The Notting Hill Mystery: The First Detective Novel

Alice Spawls writes:

Little more than forty years separate Poe’s Dupin, the original fictional detective, and A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes’s first outing, but by the time Conan Doyle put pen to paper everyone was reading detective stories. In the intervening years they multiplied out of sensation and mystery novels, gothic melodramas, feuilletons, casebooks and crime reports and became a genre of their own. Few of the early works are read these days; fewer still are in print, overtaken by their more successful descendants in the two great schools of British detective writing. The late Victorian analytical style of Conan Doyle established the single-problem format: the case is presented, investigated – usually at some risk – and then solved; the explanation of its many subsidiary enigmas withheld until the dénouement. Like Dupin, Holmes is a gentleman amateur whose reasoning invariably outstrips the capabilities of the police. ‘All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience,’ Holmes says of his brother Mycroft, but he could just as well be talking of himself. The reader can’t hope to match his deductions, only marvel at the performance. The era of cold Victorian logic was succeeded by the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, with its cleverly arranged clues and psycho-social unravelling. In 1928 S.S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance, the American gentleman amateur, laid down Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories for the American Magazine. ‘The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery’ was the first rule. The Detection Club, whose members included Agatha Christie, Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, agreed. Their protagonists mix deduction with intuition and observation, making the impossible seem not only logical but obvious.

(LRB 20 February 2014)

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