The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England

November 17, 2011

When the first detective branch of the Metropolitan Police was formed in 1842, the new "Peelers" had existed for 13 years and were just shaking off a reputation as spies and quasi-military bullies. Then the Chartist troubles came along and the middle classes began to see the value in a uniformed force that would deal with public disorder and enforce rational civil behaviour. Haia Shpayer-Makov's new work on the history of detectives looks closely at these kinds of changes and influences in the development of plain-clothes men in the 19th century, through to the eve of the Great War. A history such as this has been needed for some time, and the author adds other interesting perspectives from which to view the new detectives. She deals not only with such topics as career plans, promotion and the move from uniform to detective work, but also discussions of detectives in fiction and the media. The last topic is especially interesting. Charles Dickens played a major role in this, as he spent time with sleuths and fictionalised them in his works. The new magazines gaining prominence in the late 19th century also took a keen interest in the detectives. The Strand Magazine, for example, included features on the Thames Police and on the training of bloodhounds.

Shpayer-Makov has written previously on the Victorian police, and her strengths are the close scrutiny of sources and fascinating use of both memoirs and obscure publications. This ability to provide a wide spectrum of reference adds depth to the topics under discussion. Her narrative reveals the diverse reasons men had for aspiring to do detective work and also, in contrast, the impact of political events and demographic change on the work of detectives, including the creation of the Special Branch and the emergence of more specialist work, as happened when fingerprinting came into operation at the end of the 19th century.

This is an ambitious book that aims to tell plenty of individual stories as well as explain the major events that influenced police work and made detectives more essential to everyday crime detection and prevention. Arguably the most engaging elements of the text are the inclusion of excerpts from detectives' memoirs and their explanations of what the work entailed. Then, as now, it was a mix of glamour and boredom, but there is no denying that the real professionalisation of the detective forces was slow in coming. By the 1930s, there were advanced courses at the Police College for the training of detectives, in everything from using photography to studying physiognomy.

Shpayer-Makov manages to explain a massive amount of material from a broad historical context, while at the same time guiding the reader through practical policing as well as through theoretical approaches. Overall, what underpins much of this history is the public's belief in the victory of the rational over the chaotic aspects of society, and it becomes clear as the book develops that the dominance of the detective in crime fiction was fuelled by that communal faith in the triumph of the "good copper" and the forces of order over the threat of anarchy and of master criminals.

This is a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship on the history of Victorian crime. It does what historical enquiry surely should always do: raises important questions about how the present has the configuration we perceive, and why we have that perception.

The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England

By Haia Shpayer-Makov. Oxford University Press 448pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780199577408. Published 29 September 2011

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