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The Development of Detective Fiction :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

The Development of Detective Fiction

The rise of the short story and the detective story can be contributed in large part to the success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories published in George Newnes’s Strand Magazine (Priestman 41).  Newnes strategically juxtaposed “fragmented selections of events from the contemporary world as a form of amusement for the mass public” (Priestman 41).  Detective novels functioned as a diversion from reality, while relying on facts.  Each tale was self-contained, so that every conclusion satisfied readers, but also managed to stimulate their appetite for another similar mystery (Priestman 43).  Detective fiction offered a more comprehensive view of crime, its origins, and the means of detection as a way of solving crime.  Readers appreciated detective fiction for its ability to make readers think critically about and question the world around them.  The thinking that emerged from the Enlightenment movement appealed to human reason, and the subsequent desire for society to understand and interpret the nature of crime and its detection.  Reading detective fiction also allowed readers to indulge in extraordinary reading through “suspending disbelief and ignoring the extranuclear realities of the author’s fabrication” (Delamater and Prigozy 31).  While intellectuals were able to detect and analyze crime, not everything they did was coherent and realistic. As the central character, the detective had to be a source of knowledge and authority, while also capturing the readers’ attention.  Readers were “hooked” by this new genre and became wrapped up in the details of crime, especially the mannerisms and methods of the detective.

“Ideal imago” detectives, identified more by themselves than for the actual crimes they solve, maintain the moral code in a dysfunctional society and help explain the audience of mature readers who make detective fiction so popular (Delamater and Prigozy 2).  Serving as an embodiment of the ideal imago, detectives “signify the conscious and unconscious ideal images an individual uses to uphold and enhance his or her management of reality” (Delamater and Prigozy 30).  Holmes is perhaps the most recognized “ideal imago” detective of all time.  Much of the excitement surrounding Holmes was concerned with his ability convey the ordinary world as extraordinary.  Readers were fascinated with his methods of detection and personality quirks.  Ultimately, however, readers must find a detective whom they can identify with in order for ideal images to enter and become a sustainable part of the reader’s mind (Delamater and Prigozy 30).  Readers could relate to Holmes because he embodied the ideal Victorian.  Briefly, Holmes’s profession was simply who he was, what he knew, and how he thought (Priestman 50).  Ousby insists, “to Holmes, criminals and human problems are simply scientific puzzles, opportunities for a display of expertise” (156).  Detective work came naturally to Holmes precisely because of the way he had grown up and the interests he had taken as an adult.  His confident and calm demeanor ultimately captured the attention of readers who were looking for a credible source of entertainment.

Holmes relied on logic and practical methods to solve crime.  Holmes’s methods “combine the scientist’s precision and attention to detail with the flamboyance of the showman and the preux chevalier’s passion for justice and mercy” (Ousby 140).  Not only was Holmes a detective in the traditional sense, but he also acted as the “great detective” in a theatrical and heroic sense.  Towards the end of the Baskerville case, Holmes declares, “I shall soon be in the position of being able to put into a single connected narrative one of the most singular and sensational crimes of modern times” (Doyle 884).  Holmes was vaulted to a high position in society as a result of his solving crimes and mysteries outside the realm of ordinary police work.  Detectives served as exemplary objects because of their enviable ability to solve mysteries and maintain a sense of morality even when others around them fail (Delamater and Prigozy 30).  Holmes took great pride in his detective skills and received new motivation each time he solved a mystery.

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