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