The theme for the February edition of Words with Jam is Crime. By coincidence, a new exhibition has just opened in the Folio Society Gallery of the British Library: Murder in the Library – an A to Z of Crime Fiction.
According to the sign at the entrance to the exhibition, one in every three novels published in English around the world today is Crime Fiction – an astonishing indication of the enduring power of the murder mystery. But where did it all begin?
The exhibition is arranged alphabetically, not chronologically. But I found myself wondering back and forth between display cabinets, trying to piece together a timeline from the clues left by the curators.
Herodotus, the apocryphal Book of Susannah in Bible, Virgil and 13th Century China are all suggested as possible sources of the ‘first’ murder mystery. But the story that is generally considered to be the first piece of modern crime fiction is “Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe. This was published in 1841, one year before the first plain clothes policemen were employed in Britain and two years before the word ‘detective’ first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Seven years later, Recollections of a Police Officer, purportedly written by a real life policeman by the name of Thomas Waters, whetted the public appetite for stories of detection. But it was the notorious Road Hill House murder in 1860 that whipped that appetite to a frenzy.
If you’ve read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, you will know all about Road Hill House – the true case of a child murdered in an English country house. Lady Audley’s Secret, published the following year, was based on the story. It gave rise, too, to ‘G,’ the heroine of The Female Detective in 1864. Wilkie Collins based Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone on Jack Whicher, the Scotland Yard detective who investigated the murder.
If ‘G’ was the first female detective in crime fiction, then the first female crime writer was Anna Katherine Green, who created Ebenezer Gryce of the New York City Police Force in 1878. And long before Kay Scarpetta or Temperance Brennan, the first forensic scientist to lead a fictional investigation was Dr John Thorndyke, created by R. Austin Freeman in 1907.
The 1930s were an extraordinary decade for lovers of crime writing. I’ve written about the Golden Age of English detective fiction in the February edition of the magazine. In America, the reaction against stories that were simply intellectual puzzles led to the ’hard-boiled’ style of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
At the same time, Dennis Wheatley and JG Links were producing ‘murder dossiers’ – volumes that contained witness statements, letters and even forensic items such as fibres and matchsticks, which you could pour over in an attempt to solve the crime. The authors’ own solution would be held in a sealed envelope. The solution to Walter Eberhard’s Jigsaw Puzzle Murder was literally revealed in a jigsaw that must be solved by the reader. Books like this were used as dinner party games.
The exhibition is dotted with some glorious treasures – a handwritten manuscript for Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Retired Colourman;” a film script for Murder on the Orient Express; John Gielgud’s own press album, open to show photographs of himself with John Thaw and Kevin Whately in an episode of Morse.
The last cabinet contains a first edition copy of Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. Alongside it are the proceedings of the case against Elizabeth Canning, the subject of two notorious trials in the 18th Century and the inspiration for Tey’s novel. In the first trial Canning accused two women of robbing her and holding her prisoner in a house which she could apparently describe in detail. Following an investigation by trial judge Sir Crisp Gascoigne, the guilty verdict from that trial was overturned and Canning herself convicted of perjury and transported. The story could provide the model for a whole genre of miscarriage of justice stories, and you can follow the proceedings for yourself at Old Bailey Online (just enter Canning’s name in the search function).
Catriona Troth: The Library Cat @L1bCat
Murder in the Library runs until the 12th May. Admission Free.