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The Road to Baker Street: Fictional Detectives Who Paved the Way for Sherlock Holmes

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Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most well-known and widely recognised fictional character of all time. Within the genre of detective fiction, Holmes is typically seen as the first and foremost among his peers. While there are a number other strong contenders in this category, including Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Holmes remains the undisputed champion. 

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

His preeminence in this regard is perhaps helped by the fact that he came to the scene very early in the craze for detective fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle began producing Sherlock Holmes stories in 1886 and his famous collection of short stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was first published as a book on October 14th, 1892, making this month their 125th anniversary. 

Even with such early beginnings, Holmes is by no means the first detective in English literature. He did not, as we might expect, emerge out of the mist, fully formed and unprecedented. So, with our own sleuthing skills, it’s worth taking a look back to uncover the traces and clues in literary history that lead us to that famous inhabitant of 221B Baker Street.

As a genre in and of itself, crime fiction or detective fiction is still relatively new. However its roots can be found in ancient literary traditions across the world. These stories may not have many of the traits that we’d be familiar with in detective fiction, indeed there are no detectives, few clues, and not much by way of investigative processes. What they do have is a need to uncover the truth in the wake of a crime. In ancient Greek literature, we find this in the story of Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus interrogates witnesses to find who murdered King Laius; while in the Arabic literary tradition it can be seen in a tale within One Thousand and One Nights called ‘The Three Apples’ in which a Caliph orders his vizier to find a murderer within three days or face execution himself. One particularly interesting example can be found in the Persian fairy tale from the 14th century called 'The Princes of Serendip' which describes three princes using deductive reasoning to guess at the distinctive features of a missing camel. The story’s use of combining material traces with logical reasoning directly inspired Voltaire in his 1747 novel Zadig. Here, Voltaire helped establish a modern interest, both in literature and in science, of exploring deductive reasoning. However, it would not be until the 19th century that the figure of the detective emerged in literature.

The Victorian era saw the development of what we would recognise as the modern detective story. The classic tropes so recognisable in the genre today were introduced: the genius investigator, the procedures of law enforcement, and following trails of clues. These, and a host of other familiar traits, were introduced gradually by a range of authors, and so it’s time to take a deeper dive into the individual works that established this most beloved of genres. Some of these stories directly inspired Arthur Conan Doyle, while others simply laid the groundwork for the genre’s popularity, in either case, each example gives a fascinating glimpse into how the stage was set for Sherlock Holmes to leap into the cultural consciousness.

The murders in the rue morgue and other tales

It is almost impossible to nail down exactly fiction’s first modern detective story. As mentioned above, there are some who argue that Voltaire’s Zadig should have the title, while others say it should go to E.T.A Hoffmann’s short story ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi.’ A little remembered short story called ‘The Secret Cell’ by William Evans Burton also deserves a mention. However, the title typically goes to a one-time employee of Burton, Edgar Allen Poe. His short story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ introduced the world to the first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Indeed, when Poe created him, the word detective would not be coined for another nine years. Instead, to introduce his character Poe gives a lengthy description of what he calls ratiocination, better known as deduction. Poe then delivers a range of narrative elements that will be familiar to modern readers. Dupin is a genius eccentric who applies his critical thinking skills to solving crimes, he is surrounded by an incompetent police force, his stories are related by his friend, and his to deduce facts of a person’s life and history from their appearance is seen as something almost supernatural. It doesn’t take much deduction to see the influence on the creation of Sherlock Holmes. In Poe’s story, Dupin solves the murder of two women by interpreting the clue of an unintelligible voice heard at the time of the crime. Poe followed up on this story with two further Dupin cases, ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’. Poe’s resolutions rarely please modern readers, but his work contributed immensely to establishing the conventions of genre.

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Bleak House

While Dickens remains one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century, he is not typically associated with the development of detective fiction. Dickens did, however, incorporate elements of the genre into his writing as early 1852, with his inclusion of the character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Although the inspector comprises but a single thread in the complex web of narratives in Bleak House, he still manages to stand out as an important figure in the novel. Dickens describes Bucket as having an enigmatic and almost magical air to him, most apparent in his ability to adapt himself to any situation. He can disappear, in an almost ghostly fashion into the background and observe his surroundings unnoticed, but he is also a social chameleon at home and at ease interacting with any class of people. This mercurial quality would later be one of Sherlock Holmes’ most acclaimed abilities. Inspector Bucket also provides us with a narrative moment that has become an almost inescapable trait of detective stories, found most particularly in TV shows. Upon finishing his questioning of a suspect, Bucket turns to leave, “makes his three bows and is withdrawing when a forgotten point occurs to him.” Bucket then returns to the room to ask one final blow of a question, one which upends the case. From Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes with his commanding and even dramatic gestures, Peter Falk’s faux-confused and shuffling Columbo, this final and devastating question has become an iconic moment of drama in the unravelling of a mystery.

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The Trail of the Serpent (Modern Library Classics)

The Trail of the Serpent, Mary Elizabeth Bradden's debut novel, has been credited as being the first full length detective novel written in English. Bradden, who is best remembered for her 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret, published her first novel, The Trail of the Serpent in 1860. It follows the story of Richard Marwood, a man falsely convicted of murdering his uncle, and a detective named Joseph Peters who is determined to prove Marwood’s innocence. Bradden’s work is generally associated with the sensation genre, and her first story includes a range of themes that typify the genre. There are swapped identities, lunatic asylums, secret marriages, and blackmail. Important traits in detective fiction have evolved from this work, such as planting evidence on a body, and using disguises to dupe a criminal. Fans of the Baker Street Irregulars will also find here an early example of male assistants to solve a crime. 

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Monsieur Lecoq

Stepping outside of English literature, we find an important influence from French author, Émile Gaboriau. His eponymous detective character from the novel Monsieur Lecoq, was Gaboriau’s second, but more famous, fictional detective. He was inspired by the true story of a thief who had become part of the Paris police. Lecoq is a master of disguise, an expert on poisons, and something of a loner. Doyle openly credited Gaboriau, along with Poe, as providing much of the inspiration for Holmes. He said ‘Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes,’ although in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion, in his first Sherlock Holmes novel, Doyle has Holmes display great disdain for these characters. Watson remarks that the consulting detective reminds him of characters he has come across in fiction, Holmes swiftly cuts down this remarks describing Dupin as ‘a very inferior fellow...showy and superficial,’ while Lecoq is disregarded as ‘a miserable bungler.' Nevertheless, Lecoq was highly acclaimed for his scientific and meticulous approach. Gaboriau’s novel follows Lecoq as he investigates a swathe of murders and violence in Paris’ most dangerous quarter.

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The Moonstone

The final entry on this list is one of the most important and acclaimed detective novels of all time. Wilkie Collins, who perhaps unsurprisingly was mentored by Dickens, is often credited with establishing both the mystery and the sensation genre, with his novel The Woman in White. The book was an enormous success and was the first of a run of four books by Collins which saw widespread popular acclaim. The final book in this run was The Moonstone, published in 1868. It was here that Collins moved from mystery to detective fiction (the difference between the two being the focus on analysis and processes of deduction in detective fiction). Collins’ story explores the ‘locked-room paradigm’ first introduced in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ The story centres on a diamond with an important but violent history, given to a young aristocratic woman named Rachel Verinder for her eighteenth birthday. When the diamond is stolen from her bedroom, a complex tangle of narratives unfold to uncover the culprit. The Moonstone contains not one but two influential detective figures. First, the character of Sergeant Cuff, a brilliant policeman from Scotland Yard, whose reputation for detection precedes him. He is perhaps the earliest example of police-procedural-style investigation in fiction. Along with him is Franklin Blake, a guest of the Verinder family, he is a suspect, but later styles himself as a gentleman detective. From the baffling brilliance of official Cuff to the innate instincts of the unofficial Blake, the two characters both exemplify characteristics that would soon be seen in Sherlock Holmes. Even Sergeant Cuff’s tender and unexpected hobby of growing roses, will remind the reader of the elderly beekeeping Holmes. In The Moonstone Collins also established a great number of literary devices that would recur throughout the genre: the premise of a robbery in an English country house, the use of numerous red herrings, the dull witted and bungling local police force, and the culprit being the least likely suspect.

Of course a key part of The Moonstone’s recognition as the first fully developed detective novel can be seen simply to lie in its sustained popularity. It was acclaimed by both G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers as the best detective story ever written, and T.S. Eliot praised it, calling it "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.” It is certainly a climactic point in the genre’s development, and the last large leap before Conan Doyle introduced the unmatched figure of Sherlock Holmes.

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Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.

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