Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock, by Clare Clarke

Sharon Wheeler applauds a rigorous and passionate appraisal of Conan Doyle’s literary contemporaries

January 8, 2015

If you’re a die-hard noir fan convinced that the mean streets opened for business only when Raymond Chandler came along, then think again. And if you reckon that compared with Sherlock Holmes, all the other Victorian sleuths were decent, honest coves who would help old ladies across the street, then you might want to reconsider that as well.

In this engrossing book, literary scholar Clare Clarke has uncovered some long-forgotten texts and invited a couple of old friends along as she sets out to examine the detective as criminal, the bad guy as the hero and societies where crimes may well go unsolved – as well as London, the books take in Australia and India. She introduces us to a master of disguise (yes, another one), a dodgy private enquiry agent, all manner of indolent young men about town and a bent copper. There is a moral complexity to a number of these novels, she contends, that has previously been overlooked.

Along the way, Clarke places the burgeoning crime fiction genre in the context of the growth of the police force and the modern bureaucratic state. And she sets out to nail a few myths. As she observes, “The Holmes of the popular imagination is often little more than an agglomeration of vague (and sometimes inaccurate) details gleaned from later adaptations – hansom cabs, fog, Baker Street, murder, deerstalker hats, drug addiction and ‘bromance’ with Watson.”

Readers may raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), which rarely features on lists of early crime fiction and typically sports a gothic/horror label tied around its toe. But Clarke argues that its moral ambiguity fits well with her other texts. And her discussion of the Sherlock Holmes short stories in chapter three allows her to tease out the problematic relationship between money, work and morality.

The book’s heart, though, is the batch of neglected texts – Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), Israel Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery (1891), Arthur Morrison’s The Dorrington Deed-Box (1897) and Guy Boothby’s A Prince of Swindlers (1897). Even though their quality is erratic (Boothby was the archetypal hack novelist, with more than 50 books under his belt and a reputation for being a sloppy writer), Clarke makes a convincing and spirited defence for their being worthy of examination. They show clearly the early emergence of crime noir, complete with recurring themes of corrupt cops, scheming upper classes, grinding poverty in the urban slums, no one brought to justice and the message that, quite often, crime does pay.

Boothby’s short stories feature an English master criminal who lives in India, which allows Clarke a perceptive discussion of Edward Said’s “otherness” in relation to the hero, cross-cultural figures and the Victorian issue of empire. Meanwhile, Zangwill (known as the “Dickens of the Ghetto”) showed the subversive possibilities of the genre, with a satire on press coverage of the police and murder. We discover that the hero cop dunnit – so that his memoirs, running to countless reprints, will sell!

This rigorous and passionate book will make you want to sprint to Project Gutenberg in search of the texts, as well as give you a keen appreciation of just why Victorian magazine editors vied to find the next Arthur Conan Doyle.

Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock

By Clare Clarke
Palgrave Macmillan, 232pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780230390539
Published 26 September 2014

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