Description – The Great Detectives: From Vidocq to Sam Spade
These four essays trace the birth and evolution of the detective story, from its origins in the early nineteenth century to the great American masters, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
The first essay begins with Eugène-François Vidocq, a picaresque French criminal who became, by degrees, a police spy and then, the originator and Chief of the first modern police intelligence bureau, the Brigade de Sûreté. This former galley slave and convict was larger than life, so much so that his life and writings became the stuff of great literature – from Victor Hugo to Dostoyevsky. Trace him here, as modern criminology is born – and with it, the modern detective story.
We continue with the tormented writer, Edgar Allan Poe, who created the first detective story, Murders In The Rue Morgue alluding to his debt to the writings of Vidocq as he did so. Not content with that achievement, Poe had his celebrated C. Auguste Dupin, in The Mystery of Marie Roget, solve an actual crime that had baffled the New York police.
The second essay treats three eminent Victorian writers. Charles Dickens, in Bleak House, introduces Mr. Bucket, a police detective who is probably the fictional edition of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Field. Wilkie Collins, in The Moonstone, may deserves honors as the author of the first detective novel. Both Dorothy Sayers and T. S. Eliot considered it the finest detective novel ever written.
With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal Sherlock Holmes, we have a fictional creation (if, indeed, he is fictional) who has clearly upstaged his creator. William Shepard is a Sherlockian, and here he reveals, amongst many fascinating details about Holmes, just where the name “Sherlock” in all likelihood first appeared to Conan Doyle. And he tackles the question, why didn’t Holmes solve the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888?
The third essay concerns a trip of great mystery writers, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Georges Simenon, the creator of the great French detective, Inspector Maigret. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are viewed in detail, as is Dorothy Sayers’ fine creation, “half Bertie Wooster and half Fred Astaire,” Lord Peter Wimsey.
Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe complete the list, representing the American hard-boiled school. A bibliography, containing links to The Maltese Falcon film errors and favorite writings of Raymond Chandler, completes your reading pleasure.
The Great Detectives (From Vidocq to Sam Spade)
Questions and Answers
Question: Tell us about this book. What gave you the idea of writing it? I’ve never heard of Vidocq, for example.
Answer: I gave a course in Great Fictional Detectives at Chesapeake College here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I found the stories of the great writers who developed the detective story to be fascinating. We start with Vidocq, for it all begins with him. He was a great rogue, in the early nineteenth century in France. He rose from being a convicted thief, by very gradual stages, to being a police informer, and then, reinventing himself as a member of the police, he founded the Paris equivalent of a police intelligence bureau. His life story was so compelling that he inspired Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dostoyevsky, in fact all great writers of detective stories – including the first, Edgar Allan Poe, who mentions Vidocq in his “Murders In The Rue Morgue,” the first detective story. Poe put into literature for the first time what Vidocq had lived, but he refined it to create the detective story, and the first locked room mystery, for that matter. And then, of course, not satisfied with his creation, Poe proceeded, in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” to solve an actual crime that had baffled the New York police.
Question: So Vidocq and Poe are your starting points. And then?
Answer: The great Victorians are next, Charles Dickens, his friend Wilkie Collins, and of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the immortal Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps Collins’ “The Moonstone” is the first modern detective novel, so interesting that both Dorothy Sayers and T. S. Eliot called it the greatest detective novel ever written.
Question: What is there new to say about Sherlock Holmes?
Answer: For one thing, where did the name “Sherlock” come from? I have, I think, solved that puzzle after some original research in England. And there are many interesting aspects to be explored for all three of our Victorian authors, as they developed the modern detective novel. Sergeant Cuff in “The Moonstone,” for example, is a clear precursor of Holmes. And Inspector Bucket in Dickens’ “Bleak House” calls to mind an actual Scotland Yard officer, Inspector Field.
Question: How about our favorites, the British “cozies”?
Answer: I wouldn’t dream of leaving them out. I consider both Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers in some detail. And if you don’t yet know Georges Simenon’s Inspecteur Maigret, you have a treat in store. One sees the detective story now developing through very different protagonists, such as Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
Question: And the American “hard-boiled” school?
Answer: Of course, the immortal Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are here, with their creations Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and Philip Marlowe. It is said that Hammett “took murder out of the living room and gave it back to the gutter, where it belongs!” I include a link to errors in the film “The Maltese Falcon,” and to celebrated passages of Raymond Chandler, perhaps the most gifted writer of all – you’ll have your own point of view on that, I’m sure.
Question: It sound like an enjoyable read. Any final thoughts?
Answer: Yes, for this hot summer, I’ve priced the book at a ridiculous 99 cents! So download your copy, and happy reading!