Thursday, May 02, 2013

Investigating the investigators

For those of you interested in this sort of thing, my review essay on Haia Shpayer-Makov's fascinating new book on the history of police detectives has just been published at Reviews in History.

It starts like this:

‘A detective’, wrote a crime-fiction reviewer in 1932, ‘should have something of the god about him’:

It was the divine, aloof, condescending quality in the old great ones of Poe, Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins and Sherlock Holmes that made their adventures so glamorously irresistible. A writer of detective stories might have a style as brilliant as Poe’s, as consummately competent as Collins’s, as pompously absurd as Doyle’s – it did not matter: what mattered was whether he gave us a detective whom we could worship.

Even the most ardent fan of crime fiction might think ‘worship’ an overstatement; nonetheless, by the time those words were written, detectives had indeed become among the most popular figures of modern literature. In the decades since that ‘golden age’ of crime fiction, police detectives have often even managed to hold their own against their previously more celebrated private counterparts, whether in print, on television or at the cinema. As The Ascent of the Detective makes clear, such trends are remarkable in view of the suspicion that greeted real-life police detectives in their early years and their frequent literary belittlement.

I hope you find the rest worth reading: both the review and the book.

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