In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. William Marling of Case Western Reserve University traces the roots of the detective novel to the process of urbanization.
William Marling is a professor of literature at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where his research is focused on detective novels, globalization, and American Modernism. He has published books on Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and is currently writing about the rise of “world literature.” He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California Santa Barbara.
Dr. William Marling – Urbanization and the Detective Novel
The detective novel grew up with public concerns about modern, urban life, particularly crime. But crime as a feature of Western life was not recognized until the rise of large cities in the early 1800s, the period when a mass reading public appeared. The new cities were chaotic, without maps, police, or even named streets. New city-dwellers were fascinated by and afraid of crime, they vilified and romanticized criminals, as well as the police who fought them.
The first writing on urban crime pretended to be documentary, but it was filled with archetypes and plots from preceding fiction, particularly the gothic novel. The idea of detection and the figure of the detective were introduced in the early nineteenth century by a Frenchman, Francois-Eugene Vidocq. He had been a soldier, smuggler, convict and stoolie, but he also founded the French "security services" in 1812.
When Vidocq's Memoirs were published in 1828, they were immediately popular and translated into English. Balzac modeled the character of Vautrin in Le Pere Goriot on Vidocq , and Victor Hugo did the same with Jean Valjean in Les Misérables . In England the interest in "crime stories" blended with a strong, existing genre called the gothic novel. Its influence accounts for the dark settings, obscure motives, and brilliant solutions in the genre. Vidocq also influenced Charles Dickens, who used detail and character for Great Expectations In the U. S., Edgar Allan Poe read both Dickens and Vidocq. Then in five stories between 1840 and 1845, he then laid out the formal detective story.