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Setting the Stage for Sherlock



Rob Hardy


Early Victorian Britain was proud that it had no detectives. Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, conversely, was proud of its detectives, and everyone still knows of the most famous one, Sherlock Holmes. He might be fictional, but he rose at the time detective forces rose within Britain, and there are necessarily links between the legend of Holmes and the reality of British police services. The links, and much more, are investigated in The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oxford University Press) by Haia Shpayer-Makov. The author teaches history in Israel, but has written previously on the history of the British police. Her current work is heavily academic and extensively researched and footnoted; the first part gives the details of the history of the growth of the branches of the detective service (necessarily concentrating on London), recruitment, pay, and so on, and will be of interest mostly to experts in the history of police work. The second part has to do with how detectives were presented within the print media, in newspapers, fiction, and in memoirs, and will be of interest to the fans who enjoy the eternal fascination of Holmes, as well as his many fictional counterparts.  




Britain had police forces before it had detectives. The rise of the detectives described in this book was due to a change in philosophy about what the police were to do. When the Metropolitan Police of London were formed in 1829, they were explicitly given duties for the prevention of crime. Prevention was held to be the way to success against crime, and not detection work in solving crimes or punishment thereafter. Patrolmen in uniform, for instance, would be a constant reminder to all who saw them on the street that someone was watching for violations. The uniform was essential as a reminder of sovereignty and dominance. Police detection of crime, as opposed to police prevention of crime, was in a completely different category. It was reckoned a French phenomenon that was to be avoided, because detectives assumed false identities, wore plain clothes to hide that they were policemen, spied on citizens, and poked into private lives. In the first part of the nineteenth century, crime victims who had the finances could hire "thief-takers" to bring criminals to justice. While this worked, it also led to collusion with criminals, blackmail, and the framing of innocent people, just the sort of thing citizens did not want their policemen to be doing. In 1842, The Times warned that detectives would "hang about popular meetings and suspicious corners - to collect rumours, and recollect misdemeanours - to watch and store up random words and unintended disclosures - to find out what they were never intended to know, and to make instant communication, and, if necessary, use of it." The wearing of a disguise was particularly feared; The Times said that it would be better "even to dispense with a detective department altogether than to employ this 'evil means'." 




The administrators of the new police force gradually realized that while uniformed men out in public might keep some crimes from happening, if a crime did happen, it was unlikely that a policeman would be easily available to interrupt it and that some arrangement had to be made to investigate and trace criminals after the fact. Murders, to give the most dramatic example, were simply not committed when a policeman might be around, but committed they were. The press praised the preventive capacity of the policemen, but complained that the police had less capacity to investigate a completed crime than the old Bow Street Runners, which had been tainted with corruption and dismantled in 1839. It was realized that a force out of uniform might help with protecting foreign dignitaries, with watching Chartists or anarchists or Fenians, as well as in getting evidence about crimes already committed. 




So tentatively, the police began to form detective forces, recruiting the new detectives from the police ranks. Thus, detectives were ordinary policemen who had somehow shown higher intelligence and competence, although since policemen in general had previously been mere manual laborers, the qualification of the detective was not that different from that of the uniformed policeman. Recruiting gentlemen was tried, but these gentlemen were found to be, said a contemporary report, "less trustworthy, less reliable, and more difficult to control than those who enter a calling such as the police in the ordinary manner." The non-gentlemanly detectives might not merit a trust that they would uphold gentlemanly values, but they proved to be useful, and especially Scotland Yard became a well known consultant service for solving crimes. 




The press was vitally interested in Scotland Yard and in detectives in general. One of the keenest admirers of the detectives was Charles Dickens, who interviewed detectives and went about with them on their investigations, writing admiring pieces like "The Modern Science of Thief-Taking" for his magazine Household Words in 1850. He also introduced detectives into his stories, like the reliable Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Indeed, the newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were carrying supportive stories about detection in general. The detective forces developed a symbiotic relationship with the tabloid press, which got information from the police for crime stories and in return published favorable reports about successful detections. It was such steps, the author says, that made detectives an accepted part of British policing. 




It was not all smooth. The worries about secrecy would manifest in 1877 when high detective officers were convicted of complicity in a betting scandal they were supposed to be investigating. While many crimes that could not be solved were not mentioned by the press or were simply forgotten, this was not true of the Jack the Ripper case in 1888, the investigation of which was bungled and the fascination for which still has not faded. Nonetheless, the curiosity of the public over what detectives did was high, and the print media found new ways to satisfy it. Whereas Jonathan Wild or Dick Turpin might have been turned into literary (anti-)heroes, the author traces how detectives in stories gradually became the dominant figures. There was a fashion for pseudo-memoirs of detectives, and as it declined, Sherlock Holmes came on the scene.  




A case could be made that the blurring of fiction and fact within the pseudo-memoirs made it likely that readers would think that Holmes was a real character. His extraordinary figure runs through many of the chapters here. Holmes was not a police detective, but the distinction between the private detective and the police detective was not always clear in reality. Some stories had the police detective functioning in a private capacity, and this was in accord with real practice by off-duty policemen. The pseudo-memoirs were always written as if by a police detective who solves the case, but in other detective fiction, private investigators like Holmes eventually predominated. Not only did private investigators predominate numerically, but they overcame the police detectives who would make wrong assumptions, arrest the wrong person, and miss vital clues. In the later Holmes stories, however, the police detectives were more competent, perhaps reflecting the good nonfiction press they had been getting. The final chapter here is about the nonfiction memoirs of detectives, and as might be expected, many of the former detectives specifically cited their infuriation with Holmes and his slighting attitude toward their peers. A detective could write little while on the force except for articles to police journals, but in retirement, many used their memoirs to advance the cause of police detection. They seldom battled against their image in the daily press, but often specifically criticized the superhuman detection capability of Holmes, and especially argued how little they used the despised practice of adopting disguises, whereas Holmes was a genius at that suspicious art. 




Shpayer-Makov seems to have read all the obscure pulp novels, all the forgotten memoirs (actual and pseudo), and all the newspaper stories. This is a detailed and well-organized look at the British detective at the scene of the crime, in the newspaper, and in novels. At the start of this rich historical account, the very idea of a detective force is acceptable to no members of any class within Britain, and by the end, the detective is regarded as, if not a hero, then at least a stolid, hardworking official with the best interests of the public at heart. An ascent indeed. 




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