Detective. Crime. Potboiler. Police Procedural. Cozy. Who Dunnit? Thriller or Spicy Romantic Suspense. How did the genre begin? Who wrote or perhaps told the first story? There were rudiments of detection in a few early works of fiction—similar to a 16th century Italian story translated into French in 1719 by Chevalier de Mailly and three years later translated into English. The story titled The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendip told of three princes who are asked questions about a camel and use the power of deduction to solve the mystery.
The English philosopher, William Godwin, wrote the Adventures of Caleb Williams in 1794. The characters in Godwin’s book include an amateur investigator and a relentless secret agent. That same year, Ann Radcliffe wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho—the story of Emily St. Aubert, an orphan with guardians both vicious and heartless. Imprisoned in the eerie castle of Udolpho in the sinister and imposing Apennines and facing the loss of her inheritance, she is at last freed by her lover. Radcliffe next wrote The Italian and became the most popular novelist in
A fugitive from French justice, Eugene Francois Vidocq, soon began offering his services as a police spy and informer. Victor Hugo based two characters, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert on Vidocq when he wrote Les Miserables. Vautran, in Honore Balzac’s Pere Goriot was also based on the former crook as was the fugitive in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Vidocq attained such success in his second career that he was made the first chief of the Surete in 1811 and directed a force of 28 detectives whose former activities ran afoul of the law. A master of disguise and surveillance, Vidocq, was also the first to make plaster-of-paris casts of shoe impressions, and possessed a patent on indelible ink. He wrote a best-seller titled Memoires which earned him a reputation as the world’s greatest detective.
Beginning with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in 1841—the first of the locked room mysteries—Edgar Allan Poe wrote what he called tales of reasoning. The Gold Bug, where the answer could be found in a veiled communication, The Mystery of Marie Roget—armchair detection—and the first comic detective story, Thou Art the Man. Wilkie Collins, known as “The King of Sensation,” launched the sensation novel with The Woman in White in 1860 and The Moonstone, considered by some to be his masterpiece, in 1868.
Anna Katherine Green began by writing romantic poetry—her verse went nowhere and she turned to writing her first novel The Leavenworth Case, published in 1878. the novel was admired by Collins, and the year’s best seller. She published approximately 40 books and developed the series detective—Ebenezer Gryce of the New York Metropolitan Police Force. In three of the Gryce novels, his associate is Amelia Butterworth; an inquisitive bachelor girl and member of society. Green also gave birth to the “girl detective,” with Violet Strange—a debutante who sidelined as a sleuth. Her plots included dead bodies in libraries, the coroner’s inquest and expert witnesses.
“Charles Felix,” was the pseudonym taken by an anonymous author. The story with illustrations by George du Maurier—the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier—was originally published as an eight part serial in a magazine called “Once a Week.” Publication began on
November 29, 1862. Bradbury and Evans, who published the series, then published it as a novel. No one knew the true identity of Charles Felix during his lifetime until 1952 when his name was discovered. Charles Warren Adams—the author—was a lawyer and the sole proprietor of Saunders, Otley & Co. which published another book by Charles Felix titled Velvet Lawn. His work lives on; an e-book version is now available.
The writing of mysteries is well into the third century and has developed over time. Literacy began its ascent during the Renaissance and as laypeople learned to read they acquired a hunger for the working out of dilemmas. Human reason—at least in books—remains triumphant.