The role of Victorian detective fiction in the evolution of the crime literature genre is sometimes underappreciated these days, in part perhaps knocked into the shade by the bright, startling and oft lurid dust-jacket artwork that began to dominate in the 1920s (of which I confess to being a huge fan), and the global recognition of the big names from the Golden Age of detective fiction. However, the foundation stones for most of the tropes, plots, clichés and even forensic methods that we have come to expect from detective fiction today can be found in the stories of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Although there had been other dalliances with the genre before, detective fiction really came of age with Edgar Allan Poe's Tales, published in book-form in New York in 1845. This volume combined three stories featuring Poe's amateur sleuth and master of 'ratiocination', C. Auguste Dupin. The first of these, and the most famous, 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', is widely considered the first modern detective fiction title: 'Here was no trifling advance over the blunderings of the past, no mere pioneering or experimental effort. Here was the detective story, stepping boldly out of its  eggshell, "fully grown and armed to the teeth"' ('Ellery Queen', Queen's Quorum, p.10).

"Here was the detective story, stepping boldly out of its eggshell, 'fully grown and armed to the teeth'" - Ellery Queen

Waters, Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer by “Waters”, 1856
An early example of 'recollections'.

Despite Poe's sterling efforts (he wrote three more stories subsequently), the emerging genre took some time to ignite interest and gain traction, especially in America. Early works from this period are decidedly uncommon, especially in original condition. In Britain things took off a little quicker, aided in part by none other than that stalwart of Victorian literature, Charles Dickens, writing about friends' experiences as plainclothes detectives in a series of articles in 1850. This is where Victorian detective fiction really begins. These tales sparked a series of similar works, with diminishing foundation in fact but increasing investment in imagination, often featuring the words 'recollections', 'reminiscences' or 'experiences' in the titles. Within these lurk what are sometimes known as the 'Cities Mysteries', tales specific to a particular metropolis, i.e. Paris, Berlin, New York, London - a sub-sub-genre of Victorian detective fiction, if you will.

Such titles proved immensely popular, exciting the public imagination. Some are definitely better than others, but they were, appropriately, often somewhat procedural in their approach. The next cornerstone of modern detective fiction to be born from the Victorian era would have to be Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), an epistolary tale revolving around a purloined jewel, considered by G.K. Chesterton as 'probably the best detective tale in the world', and 'probably the very finest detective story ever written' by Dorothy L. Sayers.

"probably the very finest detective story ever written" - Dorothy L Sayers, re The Moonstone

Graham Greene, Dorothy Glover, Victorian Detective Fiction, Catalogue, 1966
Greene 's Victorian Detective Fiction catalogue

Collins had already had success, and fun, with the crime fiction genre, introducing a female detective in 1856 ('Diary of Anne Rodway'), and even introducing comedy into his 1858 story 'The Biter Bit'. With The Moonstone, he put in place elements that can be seen threading throughout the subsequent development of detective fiction: country house robbery, incompetent coppers, red herrings and plot twists, for example.

Graham Greene was so inspired by The Moonstone that he would go on to publish his own catalogue, Victorian Detective Fiction: A Catalogue of the Collection... (1966), a useful guide to the range of works published before and after Collins.

Female detectives come further to the fore from the 1860s onwards, though mostly (as far as we know anyway, given the application of anonymity or pseudonyms) written by male authors initially.

Early examples of such works include The Experiences of a Lady Detective (aka The Revelations of a Lady Detective), which first appeared we think in 1864, featuring the perspicacious Mrs. Paschal, one of the very first female detectives. Andrew Forrester’s Miss Gladden (or 'G') also appeared in print around this time.

George Sims, Dorcas Dene, Detective. Her Adventures, 2 vols, first editions
Victorian female detectives in action!
William Stephens Hayward, The Experiences of a Lady Detective, 1884
Revelations, Experiences, or a ghost story?

Somewhat later, but still considered important within the evolution of Victorian detective fiction, came Dorcas Dene, created by George R. Sims.

Sims was intrigued by the psychology of crime; Dorcas Dene, and her ‘Council of Four’ (comprising her mother, her blind artist husband, their dog Toddlekins[!] and herself) solved numerous crimes and mysteries, much to the delight of the burgeoning crime fiction buying public.

Grant Allen, famously author of the at-the-time scandalous The Woman Who Did (1895), created two female detectives for the popular market, Hilda Wade and Miss Cayley, but in the context of detective fiction he is best known for An African Millionaire. Episodes in the Life of the illustrious Colonel Clay, a classic of 'rogue fiction', popularising elements such as the use of disguises and international jet-setting.

Allen Grant, An African Millionaire, first edition, 1897
Grant Allen's African Millionaire
Anna Katharine Green, Filigree Ball, first edition, 1903
One of Anna Katharine Green's later titles

To offset this literary cross-dressing to some degree, the first Victorian detective fiction novel was written by a woman, and an American to boot; The Leavenworth Case (1878), by Anna Katharine Green. This author, sometimes known as 'the mother of the detective story', wrote well plotted, legally accurate stories which distinguished her writing from her contemporaries, and on many levels defined the shape of detective fiction to come, notably influencing Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and even perhaps 'Carolyn Keene'.

Arthur Conan Doyle is obviously not a name that can be mentioned solely in passing here... Sherlock Holmes without question ranks as one of the defining characters of the Victorian period, numbered among the most beloved characters of English literature, and for many represents the preeminent detective of criminality and mystery. Appearing in serialised form in The Strand Magazine, beginning with 'A Scandal in Bohemia' in 1891, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes would go on to become a global phenomenon.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [With] The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
The Adventures & Memoirs, first separate editions

All the first editions of Arthur Conan Doyle's books from the 19th century are highly collectable, but to find first editions in book form of the earliest Sherlock Holmes works in anything approximating original condition is challenging; Holmes' first appearance, A Study in Scarlet (1887), either in book form or in Beeton's Christmas Annual for the same year, is notoriously scarce.

Hound of the Baskervilles, first edition
Hound of the Baskervilles, first edition

The wonderful first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), with its excellent decorative binding and plates by Sidney Paget, continues to go up in value with each year it seems. What one would have to pay now for a copy in the original dust-jacket almost defies imagination...a six figure objet d'art...

Fergus W. Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, second edition, 1887
Mystery of a Hansom Cab, 1887

Victorian detective fiction is also great for the emergence of the 'sensation novel', popular works often cheaply produced for mass consumption, sometimes as 'Penny Dreadfuls' or 'Yellowbacks', often with eye-catching wrappers or covers. This is a popular area of collecting in its own right. One of the most famous of these was Australian author Fergus Hume's Mystery of a Hansom Cab, originally published in Australia in 1886, then in the UK and USA in 1887. Hume's work is seen by many as a bridge between sensational fiction and detective fiction, and played an important role in globally establishing the latter genre more firmly.

The distinction between Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction is blurred, not least as authors such as Conan Doyle had works published in both eras. New authors brought new approaches to the genre to an ever-ready and blossoming readership; R. Austin Freeman's forensic Dr Thorndyke for example, or Chesterton's empathic Father Brown. New sub-genres also sprouted, such as 'railway murder', and other new experiments with the locked room paradigm.

Collecting Victorian Detective Fiction

With works ranging from the 1840s to early 1900s, there is a usefully broad array of entry-points for those looking to collect Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction, allowing for a range of price-points. Many works have excellent original covers, from the more lurid pulps through to the fine pictorial cloth bindings that grace first editions of authors such as M.M. Bodkin and Louis Tracy. Very early works can be difficult to date correctly, and some books have tricky issue points that may require speaking to a specialist about.

Check out the British Library for more information on crime and crime fiction.