The canonical history of the crime fiction genre begins in 1841 with a story about an orang-outang roaming free in Paris with murderous consequences. Edgar A. Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue is almost undoubtedly the first detective story and the model for many more to come – but does its appearance really mark the beginning of the genre? It may sound like a weird, even silly, question to ask and yet it isn’t. Let me explain.
Genres like civilizations have their prehistories. Those are long periods during which the constitutive elements of the new literary form slowly – sometimes very slowly – coalesce until the genre finds its definitive shape, and becomes self-aware and recognizable as a separate entity. That’s where the problem with Morgue arises.
Poe never intended to start a new genre, though he was aware that his « tales of ratiocination » were a novelty and were popular with readers, much to his surprise. He didn’t see any particular merit to them except as vehicles for his ideas about the power of creative genius to see beyond the appearances – and also more prosaically as convenient ways to make some much-needed money. What’s more, the fact that no one else in his lifetime tried their hand at writing some couldn’t but convince him that their life expectancy was a short one. Rue Morgue thus fails our test: it is indeed a detective story but not a self-aware one and neither its author or his audience recognized it as such.
Most post-Poe detective fiction suffers from the same problem of authors « accidentally » writing detective stories, without realizing them to be a new type of fiction. Wilkie Collins for instance may well have written « the first, the longest and the best British detective novel » as T.S. Eliot enthusiastically and memorably put it, but he certainly didn’t do it on purpose. It just so happened that crimes and detectives were popular at the time so that he decided to write a story involving both, just like his good friend Charles Dickens had done a decade before with his mammoth novel Bleak House. The difference, that would prove to be crucial, was that Collins was a defter, shrewder plotter than Dickens and made the mystery the prime focus of his book instead of one of many subplots. Dickens wanted to teach and preach; Collins wanted to thrill and mystify – and that’s why The Moonstone ended being a detective novel even though no one noticed at the time.
Gaboriau is a different case, as he was probably one of the first professional detective story writers, devoting himself almost completely to the genre. Also, and unlike Poe and Collins, he was perfectly aware that the kind of stories he wrote were a genre in themselves – « judiciary novels » as he and contemporary reviewers called them. He was also the earliest writer to outline the concept of misdirection and make frequent use of it. So do we have finally found our missing link, the gateway from the prehistory of the genre to its actual history? Well, yes and no.
Yes, because Gaboriau’s books are the first to be recognized by both the author and his audience as a separate genre, no matter what name it was given at this stage. No, because his brand of detective fiction while indeed a major step on the way to « the real thing » nevertheless was not yet « the real thing ». The mystery is not the prime or exclusive focus of his books, which tend to be equally concerned with the events than led to the crime than with the crime itself that ends being but an episode in a wider narrative. Gaboriau to his credit may have been aware of these limitations as his later work is more focused, as evidenced by the marvelous novella Le Petit Vieux des Batignolles which may be his most « modern » work, hinting at where he might have gotten at had he not died so young.
So where are we now? We have discarded the three writers most commonly cited as « fathers of the detective story » and it didn’t take us very far. The truth is, nineteenth-century detective fiction is a muddy place where you easily get lost because there is no map. The genre in its modern form is much easier to navigate because we know what it is and what it is not. Our ancestors didn’t have that luxury and may not even have cared, as evidenced by the incredibly long time it took them to finally settle on a name for the kind of fiction they wrote. How can we be expected to say that this or that is a detective story when the person who wrote it didn’t know either? Any answer can’t but be arbitrary.
More to come someday. Maybe.