Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Normal Detective of a Sensation Novel

After his friend George Talboys vanishes into thin air, Robert Audley turns into an amateur detective. He travels first to Southampton to interview Captain Maldon, where he picks up a half-burnt telegram and puts it in his pocket (Vol I, chapter 12). Then he journeys to Liverpool to inquire about passenger lists for ships to Australia (Vol I, chapter 13). He demonstrates the use of "inductive evidence" (Vol I, chapter 16). He writes down the known facts in bullet points (Vol I, chapter 13). He gives Lady Audley a lecture on the "theory of circumstantial evidence":

"that wonderful fabric which is built of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet strong enough to hang a man. Upon which infinitesimal trifles may sometimes hang the whole secret of some wicked mystery, inexplicable heretofore to the wisest upon the earth! A scrap of paper; a shred of some torn garment; the button off a coat; a word dropped incautiously from the over-cautious lips of guilt; the fragment of a letter; the shutting or opening of a door; a shadow on a window-blind; the accuracy of a moment; a thousand circumstances so slight as to be forgotten by the criminal, but links of steel in the wonderful chain forged by the science of the detective officer; and lo! the gallows is built up; the solemn bell tolls through the dismal grey of the early morning; the drop creaks under the guilty feet; and the penalty of crime is paid." (Vol I, chapter 15).

No wonder Lady Audley feels a little poorly after hearing this. Later she tells Robert Audley: "you ought to have been a detective police officer." Robert Audley replies: "I should have been a good one. ... Because I am patient." (Vol I, chapter 18)

In December 1861 Lady Audley's Secret had been started and partly published. It had been serialized in Robin Goodfellow from July till September. It would be continued in Sixpenny Magazine from January to December 1862. Just before the publication of the novel was continued, on 28 December 1861, Spectator published an article entitled "The Enigma Novel" which stated: "We are threatened with a new variety of sensation novel, a host of cleverly complicated stories, the whole interest of which consists of the gradual unveiling of some carefully prepared enigma."

This is a pretty good definition of a detective story. Detection is finding out; OED defines it as "exposure, revelation of what is concealed" and "as the finding out what tends to elude notice." My view is that a detective story is a story which has detection, as defined by the OED as a major theme or interest in the narrative. And a detective is a character who engages in detection. The detective does not have to be successful to be a detective, but she or he has to put in the effort to detect.

The term 'detective story' was first used in print to describe a novel (as far as I have been able to determine) by Anna Katharine Green as a subtitle to her 7 to 12 and X. Y. Z. in 1883. Some critics maintain it was used in Green's first novel The Leavenworth Case published in 1878, but that is not the case. By the 1880s, the concept of detective fiction was quite established, and what was meant by the term 'detective story' was pretty much what we mean by it today. In December 1886, a year before the first Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Saturday Review published an article entitled "Detective Fiction" about the growing popularity of "the detective novel." This shows that by now detective fiction was a recognized genre.

Detectives and detection were already familiar concepts to readers of sensation fiction. "Amateur Detectives" in Saturday Review in February 1868 (at a time when two installments of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, the celebrated "first" English detective novel, had appeared in All the Year Round) criticized the deductive method "generally accepted in constructing the well-known detective in fiction." The article further claims that it is "absurd" to think that "given any fragment of the universe ... a person of sufficient knowledge and ability might construct the rest." Two decades later in 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would make Sherlock Holmes think exactly this in A Study in Scarlet.

In June 1863, six months after Lady Audley's Secret  completed its serialization, "Detective in Fiction and in Real Life" in Saturday Review said that "Of all forms of sensation-novel writing, none is so common as what may be called the romance of the detective." and talks about "the normal detective of a sensation novel."

There is reason to think that what started all this excitement about detective fiction was Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White which appeared in 1860, a year before Lady Audley's Secret. The quote above from "The Enigma Novel" continues: "Mr. Wilkie Collins set the fashion, and now every novel writer who can construct a plot, thinks if he only makes it a little more mysterious and unnatural, he may obtain a success rivaling that of "The Woman in White."

M. E. Braddon certainly had a go at that.

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