Eminent detective story writer Rex Stout once quite controversially commented, “Those who do not like detective stories are anarchists”. If not uttered tongue-incheek, the statement sounds quite queer and ludicrous and is bound to invite harsh criticism from many quarters, especially from high-brow critics and scholars, who consider detective fiction trash and reading it a sheer wastage of time.
For instance, we cannot call Jane Austen an anarchist in spite of her singular aversion to such sensational literature. But the raison d’etreof the quoted sentence lies perhaps in a realisation of detective fiction’s serious social implications that the writer seems to have had in mind when he made this statement. A classical detective story is quite often found to be strongly on the side of law and order, and it tries to maintain the status quo of society. So, any errant behaviour is considered criminal and is consequently punished.
Most of the classical English detective stories are conservative in their outlook to society — the detectives in both Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie appear as society’s agent; crushing any attempt at disorder or change in an essentially static society. Hence the detractors of detective fiction are summarily considered to be radicals or even anarchists. But this argument does not always hold water. There are many sleuths and crime stories where the criminals are fascinating characters, and towards whom the reader’s sympathy is found to veer.
There are a number of instances in Conan Doyle where Sherlock Holmes condones or lets off the perpetrator of some culpable offence (like the thief in The Blue Carbuncle), eschewing the beaten path of law and order. It is not only criminals, even the detective or the lawenforcer sometimes gets the reader’s sympathy in the matter of his criminal activities or criminal-like behaviour. EW Hornung’s Arthur J Raffles was a warmlyaccepted character as gentleman-burglar just because he was good at cricket and died fighting for his country against the Boers.
In France, Arsene Lupin was forgiven just because he gave up his criminal career to join the Foreign Legion. In the works of the modern American crime novelist, Patricia Highsmith, heroes are often criminals because they are more lovable than other characters in the stories. The novelist justifies this fact saying, “Criminals are dramatically interesting because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone. I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life, nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not”.
Paradoxically, this passion for justice often motivates the reader to browse the pages of detective stories breathlessly and he is willing to forgive any brutality on the side of law. From Sherlock Holmes to hard-boiled heroes (like the ones in Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane), all have done culpable acts of different degrees for which ordinary people would have been punished. But since the detective was supposed to be the saviour of society, people ignored his peccadilloes.
The reason behind this deep faith in the detective is the contemporary social and political milieu in which the reader finds himself. Julian Symons explores this context in his book, Bloody Murder. He finds that behind the conscious Victorian and Edwardian adherence to a firmly fixed hierarchical society, there is a deep vein of unease about the possible violent overturn of that society, especially by anarchists.
The “propaganda by the deed” actions of those who called themselves Anarchists in France and America, before and at the turn of the 20th century, included the assassination of Presidents Carnot and McKinley, and many more or less successful bomb attempts to kill people and destroy property. Against such a background, the detective was bound to get an added importance to his stature. But in general, detective fiction of all times can also have a ritualistic significance.
Murder is seen in all societies as an act, which makes its perpetrator finally unacceptable. The whole process of crime and punishment in detective literature has a ritualistic element to it — the murderer commits an act, which corrupts society; and only a sacrifice (that is, the death of the criminal) ensures the expulsion of evil from society as well as the purification of the race. For this ritualistic dimension, Nicholas Blake calls detective fiction “the folk-myth of the 20th century”.
Whether it is for serious implications or sensational details, detective literature is read by people from all walks of life — from the college student to coalminer, priest to politician, singer to social activist. Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer of Edger Allan Poe’s Monsieur Dupin tales, and another American President John F Kennedy was blindly devoted to the exploits of James Bond. Ironically, this popular literature dealing with the nightside of human experience quite often has its firmest hold upon the most intellectual in the reading public.
One such reader was TS Eliot whose interest in the works of Wilkie Collins and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes is well-known. In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s use of the one-line question answer structure (Part I, lines 56 – 59) is directly modelled on a similar structure in Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective story, The Musgrave Ritual. In East Cocker, Eliot uses the word “grimpen”, which is taken from “Grimpen Mire” in Doyle’s novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Charles Dickens, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway — all wrote and read detective stories. Although James Joyce and Jacques Derrida did not show much interest, Sigmund Freud was curiously drawn to sleuth fiction, and his favourite writer was Dorothy Sayers.
Another stalwart of the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht, calls crime fiction “the only important literary genre of our times” while Jean Paul Sartre’s take on crime thrillers is as follows, “… All I had to do to go wild with delight was to look at the coloured illustrations on the covers. I preferred the illustrations of Nick Carter.
They might be thought monotonous — in nearly all of them the great detective is felling someone or is himself being bludgeoned. But these brawls were taking place in the streets of Manhattan, waste land, enclosed by brown wooden fences or frail cubic buildings the colour of dried blood — that fascinated me”. Yet detective fiction, despite having quite a considerable number of literary giants and remarkable intellectuals among its readers, is often denounced or ignored by academicians and some high-brow readers. Symons cogently argues in Bloody Murder, “Crime stories have always been the Cinderellas of literature so far as reviewing is concerned”.
It is therefore not surprising that such stories are seldom submitted to the scrutiny of a renowned literary critic like AC Bradley or Harold Bloom, perhaps because such critics feel that detective fiction cannot withstand an intense light; or, because they have simply never thought to take it seriously. Detective literature is often ridiculed for its melodramatic and sensationalistic details. Even a celebrated Sherlock Holmes story like The Speckled Band uses melodrama to a great extent, and in many other Holmes stories like The Cardboard Box, The Engineer’s Thumb and Black Peter, we find not only melodrama, but also the macabre.
Northrop Frye wrote, “In the melodrama of the brutal thriller, we come as close as it is normally possible for art to come to the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob”. But classic detective stories are different from thrillers — detective stories thrill us by their art of detection whereas crime thrillers chill us by their gruesome crime and violence.
Although there are some spine-chilling and hairraising elements within the bristling geometry of the narrative, the process is mainly to elucidate a special perspective on rationality. Instead of relying on sensations alone, detective fiction gives some explanation — crime here is only the means to an end and that is, detection. What remains through an interplay of form and freedom, crime and punishment, intelligence and intuition, is not intentions but results. Detective fiction is also not deficient in psychological significance. According to a noted psychoanalyst, Geraldine Pederson-Krag, the intense curiosity aroused by the detective story is analogous to the primal scene of infancy. The murder represents parental intercourse; the victim is the parent, and the clues are symbolic representations of mysterious nocturnal sounds, stains and incomprehensible adult jokes. The innocuous details represent the child’s growing awareness of the things it never understood. The murderer is the other parent toward whom the child’s positive oedipal feelings were directed, the one whom the child wished least of all to imagine participating in a secret crime. In this sense, a detective story is a sadistic return to the primal scene. The detective story satisfies the voyeurs who gaze with strained attention at the scene of primal coitus.
The Watson character provides an alternate ego in case the superego threatens guilt. In the complete knowledge of the crime, achieved by the detective, the ego may participate as either or both parents in the primal scene, since knowledge may be the equivalent of either male or female sexuality. The roots of mystery and detective fiction have been traced to antiquity; and puzzles and narrative riddles necessary to the detective story are found in the folklore of all cultures.
Elements of crime and detection are found in the story of King Rhampsinitus’s treasure house narrated by Herodotus; tales from Gesta Romanorumin Archimedes’ discovery of his famous hydrostatics; and 17th century British rogue tales like Thomas Dekker’s The Bellman of London (1608). One of the earliest examples of a novel, which deals with crime and violence is Smollett’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom(1753).
It is generally accepted that the first detective story as a recognisable form in English was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), which he soon followed by The Purloined Letter (1844) and The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842- 43). In these tales Poe achieved the fusion of two distinct genres and created what we may call the story of mystery as distinct from pure detection on the one hand and pure horror on the other. In this fused genre, the reader’s blood is first curdled by some horrible and apparently inexplicable murder or portent; the machinery of detection is then brought in to solve the mystery and punish the murderer. Poe also created a kind of prototype detective in the shape of Le Chevalier Auguste Dupin, a young gentleman from a illustrious family, who was brilliant and eccentric.
The three Dupin stories clearly invented the detective genre in which a super-intelligent sleuth works out and explains, stage by stage, how a crime must have been accomplished. The first English detective novel was Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868). If we don’t consider the minor role of Bucket in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), then Collins’s Sergeant Cuff is one of the very first detectives in English fiction. In 1887, the Australian writer Fergus Hume published Mystery of a Hansom Cab, and in that same year Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes made his first bow in A Study in Scarlet in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Although there are many fictional detectives before and after Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s sleuth holds a special position in this form of literature, and his exploits are important till date not only to detective fiction lovers, but also to specialists in real-life detection. Although there are only 60 tales written by Doyle on the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, the foothold that Holmes gained upon popular imagination has seldom been equaled. And his impact is clearly seen in the belief, held for years by thousands, that he was an actual living being — a phenomenon that constitutes one of the most unusual chapters in literary history. Part of Holmes’s attraction to the reader was that he was so evidently a superhuman figure. People seemed to feel relieved having such a hero on the side of law.
The aloof, super-intellectual and slightly inhuman Holmes, who occasionally acts outside the law, was particularly attractive when posed against some terrifying figures who aimed at destabilising the status quo of a stolid Victorian society. Such a detective was most welcomed because he was considered a kind of saviour, somebody who, if needed, did illegal things for the right reasons. The image of Holmes epitomising the application of rationality and scientific method to human behaviour is also a major factor in the detective’s ability to capture the world’s attention. In English literature only three other fictional names equally familiar to the man in the street might be those of Romeo, Shylock and Robinson Crusoe.
Like the city in which Holmes dwells, he is a myth and therefore immortal, unkillable even by his creator. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, Tarzan or Ride Haggard’s Ayesha, he began to detach himself at the very start from those printed texts in which we first learn of his existence, persisting as a name of immense mythic resonance and a series of visual images, or icons, that continue to haunt us long after we have forgotten the plots, which were their occasion and the words in which they were first formulated. Apart from the delightful games of the Sherlockians, the character of Holmes and his exploits touch deeper reality and his legend fulfils a need beyond the realms of literature.
Though he symbolises the sportsman and hunter, a modern Galahad hot upon the scent of a bloody trail, the character of Holmes even more clearly epitomises the attempted application of man’s highest faculty — his rationality — in the solution of the problematic situations of everyday life. One truly believes that Holmes’s new applied science is possible for the diligent student of his method. The fictitious world to which Sherlock Holmes belonged expected of him what the real world of the day expects of its scientists — more light and more justice.
As a creation of a doctor who had been soaked in the rationalist thought of the period, the Holmesian cycle offers us for the first time the spectacle of a hero triumphing again and again by means of logic and scientific period. A report published a few years ago in The Daily Mirror strongly buttressed the point that Sherlock Holmes is still relevant not merely to the academics, but also to investigation agencies and espionage wings across the world.
The report said that British spies and Whitehall officials were to be given a crash course on Sherlock Holmes’s deduction techniques to prevent a repeat of the intelligence failures in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The key to his universal applicability lies in his beliefs, theories, and his observations, which have a resounding ethical soundness and wonderful pragmatism. Many famous criminologists including Alphonse Bertillon and Edmund Locard have credited Holmes’s techniques of observation and inference, and these are still presented as a useful model to the criminal investigator. Holmes was an early advocate of the importance of fingerprints (The Adventure of the Norwood Builder) and the Bertillon system of measurement (The Naval Treaty). He also believed in the great knowledge, which could be gained through careful examination of handwriting. Finally, Holmes also anticipated some of the devices of later psychoanalysts. His understanding of the defence mechanism of protection becomes clear in his statement about a villain in the novel The Valley of Fear, “It may only be his conscience. Knowing himself to be a traitor, he may have read the accusation in the other’s eyes”.
Although many of the techniques adopted by Holmes in nabbing criminals appear to the modern investigator to be quite simplistic, none can detract from the quality of observation that he had, and living in an age when investigation was still in its embryonic form, he was a unique presence in this field. He shared many of the prejudices of his contemporaries, but he also extended our view of man.
Going by the popularity of his tales and the reports about the willingness of modern investigation agencies and espionage wings to take help from his methods and maxims, it is doubtful that Sherlock Holmes could have had a greater impact on the sciences of men had he actually lived.