Ask almost anyone if they’ve read a Victorian detective story, and you’re likely to hear them mention Sherlock Holmes. I know that’s true for me. I still remember watching the 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles on TV when I was young – the movie featuring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes … in black-and-white, of course.
But the genre known as the “Victorian detective story” consists of books written by many authors, starting with Edgar Allan Poe (who wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 and The Purloined Letter in 1844) and continuing into the 20th century with authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles – 1902) and Baroness Orczy (Lady Molly of Scotland Yard – 1910).
Origins of the Victorian Detective Story
To understand the reason for the rise in this genre’s popularity with the public, take a look at the society in which it was born.
London’s first police force appeared in 1829, when Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act established the city’s Metropolitan Police. Soon afterward, when writers began noticing the rising popularity of police officers’ memoirs, they started creating stories that were only loosely based on facts, sensationalizing the suspense surrounding actual police cases.
Newspapers published the progress of “true crime” cases and, thanks to a rise in literacy among the general public, people quickly became fans of what later became known as the “Victorian detective story.”
Another new development was the advent of book binding and printing, which made books much more affordable for the average person.
It wasn’t until the 1860s that “sensation fiction” first appeared – a variation of crime fiction characterized by tales intended to stir up intense feelings in the reader. One of the most famous authors of this type of story was Wilkie Collins … who also happened to be a friend of fellow author Charles Dickens. Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868) are classic examples of this genre.
Sherlock Holmes – A New Type of Hero
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s contribution to the Victorian detective story genre is almost in a class by itself, due to the overwhelming and ongoing popularity of his two famous characters: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
It wasn’t until after his first two novels about Holmes were published (Study in Scarlet – 1887 and The Sign of the Four – 1890) that Doyle came up with the idea of writing a series of stories about the same character. Over the next four decades, The Strand Magazine published more than 120 of Doyle’s short stories.
Podcast Celebrates the Victorian Detective Story
For those of you who are already fans of this genre … and those who just want to learn more … Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters encourage you to listen to their monthly podcast. Check out the schedule here: Tea, Tonic & Toxin.
As a way to get even more immersed in the stories, they’ve also created a book club, complete with a list of questions for each featured book. You can check out all of the podcast episodes here.)