Detective fiction as an Enlightenment project

by Ulkar Aghayeva

In the following, I’m drawing upon a lecture by Aaron Marc Stein, The Detective Story — How and Why (1974) and an episode of a Russian literary podcast Книжный базар” (“Book fair”).

The origins of detective fiction as a genre are canonically traced to Edgar Poe’s short stories published in the 1840s — “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842), and The Purloined Letter” (1845). Why is this genre so recent?

There are detective motifs in pre-19th century literature but they don’t comprise a distinct genre and lack some of the telltale signs of detective fiction like ratiocination. Such motifs can be found in Genesis (the interrogation scene in Cain and Abel), in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (a story of detection but not a detective story) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (a suspense story).

Full development of detective fiction wasn’t possible before presumption of innocence became part of the Anglo-Saxon criminal law. It was only in the 1760s that Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England pronounced, It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”. (Though a version of this principle was also a part of Roman law and existed in Russian legislation since 1712 — but those cultures did not produce detective fiction as such, at the time.)

In pre-detective fiction torture, rather than ratiocination, was a primary tool in indicting a criminal. Hamlet is an example of this, though it is about mental, rather than physical, torture of Claudius, to see if he tells on himself. Earlier audiences would not be convinced by the toolkit of a 19th century detective — morals of the time weren’t compatible with using reasoning to solve a crime. But in the 19th century,

Torture had fallen into disfavor and not only on humane grounds. It came to be considered insufficiently effective, not good enough for men of the Age of Reason. It came to be recognized that torture gives society only a guarantee that punishment will follow crime. It does not guarantee that the punishment will fall on the criminal.

Although in the nineteenth century torture did not disappear, by midcentury it was generally expected that it would disappear. The nineteenth was a century of optimists. Nineteenth-century man conceived of himself as firmly set on a highway to Utopia. In a world transformed by science, technology, and reason, both social conditions and the nature of man would be so much improved that crime would disappear

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of science, the man of science became a substitute for a torturer in solving crimes. Detective fiction is thus an Enlightenment project — even though historically it came later than Enlightenment itself. One could even say that detective fiction is a kind of science fiction. Positivism in science also emerged around the same time as detective fiction became a full-fledged genre.

Detective stories remain popular because of the consolation they provide, as a wish fulfillment for the need for justice. They embody a hope that Good, in the form of Reason, will always defeat Evil. Unlike other genres that went the way of postmodernism, absurdism or existentialism, even after the World Wars detective fiction remained a source of hope in the power of human reason.