By K.P. Gresham
Believe it or not, the mystery novel is considered a “young” form of literature. Yep, that’s right. Mystery fiction didn’t exist before 19th century England. Many suggest two reasons why this was the case. First, the ability to read was now reaching “below” the upper class educated citizens. Farmers and factory workers and children were being taught to read. Secondly, back then, most towns relied instead on constables and night watchmen. No centralized police forces existed.
So what happened that caused the change in policing? The public’s morbid national obsession with murder.
Two cases in particular were instrumental in beginning this fixation on crime, according to Lucy Worsley, chief curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity responsible for maintaining the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, and more.
In her BBC four-part series, “A Very British Murder” (2013), Worsley suggests that the first murder, known as The Radcliffe Highway Murders, took place in 1811. Only a constable was available to the poor maid who realized something dreadful had happened when she returned to the home of her employers only to find the door locked, and a woman screaming inside. The newspapers hyped the crime, stirring the public into a frenzy.
Sussex Advertiser | 16 December 1811
Then, less than a week later, a second family was attacked and murdered. Sensationalism reached a fever pitch.
Star (London) | 20 December 1811
Eventually John Williams was arrested and charged with the crimes. He committed suicide in his jail cell before the trial, though his trial was carried on without him. It was speculated that this was done to calm the public’s fear.
The second case, “The Red Barn Murder”, took place in 1826. Here a woman was found dead in a barn, apparently the victim of an elopement gone wrong. Again, the public fixated on the murder to the extent that a very macabre execution took place. On 11 August 1828, the convicted murderer, John Corder, was taken to the gallows and hanged shortly before noon in front of a large crowd. One newspaper claimed that there were 7,000 spectators, another as many as 20,000. But that wasn’t all. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The crowds were allowed to file past until six o’clock, when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people lined up to see the body.
So now the British public was ripe to read anything that would feed their fascination with murder. All it needed was a writer to satiate their thirst.
Enter Edgar Allen Poe and his short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” which was published in Graham’s Magazine in 1849. It has been described as the first modern detective story and featured the world’s first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Though Baltimore-born Poe was known in America for his literary critiques (several of which named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a plagiarist), he was much more popular in Great Britain where he became well-known as an author.
(It should be noted that two books are also considered early mysteries but had little following due to their foreign languages. The first may have been Voltaire’s Zadig written in 1747, and Das Fraulein von Scuderi by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1819.)
And the floodgates opened. Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White was published in 1860. Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887. Doyle’s series is credited with being singularly responsible for the huge popularity of the mystery genre.
Mystery novels have gone far beyond the private detective motif. The genre now covers romantic suspense, noir, cozies, thrillers, traditional, etc.: even comic books, graphic novels and web-based detective series now carry on the mystery tradition.
I read mysteries, watch mystery movies, (probably have most of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies memorized line by line), and write mysteries. However, I had no idea I was entertained by such a “young” form of literature.
So, whodunnit next?
Note: Sources for this blog included Lucy Worsley’s BBC’s four-part series, A Very British Mystery, and the Biblio Blog “What Exactly is a Mystery Book”.
K.P. Gresham, Author
Professional Character Assassin
K.P. Gresham is the award-winning author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series as well as several stand-alone novels. Active in Sisters in Crime and the Writers League of Texas, she has won Best Novel awards from the Bay Area Writers League as well as Mystery Writers of America.
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