The Victorian fascination with crime was nothing new. Crime had been a significant part of British entertainment for generations: before the invention of the printing press, even the most upstanding citizens spread the reputations of nefarious criminals through ballads. However, the fascination with criminality in a Victorian sense – through sensationalism and the glorification of both criminals and law enforcement alike for popular entertainment – came after the English Revolution, when ordinary people took the opportunity to think more deeply about their government and how it should go about punishing wrongdoers (Panek 8).
During the eighteenth century, the new Parliamentarian government set a harsh standard by implementing a broad category for hanging offenses. Citizens could be hung for almost any crime along the spectrum from stealing or damaging a park to murder or treason. During this time period, no police force existed, and citizens took charge in turning in criminals to the government. Additionally, the eighteenth century saw an increase in literacy and in newspaper distribution. Broadsides, magazines, and other forms of print media sensationalized criminals such as Dick Turpin, making them out to be admirable celebrities who had simply taken a wrong turn in pursuing a life of crime. This sentiment was echoed in the Newgate Calendars, published by the ordinary, or chaplain, of Newgate Prison. The ordinary compiled biographies of prisoners and published them in several volumes; before the nineteenth century, there were over four hundred in circulation (Panek 11). Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, these biographies reflected citizens’ changing attitudes toward the law and their involvement in philosophizing about it. They not only reflected a change in attitude from a “lives of the sinners” approach to a “lives of the saints” approach (Panek 11), but became more intellectual in nature as they often featured treatises on the law and analyses of existing English punishment systems (Panek 12-14). Newgate novel culture, sensationalizing England’s criminals through popular publications, continued well into the 1840s.
As citizens and their Parliamentary representatives thought more intellectually about the nature of crime, they began to think of solutions to what was becoming a huge problem. Urban London was a hotbed of crime of all types, and without an official police force crime remained rampant. The Fielding brothers of London implemented a solution: the “Bow Street Runners,” an early band of detective-policemen employed to catch criminals. It did not take long for these detectives to become ingrained in the public’s imagination. The first long work of fiction chronicling detective work, Thomas Gaspey’s Richmond: Scenes from the Life of a Bow-Street Runner, was published in 1827 and was based on experiences of these figures. Some of these men went on to become famous detectives in the mid-nineteenth century, but only after the rise in popularity of detective fiction (Panek 16-18).
The inaugural work of detective fiction that inspired Doyle – the short story – came from America. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” inspired by his experiences in the city of Philadelphia before an established police force, presented a deeply analytical detective hero and a storyline built around puzzle-solving. This plot, the driving force of many detective short stories and novels, attracted a reading public to the mystery genre almost immediately. Another groundbreaking feature of Poe’s story was the focus on the detective himself. No longer was the focus on the criminal or even delivering justice in the end: just like for the detective, the thrill for the reader is in the chase (Panek 48-52). In fact, Poe’s story and literary methodology directly inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the Sherlock Holmes stories.