10 antidotes to the presposterous Sherlock Holmes
Anyone who has read Arthur Conan Doyle knows it’s impossible to observe Sherlock Holmes at work without skepticism. As James McCreet observes in The Guardian, Holmes’ “powers of deduction often bordered on the paranormal, and what passed for deduction was more usually just imagination.”
McCreet ought to know, having steeped himself in the period for his well-regarded debut novel, The Incindiary’s Trail, published in England last summer. One reviewer termed the book “splendid,” and praised it for its “vividly depicted squalor and grotesquery,” and likening it favorably not to Doyle but to Dickens.
Real Victorian detectives, as opposed to the antics of Sherlock, had to outsmart criminals, McCreet asserts. “No DNA, no databases and until the very end of the century no fingerprints – the true detectives of that period were perhaps the purest of the form, either literary or factual. Their London was one that straddled industrial modernity and Elizabethan poverty: a breeding ground for crime, and for stories.”
McCreet offers 10 books or stories, some Victorian, some modern, that either correct the Holmes conceit of infallible ratiocination, or betters it. I love lists like this, because earlier literary periods teem with neglected or forgotten books, many of them delightful.
Thomas de Quincey’s On Murder, No. One on McCreet’s list, certainly falls into this category. Best remembered for Confessions of an Opium Eater, an autobiographical account of drug addiction, De Quincey was a friend of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Lamb. McCreet says On Murder, about a real series of killings, may be “the true origin of detective fiction.”
McCreet’s includes Poe’s story “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” which he suggests is superior to the more famous “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” I agree — while still preposterous, it seems much more grounded in reality.
Dickens’ Bleak House, McCreet says, with its “sober and practical Inspector Bucket,” is not only one of the first works to feature a police investigator but is based on journalism Dickens wrote about the police and how they worked.
The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, whose popularity rivaled that of his friend Dickens, was a huge bestseller in its day, and deserves to be read still. Though ludicrous in many respects, it, too, is based on a close examination of working detectives of the era.
Among modern treatments of the 19th century detective or the world in which he worked, McCreet includes Kate Summerscale’s popular novel, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, featuring a real historical detective; A Dictionary of Victorian London, by Lee Jackson; and Liza Picard’s Victorian London, which has a chapter devoted solely to the smells of the squalid metropolis where Holmes found miscreants lurking in the fog.
To the list of modern books, I’d add Louis Bayard’s 2008 novel, The Black Tower, with its potent fictional portrait of Eugene Francois Vidocq, the Paris thief-turned-cop who pioneered scientific criminology in the early 19th century, instituting procedures — ballistics, accurate record-keeping — still in use today.
But I’m more interested in the older books McCreet names, including one, Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, by Henry Goddard, about which I can find almost nothing, at least not in a quick search of the Internet.
What are some lesser known 19th century novels you’ve found and loved? Please share.