important counterpoint, a strong sign that the law can do great good.
So there you have it: the first gentleman sleuth and the first detective from the police force to feature in a novel. From Dupin sprang the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance, Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey, and Ellery Queen, while Inspector Bucket set the stage for Crofts’ Inspector French, E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen, and a host of other Yard men who traversed the English countryside, righting the lethal wrongs occurring during country house weekends everywhere! It’s only fitting that we mystery fans should salute the men who started it all!