Mystery History: Detective Story Origins
Tales involving mysteries and puzzles have existed for millennia, but a literature focused on crime and its detection developed less than 200 years ago. Crooks, cops, and chemistry fostered an appetite for detective stories in the 1800s.
Crooks, Cops, and Chemistry
CROOKS - As cities grew during the industrial revolution, crime rates soared. The rural myths of Robin Hood and dashing highwaymen gave way to the urban reality of pickpockets and con men. Housebreaking and violent assaults reached epidemic proportions in London and other large cities. The public demanded police to combat crime.
COPS - The French Sûreté, Scotland Yard, and the New York Police Department were all founded in the first half of the 19th century. The 1828 fictionalized memoirs of Sûreté director Eugène Vidocq, a reformed criminal, sparked reader interest in the details of crime and became a bestseller in Europe. Across the Atlantic, a struggling writer named Edgar Allan Poe must have taken note of Vidocq’s literary success. Poe wrote the first detective story in English, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841. His investigator, Auguste Dupin, even mentions Vidocq. The exploits of real crime fighters inspired 19th century authors, as did the research of scientists.
CHEMISTRY - Advances in chemistry led to the development of forensic science.
In 1813 the Father of Toxicology, Mathiue Orfila, published a treatise on poison. In 1840, Marie LaFarge was convicted of arsenic poisoning based on Orfila's testimony.
Investigators in the 1800s started using ballistics to identify criminals. As early as the 1830s, the police tracked down a murderer by examining the bullet he fired. Elementary ballistics plays a role in identifying the culprit in Poe’s 1844 story, “Thou Art the Man.”
The science of fingerprinting also developed during the 19th century and inspired writers. An 1880 scientific paper described how fingerprints at a crime scene could identify the culprit. Three years later, in Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote about a killer detected through fingerprints.
Readers of the 1800s were as fascinated by early toxicology, ballistics, and fingerprints as today’s CSI viewers are by DNA analysis.
We can thank crooks, cops, and chemistry for the start and instant popularity of a literature devoted to crime detection. From seeds planted two centuries ago, crime fiction has grown into a sturdy tree with many branches.
Related Page: Edgar Allan Poe