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Crime fiction is by no means a new idea, but its widespread popularity as its own literary and cinematic genre is a relatively new development. Crime has been used as a plot device in literature throughout history (religious texts, Islamic oral tales, Ming Dynasty literature, medieval stories, Shakespearean plays, etc.), but until the nineteenth century, it was never recognized as its own genre. Today the genre is so prevalent that it is broken down into various subgenres such as horror, psychological and legal thrillers, detective fiction, police and forensic procedurals, and many more. For the sake of this essay, the focus will be on crime fiction through its first stages of development, when it was just beginning to take on a life of its own, and before mystery fiction became its own distinct genre. Many sources and scholars identify the nineteenth century (more specifically, 19th century England) as the birthplace of this beloved and increasingly popular genre. The Victorian Age brought about a whole new take on crime — both true and fictional. It is thanks to the Victorians that we can enjoy this genre and everything it has come to be. Crime fiction flourished in the nineteenth century because of the Victorians: their environment, philosophies, culture, and shrewd publishers.
To begin to unravel the mystery behind the sudden explosion of crime fiction, it is crucial to understand the Victorians and the environment they found themselves in. The British Industrial Revolution was in full swing at the turn of the nineteenth century. (“Industrial Revolution”) Things were changing rapidly, and those who could adapt survived. The middle and lower classes had some semblance of hope that they could change their lot in life, and the lucrative promise of urban living sent peasants and farmers to cities in droves. However, metropolitan overpopulation proved to dash many of these dreams. The 1801 census recorded a population of about one million, which would grow by more than seven hundred percent by the end of the century. (Emsley et al.) Technology was evolving quickly, but not enough to keep up with the increasing concentration of people. Victorian London is infamous for its filth and depravity. Sewers, landfills, and graveyards were ill-equipped to handle the sheer volume of waste produced. Bodies were overflowing the burial sites, excrement filled the Thames, and rotting garbage littered the streets. In a time before environmental regulations, pollution from factories sat in the air like an ever-present fog cloud. (Emsley et al.) Of course, there were simply not enough jobs to accommodate such a massive influx of people. Extreme poverty plagued the city, and the lower class was juxtaposed with the upper classes. Crime was ever-present and getting worse. Civic unrest became such a problem that in 1829, London officials commissioned the creation of the first centralized civil police force — the London Metropolitan Police Force. While met with contention at first (according to Judith Flanders, the public saw them as a “civilian army”), the Police Force quickly expanded and became quite popular. The public went so far as to choose favorites and condemn those they saw as fools. The police were mainly concerned with the prevention of crime, and soon realized it was also necessary to find a way to track down a perpetrator once a crime was committed. A Detective Force was created in 1842 for this purpose, and the public could not have been more interested. (Flanders)
Another phenomenon worth investigating in the effort to understand why crime fiction became popular is the changing philosophies and ideologies of the time. The Victorian Era succeeded the Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic period, both times of great questioning and reason. Many folks were still rejecting the idea of organized religion and embracing spiritualism instead. Occultism was not as popular with the Victorians as it was in the Renaissance; pseudosciences took over, offering what seemed to be a more logical way of renouncing the Old Faith. (Kobritz) As crime and true crime reporting increased, people did not perceive death as God’s will any longer. Death could be untimely, and death could be prevented or even reversed. People began to think of literacy as a necessary skill, rather than something reserved for the wealthy. Men and women of all classes began to read. This could be partially attributed to folks in the lower and middle classes wanting to move up in the ranks and to blur the lines between classes. Crime was indeed pervasive, but not everyone who was down on their luck resorted to it. In some, it stoked a fire that would drive them to do everything in their power to succeed. The literacy rate in London increased by over fifty percent over the course of the nineteenth century. (Emsley et al.) This trend further encouraged independent thinking and upward mobility. There was a growing interest in the scientific method. The Victorians were fierce in their pursuit of logic and explanation. They valued critical thinking and the ability to reason. The Victorians competed with themselves to do better, be better, and to be as knowledgeable as possible.
The final element of significance is that the Victorian Era was a time of great cultural upheaval.1 This is not surprising, considering that the Victorians found themselves in an overpopulated metropolis barreling full speed ahead in the name of progress, all things familiar pushed aside in its wake. Indeed, Britain led the world in the Industrial Revolution, and they knew it. The Victorians believed that there was not a better time to be British, and they viewed foreigners as evil, corrupt, and even stupid. The British were preoccupied with propriety. It seems silly considering the progress around them, but stubborn pride and laborers drawn to the idea of upward mobility kept these dated social conventions alive. They imitated London’s gentry in an effort to stand on even ground with them. Appearances and manners were the order of the day. Pride played a key role in the Victorians’ culture — after all, pride was the only constant they had. Seeing the squalor and criminality afflicting London left many Victorians either consumed by materialism or searching for something to help them cope with it. For many proud Englishmen, this meant pushing for the welfare of their city at large — a desperate attempt to make sense of their world and to save it from further corruption. The Victorian Era brought about social reforms in unprecedented numbers. It is here we start to see the emergence of programs for the wealthy to assist the poor. Accessible education, as mentioned above, was one of the biggest accomplishments of the Victorian Era. The working classes demanded better living and working conditions. More food and materials could be bought with less money, and as a result, the working class could feed themselves and their families and still have some of the day left. The Victorians had an advantage that their predecessors did not: leisure time. The effect that downtime had on the Victorians cannot be emphasized enough. Citizens of the working class had access to the most asset there is. It allowed people to read the news, learn about the world around them, discuss it with their peers, and reflect on the unrelenting changes in their culture.
Now that the Victorian Era has been demystified, it is possible to tackle the question at hand. Advancements in the publishing industry allowed for newspapers to be printed quickly and en masse.1 Prices went down. Even the working class could afford a penny for a paper and with the spike in literacy rates and time off, they were intent on being informed. The Newgate Calendar (1773) was the first source of true crime reporting that drew a large audience.(The term “true” crime is used loosely here.) The Newgate Calendar was a regular source of information on criminal activity and upcoming trials. Included were embellished biographies of the real prisoners awaiting trial at Newgate Prison. (“Facts about the Newgate Calendar”) These semi-accurate descriptions wove tales of ethical deterioration and (thanks to the Victorians’ increased free time) sparked conversations about morality and humanity. The Victorians wanted to be very aware of what was happening around them. Next came the creation of the London Metropolitan Police Force and Detective Force, which quickly grew in numbers in response to the multitude of crimes being committed. This introduced another side to crime: the discovery and prosecution of criminals. Victorians wanted to know all the gruesome details and be involved with the investigations of their favorite officers. Amateur crime solving became a sort of sport: any public space was a center for debate and reasoning. Not everyone would admit to their interest in crime reporting; it was ugly and unfit for women to read about. Though that did not stop them from doing so. Furthermore, forensic advancements allowed for the solving of crimes without an eyewitness. The public took note of this and was keen to understand the methods used for catching criminals and how the police applied them. They prided themselves on their own deductive reasoning skills and grasp of the scientific method. The Victorians’ appetite for crime stories was voracious. Newspapers, eager to profit off a trend, began publishing more true crime. Morning and evening editions provided updates on the progress of trials and investigations. The response of readers was overwhelming. Authors of the time began to take advantage of the public’s appetite for crime stories and included criminals in their works. Oliver Twist, Jack Sheppard, and Barnaby Rudge are prime examples of this phenomenon. Newspapers also took note of their newly literate and semi-literate readers. To attract this new audience, companies began to publish titillating illustrated crime and mystery stories called penny dreadfuls. From the penny dreadfuls came sensation novels, and from there it was a natural next step into serialized detective fiction. (Humphreys) Competition was tough, with writers working to produce a story that would satisfy the Victorians’ love of puzzles, gore, mystery, thrill, and logical deduction while also featuring a dynamic and lovable main character. Many writers featured foreigners as villains and comedic punching bags to win over readers. After all, it was more satisfying for an Englishman to be the hero. Journals and serialized publications also set the precedent for what was appropriate discussion material. If it was in a journal, it was suitable for both men and women to talk about. With their free time and sense of propriety satisfied, everyone was involved in fictional sleuthing. The Victorians were happy to spend hours engaging in crime and mystery novels. It was an intellectually stimulating, an efficient and therefore acceptable use of their downtime. Shrewd writers took note of this and used their work as a platform for social reform. Remember that Victorians were concerned with being genteel and were disdainful of anything remotely foreign. Writers could try to rally the people and inspire change or produce long-winded moral and philosophical arguments, but the public would want nothing to do with it. It would be too reminiscent of French revolutionaries and debased Italian philosophers. The Victorians did want change but were not willing to stir up controversy. So, authors would instead use their characters to challenge conventions, inspire thought and provoke discussion. Victorians ate it up. Detective novels included everything they loved about crime fiction, satisfied their need for intellectual stimulation and allowed them to discuss greater issues without actually discussing greater issues. By the end of the nineteenth century crime fiction was the leading genre in the literary world. (Humphreys)
From there, the genres took on a life of their own and have evolved, grown, and adapted with time. Crime fiction is still one of the most highly consumed kinds of entertainment to this day. In conclusion, the genre we all know and love is thanks to the dreadful reality and progressive mentality of Victorian England. Every phenomenon discussed in this essay is intimately related to each other one, weaving a tangled web of events, changes, expectations that results in crime fiction no matter the path you take.
- Emsley, Clive et al. “London History – London, 1800-1913”. Old Bailey Proceedings Online, Accessed 4 Dec 2018.
- “Facts About the Newgate Calendar.” Media and Crime. British Library. Accessed 2 Dec 2018.
- Flanders, Judith, “The Creation of the Police and the Rise of Detective Fiction,” Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, British Library. Accessed 2 Dec 2018.
- Humpherys, Anne. “British Detective Fiction in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. June 28, 2017. Oxford University Press. Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.
- “Industrial Revolution | Definition, Facts, & Summary”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, Accessed 4 Dec 2018.
- Kobritz, Sharon J., “Why Mystery and Detective Fiction was a Natural Outgrowth of the Victorian Period” (2002). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 483.
- Murray, Margaret. “The Popularity of Detective Fiction in the Victorian Era”. Ideal and Real Female Experience in Sherlock Holmes’ Stories, 2016, Accessed 2 Dec. 2018.
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