History: The Detective novel has always been
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related to public interest in the problems of modern, urban life, particularly in crime. But crime as a feature of Western social life was not generally recognized until the rise of large cities in the early 1800s, a period that corresponds to the creation of a mass reading public. Fascinated by and afraid of crime, new city-dwellers vilified and romanticized criminals, as well as those who fought them.

The first writing on urban crime pretended to be documentary, but it was filled with archetypes and plots from preceding fiction, particularly the gothic novel. The idea of detection and the figure of the detective that would eventually stand at the center of the genre were introduced in the early nineteenth century by a Frenchman, Francois-Eugene Vidocq in his Memoirs of Vidocq. Having served as a soldier, privateer, smuggler, inmate, and secret police spy, Vidocq at age twenty-four credited himself with a duel for every year of his life. The Paris police accepted his offer of his "security services" in 1812, and shortly he established his own department, the Surete, which became the French equivalent of the American F.B.I. In a typical year, William Ruehlmann reports, "Vidocq had twelve men working for him, and between them they made 811 arrests, including 15 assassins, 341 thieves and 38 receivers of stolen property." 1 When Vidocq's Memoirs were published in France in 1828, they were immediately popular and translated into English. Honore de Balzac modelled the character of Vautrin on him in Le Pere Goriot (1833), and Victor Hugo did the same with Jean Valjean in Les Misérables(1862)

Interest in England in "crime stories" blended with a strong, existing genre called the gothic novel. Most scholars attribute this genre to Horace Walpole, whose Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, established the horror story, to which Mary Shelley added scientific aspects with Frankenstein (1818). The gothic influence is said to account for the dark settings, unfathomable motivations, and preoccupation with brilliant or unexpected solutions in the detective/mystery genre. Among English writers, Vidocq most influenced Charles Dickens, who used detail and character from Vidocq's Memoirs for his Great Expectations (1861).

In the United States, Edgar Allan Poe read Dickens, and he read and reread Vidocq. In five stories between 1840 and 1845, Poe laid out the basics of the detective story, which underlie much hard-boiled fiction. In "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe introduced his brilliant, eccentric detective, C. Auguste Dupin, whose solutions were chronicled by an admiring, amiable narrator. Later detectives, notably Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, became even more eccentric, and Poe's nameless narrator had his counterpart in the amiable Dr. Watson. In "Rue Morgue," Poe introduced three common motifs of detective fiction: the wrongly suspected man, the crime in the locked room, and the solution by unexpected means. Dupin solved the crime by reading the evidence better than the police did and by noticing clues that they had neglected, thus highlighting the importance of inference and observation.

In a second story, "The Purloined Letter," Poe invented the plot of the stolen document, the recovery of which ensures the safety of some important person. Dupin solved this crime by two more important formulae: deduction through psychological insight into the protagonists, and a search for evidence in the most obvious place. In the third Dupin story, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," Poe introduced and developed the crime by recounting newspaper clippings, a technique that later attracted the literary realists and is still used. Though this mystery contained no solution (it was in court at the time), leaving the reader to deduce a solution, it marked the beginning of the genre's use of and competition with newspapers in presenting the "truth about crime" to readers. (more)