The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England

John Pemble writes:

‘Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?’ snapped Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker in 1945. He refused to find out who did, because he’d already discovered that Agatha Christie’s books were garbage and that he couldn’t put them down. This is what you’d expect. Wilson was a literary prude, and detective stories are literature’s oldest profession. They do one thing, they do it once, then they go off to jumble sales and charity bookshops to do it for someone else – unless they feature Sherlock Holmes. He seldom turns up with Poirot and Miss Marple in trays of second-hand pulp, but haunts the libraries, loos and luggage of people like T.S. Eliot, Ronald Knox, Eric Newby, Vladimir Nabokov and Umberto Eco. He even made it into Edmund Wilson’s bedroom. Although Holmes is a private detective, he’s frequently consulted by Scotland Yard and repeatedly succeeds where it fails. This leads Haia Shpayer-Makov to read in the Holmes saga a powerful argument for privatising the police. Its message, she claims in The Ascent of the Detective, is unequivocal: ‘Effective crime investigation requires the input of the commercial sector.’

(LRB 26 January 2012)