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Detective Fiction's Gritty Roots

As a student of languages—Latin, French, German—I was always fascinated with etymology. No, not the study of bugs, the study of the roots of words. No surprise then when I happened upon a series that explored the roots of detective fiction and was similarly charmed. These are William J. Palmer's The Detective and Mr. Dickens; The Highwayman and Mr. Dickens; and The Hoydens and Mr. Dickens, published through St. Martin's Press in 1990, 1992 and 1997 respectively.

Palmer's premise has Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins investigating crimes in London with Inspector Field of Bow Street's Metropolitan Protectives. Field's role was a new one—a dangerous one—and his station didn't grant him access to the upper echelons of London society . . . that's where Dickens and Collins came in. It was a fascinating premise, and I wondered how much of it was true. The Internet of the 1990s wasn't what it is now, so I never did make it to the stacks to research on that point, but some recent Googling suggests that Dickens did, in fact, spend time at Bow Street, soaking up writing prompts. Seek out these books—they're a treat.

The next book to hook me with the genesis of crime writing was The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, by Kate Summerscale (Raincoast Books, 2008). I loved this book. It tells the true story of the investigation by one of Scotland Yard's first detectives, Johnathan Whicher, into the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent at his family's estate. The events of this book take place in 1860, nine years after the events portrayed in Palmer's The Detective and Mr. Dickens, so the pushback by the well-to-do against the invasiveness of these new detectives is the same. What I found particularly fascinating about Summerscale's book was its accounting of the sudden surge of crime reporting by the British broadsheets, sparking a craving for true crime reporting that has never left us. The book's blurb reminds me that Sgt. Cuff in The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, was inspired by Whicher. (By the way, I've recently discovered that there is a TV adaptation of this book as well as other stories featuring Detective Inspector Whicher. I'll definitely be checking that out.)

My most recent read in this vein is Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris by Eric Jager (Little, Brown, 2014). This one takes us back to 1407 and the murder of Louis of Orleans, brother of the mad King Charles. Guillaume de Tignonville was in the unenviable role of investigating the royal family itself, and while the book continues on to explore the ramifications of the murder on France in general—namely the resulting war—we do get to see the ins and outs of the fascinating investigation, often through written accounts that have survived.

I think I'll make this an ongoing post because I love the topic. Share with me any other books or resources you can recommend!

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