In the last several blogs we’ve discussed Edgar Allan Poe and his contributions to the mystery genre including being credited as the “father” of the detective story. However, this accolade is not without controversy. Many scholars want the credit for writing the first detective story to go to Wilkie Collins and not to Poe.
Collins like Poe is credited with creating several firsts within the genre. He is recognized as starting the “sensation novel” which was considered the precursor to the detective novel. The sensation novel used subject matter that was quite shocking for the Victorian period such as adultery, insanity, bigamy, theft of both personal items and identity, seduction and of course murder to name a few. It combines the sense of the Gothic with real life experiences found in a normal setting. It’s a little bit Gothic, a little bit romance and a little bit mystery.
Collins and Dickens were lifelong friends and Collins contributed to Dickens publications All the Year Round and Household Words. In fact The Woman in White was serialized in All the Year Round from November 1859 to August 1860. And perhaps because the stories were serialized, Collins is also considered a master of creating suspense between the episodes.
The story was very successful for the magazine and at the end of the serialization it was published as a novel. By November of the same year it was already in its eighth edition. Unlike Poe, Collins achieved both financial and literary success. And unlike Poe’s three stories Collin’s offerings are full length books. Some critics feel this gives him the upper hand when being credited with writing the first detective story.
The Woman in White and The Moonstone also have a unique structure where sections in the book have different narrators, each with a distinct narrative voice. From each of the narrator’s accounts we learn individual aspects of the story that lead or mislead to solving the mystery.
The Moonstone is a story about a large diamond stolen by a corrupt British officer from the head of a sacred statue in India where it has a significant religious history. It is said three Hindu priests have dedicated their lives to recovering the gem.
The stone is inherited by Rachel Verinder when she turns eighteen. She wears the diamond to her birthday party and later that night it is stolen. To add to the mystery a group of Indian jugglers performed at the party and continue to stay nearby watching and waiting.
Well known detective, Sergeant Cuff is called in to solve the crime. He is faced with clues that don’t seem to make sense, false suspects and a time line that doesn’t map. Cuff uses rational logic with step-by-step processes to sift through the clues and separate the relevant facts from the misleading information.
Cousin Blake, who also attended the party, is concerned that Rachel thinks he is connected with the theft and confronts her about the events which occurred on night of the party. Blake employs many of the techniques of today’s modern detectives by reenacting what happened at the party. With the information he learns from the reenactment he moves forward to solve the crime and finally tracks down the diamond and the culprit.
The Women in White
Like The Moonstone, The Women in White also starts with a single event. When Walter Hartright, is walking to Limmeridge House where he has been employed as a drawing teacher, he encounters a mysterious woman. The woman, later identified as Anne Catherick, is dressed in white and is need of assistance. Hartright helps her to get to London, but later learns she has escaped from an asylum.
This woman bears an uncanny resemblance to Laura Fairlie the niece of the owner of the house where Hartright is teaching. Hartright immediately falls in love with Laura and this starts the mystery of the relationship of Anne Catherick to Limmeridge house.
The story is about identity theft and family secrets which are eventually solved by following a series of clues until all is revealed about the family’s history.
Who Deserves the Title of “First”
In fairness to Poe, I should mention that the Collins works were published after Poe’s mysteries. The Murders in the Rue Morgue first appeared in 1841. As mentioned above the first installment of The Women in White appeared in 1859 and The Moonstone was published in 1868
Each man has his supporters as to who rightfully holds the title of creating the first detective story. But truth be told they have both had an impact and have contributed to the mystery genre. I think there is plenty of room to credit both men with “firsts” in mysteries.
Take time to dust off your copy of The Moonstone or The Women in White and read one of the original mysteries from the genre we all love.
Quotes in Support of Collins:
Dorothy L Sayers — “Probably the very finest detective story ever written.
T. S. Eliot— “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels…in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe,”
G.K. Chesterton–“Probably the best detective tale in the world.”