Welcome to the exhilarating world of classic detective, crime, and murder mystery fiction.
The books on this website are the world's best books in the genre. These books set the genre in motion, introduced new ideas that have become standard in the field, and began whole schools of detective fiction -- each with a devoted following of its own. There is a reason for this: Good storytelling, a strong dose of mystery, a detective (often eccentric, always a character!) for one to match wits with, and an often-surprising conclusion all combined to produce an irresistible effect upon readers. And to keep them coming back for more. These books were interactive long before the computer age arrived.
In 1941, Howard Haycraft published his landmark book-length history of the detective story -- Murder for Pleasure -- "...in observance of the Centennial Year of the first detective story, Edgar Allan Poe's 'Murders in the Rue Morgue'."
But what led up to the first detective story? Was there a day before which there was no literature of this type and after which there was? Were there precursors or prototypes?
There were. Dorothy L. Sayers -- herself a master
craftswoman and major contributor to the field -- wondered why there had
been no detective stories earlier than Poe's story "The Murders in the
Rue Morgue." After all, puzzle fiction had been around for centuries --
nay, millennia -- and protagonists of these stories had all the
apparent elements of a good detective. They were observant, and they
deduced logical conclusions from their observations. And, indeed, many
elements from these early prototypes appeared when the genre had
presented itself. (To this end, Sayers included two apocryphal tales of
Daniel -- "The Story of Bel and the Dragon" and "Susanna and the Elders"
-- in her masterful and important anthology, Omnibus of Crime.)
Howard Haycraft responded to her question. There were no detective stories, he said, because there were no detectives in real life. Haycraft tells us that the earliest appearance of the word "detective" in print was in 1843, according to the Oxford Dictionary, "but it was probably in spoken circulation considerably before that date." But, he tells us, lurid "memoirs" of the Bow Street runners "had begun to appear in England as early as 1827." Before this, crimes had been handled by the military, who often rounded up an innocent simply to appease the public and lay its fears to rest.
Then, in 1829, Francois Eugene Vidocq published his Memoirs. Vidocq (July 23, 1775 to May 11, 1857) was a rascal in his youth and had committed a number of crimes. He was imprisoned for his crimes, but escaped -- then tried to arrange an amnesty by offering his services to the Police. He became an informer, first in prison but later at large. Eventually he suggested that a plainclothes division of the police force be created, and this became the Brigade de Surete (or "Brigade of Security"). This later became the Surete Nationale.
In 1833, Vidocq founded his own agency, Le bureau de renseignments ("Office of Intelligence"). This is the first known private detective agency.
When he published his Memoirs, they became fodder for debate. He had claimed to do so much that many people believe they are largely a work of fiction themselves. Indeed, they influenced many writers who drew their ideas using this book as a source. Haycraft calls Poe "the Father of Detective Story," but Ellery Queen says Vidocq is "the Grandfather of the Detective Story" because of his Memoirs and their influence on the genre. Emile Gaboriau, particularly, was influenced by Vidocq's writings as he created his own fictional detectives, Pere Tabaret and Monsieur Lecoq.
Several movies have been made about his life: A Scandal in Paris (1946, with George Sanders, Akim Tamaroff, and Gene Lockhart); Vidocq (2001, with Gerard Depardieu).
But there is also a "Great-Grandfather" of the detective story -- the French philosopher Voltaire, who wrote (among his philosophical treatises) a book called Zadig. The protagonist, Zadig, displays the talents of a first-rate detective himself. There is a story in the book about a shepherd tending his flock. The king in the region "lost" his camel -- that is to say, it wandered away from his palace grounds. The king sent his horsemen to find it and bring it back.
When his men came upon the shepherd, they asked him if he had seen a camel. To paraphrase the story, the shepherd responded, "Was he blind in his right eye?"
"Yes he was," said the horsemen.
"Was he lame in his left foreleg?"
"Yes, that's him!"
"Was he missing a tooth in the center of the upper portion of his mouth?"
"Yes! That's him!."
The shepherd says, "No, I haven't seen him." Before he can say any more, the king's horsemen grab him and return to the palace. They bring the shepherd to the king, to whom they say, "Sire, this man claims not to have seen your camel, yet he describes the beast perfectly."
The shepherd says to the king, "Well, sire, I knew he was blind in his right eye for an obvious reason. The grass was equally lush and suitable for grazing on both sides of the path. Yet the camel only ate from the left, as I could see from his tracks on the path and from the eaten grass.
"He was lame in his left foreleg. I could tell this
because the impression in the earth on the path was not as deep as with
the other three legs, indicating that he limped.
"And as for his missing tooth, each time he bit into
the grass, a tuft of grass remained precisely where the tooth in the
upper center of his mouth should be.
"I was about to direct your men to the direction that the camel followed from the signs he left, but they grabbed me before I had the chance."
Well, okay, I'm paraphrasing the story to give you the flavor for how it went. You can read the actual version, as translated from the French, in the Reading Room, where you can sample a number of complete short stories, or selections from longer works of this time period. Just pull up a comfortable, stuffed easy chair, put on your favorite "jammies" and bunny slippers -- or your hideous purple smoking jacket (a la Sherlock Holmes!) -- get a mug of fresh, hot chocolate, or your favorite pipe and tobacco, or a good cigar (yes, atmosphere contributes to a good time, doesn't it?), and curl up for a good read.
All of what was described above was to lead up to the
first detective stories, during what Howard Haycraft calls the
"Genesis" of the detective story -- the period that began with Edgar
Allan Poe in 1841.