It’s not a question of whodunnit but who started it?


How the genre of detective fiction originated

Hatred, violence and evil frequently lead to murder in the real world. The devastating grief that comes afterwards for the family of the murder victim is often shared by the community in which they live and by a wider, media audience.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing mysteries in the 1880s
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began
writing mysteries in the 1880s
So, how is it possible for these horrible occurrences to be made into entertainment in the form of books or films? And why do people often say: ‘I love a good murder mystery’?

One of the four Golden Age Queens of Crime, Dorothy L Sayers, once wrote: ‘Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject.’ She was writing in the preface to a volume of detective stories published in 1934.

By then, ingenious stories of crime and detection had become really popular and she was one of the most well regarded writers of these novels in Britain.

Most people know the name Sherlock Holmes, a fictional detective who featured in the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even if they have never read any of the stories themselves.

Sir Arthur began writing mysteries featuring Sherlock Homes and Dr Watson in the early 1880s but they are still popular today and are constantly being reissued and made into new TV and film adaptations.

As someone who loves cosy crime and has even had a go at writing novels in the cosy crime genre, I am fascinated with reading the books that came before.

And so I began to wonder where Sir Arthur got his ideas from. For me, it is not a case of whodunnit, but of who started it?

Did Wilkie Collins write the first English detective story?
Did Wilkie Collins write the
first English detective story?
It has been suggested that the Victorian novels of Dickens and Trollope often contained a central mystery involving a crime that provided the satisfaction of a solution at the end.

The author Wilkie Collins, who was a friend of Dickens, wrote a novel that is often referred to as the first English detective story, The Moonstone. At the time, books by Wilkie Collins were classified as sensation novels, but this category is now thought to be a precursor to detective and suspense fiction.

The Moonstone, published in 1868, was later described by T S Eliot as ‘the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels’.

Dorothy L Sayers has referred to The Moonstone as ‘probably the very finest detective story ever written.’

The Moonstone referred to in the title of the story is an Indian diamond that has been inherited by a young English woman. The diamond is of great religious significance and is highly valuable. The woman wears the Moonstone on her dress for her 18th birthday celebrations, but later that night it is stolen from her bedroom. The complex plot of the book follows the attempts to explain the theft, identify the thief, trace the stone and recover it.

The novel introduces a number of elements that were later were to become essential components of the classic English detective novel, such as an English country house setting, red herrings, a celebrated investigator, bungling police, the least likely suspect and a final twist in the plot.

William Godwin's Caleb Williams
William Godwin's
Caleb Williams
The crime writer P D James once put forward the idea that the first English crime novel could have been Caleb Williams, which was published in 1794 by William Godwin, the father in law of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Also known as Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, Godwin’s story was published in the form of a three volume novel. It was written as a call to end the abuse of power by what he saw as a tyrannical government. But it involves a man being falsely accused of crimes and desperately trying to seek justice. The novel has an amateur detective as a character and, at its core, is a murder, for which two innocent men have been hanged.

However, P D James concludes in her 2009 book, Talking About Detective Fiction, that if she had to award the distinction of being the first English detective novel, her final choice would be The Moonstone, as it most clearly demonstrates what were to become some of  the main characteristics of the genre. Also, in the rose growing detective, Sergeant Cuff, Wilkie Collins created one of the earliest, fictional professional detectives.

Both Caleb Williams and The Moonstone are available in a variety of formats. 

Buy Caleb Williams from or 

Buy The Moonstone from or


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