IT IS PERHAPS reasonable to deduce that the curious case of Cain and Abel provides the first documented instance of crime writing and capital murder. The story includes a cover-up, as well as an authoritative, hardboiled, first-person account from the Investigating Detective, fingering with uncanny insight the prime suspect in the crime. The familiar tropes seem to be there: the corpse (brother Abel), the crime scene (east of Eden), the motive (jealousy), the dissembling perp eager to deflect suspicion (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”), and the omniscient detective (the God of the Hebrews), intrepid, relentless, and infallible in His pursuit of justice. But the detective story, as we know it today, does not have its roots in the Bible.
In her 1929 introduction to The Omnibus of Crime, novelist Dorothy L. Sayers said as much, citing other dubious antecedents. Analyzing the historical record, Sayers did not locate the origins of crime writing in the folktales of the Egyptians, the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, or the Indians; nor does she find it in brilliant early portrayals of wrongdoers and crime detection sketched out in tales by the Grimm brothers, Voltaire, Balzac, Victor Hugo, and others. Rather, she observes:
The detective-story had to wait for its full development for the establishment of an effective police organization in the Anglo-Saxon countries. This was achieved — in England, at any rate — during the early part of the nineteenth century, and was followed about the middle of that century by the first outstanding examples of the detective-story as we know it to-day.
Accordingly, the business of crime detection, and the art of crime fiction it inspired, are less than 200 years old.
In his absorbing new work, The Legendary Detective: The Private Eye in Fact and Fiction (University of Chicago Press, 2015), scholar John Walton charts the historical origins of the crime story and the private eye, and shines a hard light on the true-life detectives who were models for the emerging genre’s seminal and most enduring authors and myths. Walton’s work looks into the lawless, shadow-worlds from which true crime and true crime writing emerged, and discovers a “symbiotic link” wedding the apocryphal “truths” of its notorious progenitors with the fictional works of authors — Poe, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, et al — who appropriated them as foundations for their own imaginative works. In the process, Walton asserts a myth-making “interdependence of two commercial enterprises” — the business of crime detection (and public safety), and the business of bookselling (and popular culture). Twin enterprises which, according to Walton, “arose in tandem, intermingle, affect one another, produce their respective stories, and confound distinctions of fact and fiction, while simultaneously inventing a convenient collective memory.”
Walton, a professor emeritus in sociology at UC Davis, is expert at dissecting texts of historical and comparative sociology, social change and urban and cultural revolution. He uses The Legendary Detective to delineate the cataclysmic economic and social changes — beginning with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, followed by the Great Depression and the two world wars that bracketed it — which he sees as the prime forces in the emergence and evolution of the business of crime detection and the pop culture industries that mirrored it in Europe and the United States.
The detective agency is created in a new historical situation in which the growth of cities and commerce engender conflicts that are beyond the policing capacity of the state to manage. Entrepreneurs possessing some familiarity with the worlds of crime and disorder come forward with a new service: detection. The new service is suspect, owing to its shady origins and invasive methods. The agencies are perceived as necessary evils and so are faced with a perennial struggle for legitimacy — itself a stimulus to image making […] A unique set of conditions in the United States of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fosters the largest detective industry and its most celebrated figure, the private eye.
Walton’s use of the phrase “legendary detective” is instructive. A legend, he notes, refers “to a collective understanding that melds fact and fiction in robust narratives.” And since the earliest “memoirs” of flesh-and-blood detectives (Eugène François Vidocq, 1775–1857, in France; Allan Pinkerton, 1819–1884, USA, and others) who chronicled their supposed adventures in books for a burgeoning reading public were informed by a profession whose “great agencies were duplicitous, ranging from offensive and marginally legal to criminal and destructive,” the narratives they produced were inflated to the scale of a barroom whopper, the best of them virtual tall tales wholly lacking in factual content or corroboration. Their lying memoirs were published without fear of challenge or contradiction, since “Business records were seldom preserved and certainly not made available for inspection.” Through painstaking research and analysis, Walton has reclaimed a treasure trove of these hidden, contradictory, falsified, and redacted manuscripts.
Walton cites a rare instance of truth-telling in the annals of the new industry’s myth making literature. Quoting an 1872 monograph by George McWatters entitled Knots Untied: or, Ways and By-Ways in the Hidden Life of American Detectives, Walton’s critique of American detectives of the Gilded Age includes this remarkable passage:
[The detective] is the outgrowth of a diseased and corrupted state of things, and is, consequently, morally diseased himself. His very existence is a satire upon society. He is a miserable snake, not in a paradise, but in the social hell. He is a thief, and steals into men’s confidences to ruin them.
And so, The Legendary Detective reveals that the first private eyes were tolerated by the corporate clients and private individuals they served as “a necessary evil” — good people hired to do dirty work. Many of them were street toughs expert in lying, spying, framing the innocent, race-baiting, fomenting trouble, and skull cracking. They were opportunists, one day serving as tools of capitalism and industry on the lookout for commies and labor agitators, and on the next day, donning a false accent and disguise, rampaging through the streets as champions of the working man. Contrary to the self-serving legend they invented, none of these early operatives, nor the agencies that employed them, were crime solvers. That came later, much later, following the lead of fictional sleuths. “The great myth of detective agencies of the time is that they fought crime,” Walton tells us. “The popular memoirs of Pinkerton, Furlong, McWatters, and Burns (and, of course, Vidocq) all present their protagonists as crime fighters — no doubt because a union buster or labor spy would have less appeal to mass audiences.”
The ignominious provenance of the crime detection business created a “paradox” wherein “the ubiquitous detective was effectively suppressed and re-presented in a heavily retouched image by the historical actors themselves, yet in ways that produced an even more revealing story.” Walton tracks the metamorphosis of the crime story from fact to legend over 200 years, and endeavors to explain the “cultural transformation” of the private dick, from union-busting corporate louse to hardboiled urban Lancelot. Detective literature, Walton asserts, blends both true-life and fictional accounts seamlessly into a cultural hybrid unique in the annals of world literature.
Few of us would find it credible to suppose there are characters living among us who could match the genius, eccentricities, and tenacity of fictional creations like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, or Maigret. But The Legendary Detective introduces readers to a gallery of formidable real-life man-hunters, sleuths, “thief takers,” and spies worthy of inclusion in the most sensational potboiler. Among them are Charles Angelo Siringo, “the cowboy detective” — relentless tormentor of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; and cunning operatives known only by code names and initials like GT-99 or W-62-R. Walton includes profiles of the first black and Latino private eyes, as well as Kate Warne, a railroad spy who became the first female Pinkerton “op” in 1856. And then there is William J. Burns, creator of the US Secret Service and known variously as “America’s Greatest Detective” and “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” titles he bestowed on himself. None of these agents, Walton reminds us, bore any resemblance to “the detective of contemporary fiction — not loners, outsiders, nor particularly romantic figures.”
The Legendary Detective exposes the incestuous interplay between nonfictional and fictional texts written (or ghostwritten) by the detectives themselves, beginning with the autobiographies of reformed thug and criminal Eugène François Vidocq, founder, in Paris, 1812, of the world’s first detective agency, the Sûreté. His Memoires de Vidocq was first published in Paris in 1828 and, by 1829, comprised four volumes. Edgar Allan Poe (the indisputable and unrivaled “father of the detective story”) read Vidocq’s spurious memoirs, and appropriated them as inspiration for his fictional “tales of ratiocination.” Walton defines ratiocination as “the unique ability the detective brought to the city’s mysteries; observation and logic that together produced solutions, restored coherence, and satisfied the reader’s distress over disorder.” This investigative technique laid the foundation for the detective story as we know it.
Poe’s immortal stories, “The Purloined Letter” (1844), “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842 — based on a true event), and the first of the trio, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), set a standard for crime fiction and characterization which will not be surpassed. His iconic detective, C. Auguste Dupin (the model for Sherlock Holmes, Sergeant Cuff, Inspector Lecoq, Poirot, and countless other peerless eccentrics), need not leave his easy chair to probe the shadowy labyrinths of Parisian crime “with Paris,” Walton asserts, “as the quintessential locus of urban crime, chaos, and the struggle for social order — an order achievable through the detective’s faculty for deductive scientific analysis.”
Poe uses the voice of Dupin to lampoon this true-life “competitor,” Vidocq, dismissing the entire Parisian police force and its notorious chief as lacking any
method in their proceedings, beyond the method of the moment […] Vidocq, for example, was a good guesser and a persevering man. But, without educated thought, he erred continually by the very intensity of his investigations. He impaired his vision by holding the object too close [… and] necessarily, lost sight of the matter as a whole.
Walton cites several such interactions between the worlds of fact and fiction to prove his thesis: writer Émile Gaboriau modeled his crime-solving hero, Monsieur Lecoq, after Vidocq (and Dupin).
Wilkie Collins’s English novel The Moonstone (1868), “a founding fable of detective fiction, adopted many characteristics of the real investigation at Road [Hill House,]” an English country house where the brutal murder of a child was investigated by the fabled Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard.
And there are many others, notably, Dashiell Hammett, whose unnamed “Continental Op” was drawn from the writer’s own experiences as a Pinkerton detective.
Under titles like “Service Providers,” “Growth Industry,” “Detectives at Work,” and “Shadow and Ruse,” Walton lays bare the machinery of the new industry, setting down the duties and workday of a typical agency employee, analyzing the business models of its most important agencies, with growth statistics, personnel profiles, profits, and expenditures, as well as job descriptions of its colorful hierarchy of “finks” (foot soldiers), “nobles” (elite leg-breakers), snoops, spies, guards, and ops.
Walton’s prose style is academic and reserved rather than lyrical. His intention is to inform rather than enchant. Nevertheless, the outrageous characters and events he documents provide all the poetry and fire required of a gripping “good read.” His target audience seems to be scholars, novelists, screenwriters, and enthusiasts of crime writing and social history rather than casual readers hungry for summer reading and a good yarn. And while Walton’s prose cannot be described as elegant or poetical, he has distilled his text — including comprehensive bibliography and notes — down to a muscular eight chapters, the first six of which chronicle the rise of the true detective, and the final two, the innovations in storytelling and mass publication that elevated the private eye to the status of legend.
Emory Holmes II is a Los Angeles–based novelist, children’s story writer, and journalist.