The detective novel has always been related to public interest in the problems of modern, urban life, particularly in crime. But crime as a feature of Western social life was not generally recognized until the rise of large cities in the early 1800s, a period that corresponds to the creation of a mass reading public. Fascinated by and afraid of crime, new city-dwellers vilified and romanticized criminals, as well as those who fought them.

The first writing on urban crime pretended to be documentary, but it was filled with archetypes and plots from preceding fiction, particularly the gothic novel. The idea of detection and the figure of the detective that would eventually stand at the center of the genre were introduced in the early nineteenth century by a Frenchman, Francois-Eugene Vidocq in his Memoirs of Vidocq. Having served as a soldier, privateer, smuggler, inmate, and secret police spy, Vidocq at age twenty-four Vidocq_by_Achille_Devéria_credited himself with a duel for every year of his life. The Paris police accepted his offer of his “security services” in 1812, and shortly he established his own department, the Surete, which became the French equivalent of the American F.B.I. In a typical year, William Ruehlmann reports, “Vidocq had twelve men working for him, and between them they made 811 arrests, including 15 assassins, 341 thieves and 38 receivers of stolen property.” 1 When Vidocq’s Memoirs were published in France in 1828, they were immediately popular and translated into English. Honore de Balzac modelled the character of Vautrin on him in Le Pere Goriot (1833), and Victor Hugo did the same with Jean Valjean in Les Misérables(1862)

Interest in England in “crime stories” blended with a strong, existing genre called the gothic novel. Most scholars attribute this genre to Horace Walpole, whose Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, established the horror story, to which Mary Shelley added scientific aspects with Frankenstein (1818). The gothic influence is said to account for the dark settings, unfathomable motivations, and preoccupation with brilliant or unexpected solutions in the detective/mystery genre. Among English writers, Vidocq most influenced Charles Dickens, who used detail and character from Vidocq’s Memoirs for his Great Expectations (1861).

In the United States, Edgar Allan Poe read Dickens, and he read and reread Vidocq. In five stories between 1840 and 1845, Poe laid out the basics of the detective story, which underlie much hard-boiled fiction. In “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe introduced his brilliant, eccentric detective, C. Auguste Dupin, whose solutions were chronicled by an admiring, amiable narrator. Later detectives, notably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, became even more eccentric, and Poe’s nameless narrator had his counterpart in the amiable Dr. Watson. In “Rue Morgue,” Poe introduced three common motifs of detective fiction: the wrongly suspected man, the crime in the locked room, and the solution by unexpected means. Dupin solved the crime by reading the evidence better than the police did and by noticing clues that they had neglected, thus highlighting the importance of inference and observation.

In a second story, “The Purloined Letter,” Poe invented the plot of the stolen document, the recovery of which ensures the safety of some important person. Dupin solved this crime by two more important formulae: deduction through psychological insight into the protagonists, and a search for evidence in the most obvious place. In the third Dupin story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Poe introduced and developed the crime by recounting newspaper clippings, a technique that later attracted the literary realists and is still used. Though this mystery contained no solution (it was in court at the time), leaving the reader to deduce a solution, it marked the beginning of the genre’s use of and competition with newspapers in presenting the “truth about crime” to readers.

Of the other two Poe stories, “Thou Art the Man” Edgar Allan Poepresents three important motifs: 1) the criminal confesses when faced with the enormity of his crime, 2) the detective follows a trail of false clues, and 3) he deduces that the criminal is the least likely suspect. In “The Gold Bug,” which many think Poe’s finest mystery, a man finds an encrypted map that promises the discovery of hidden treasure. All five stories are dark in tone, with characters whose motives are unknowable, as well as the unexpected endings common to the gothic novel in Poe’s time.

Poe was also a literary critic, and he created a rationale for the detective story. “The unity of effect of impression is a point of the greatest importance,” wrote Poe: “this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed in one sitting.” 2 Unity of tone and a length that permitted readings in a single sitting led Poe to conclude that detection was essentially a “tale, a species of composition which admits of the highest development of artistical power in alliance with the widest vigour of imagination.” Poe suggested three corollaries: 1) Failure to preserve the mystery “until the proper moment of denouement, throws all into confusion, so far as regards the effect intended.” 2) Everything should converge on the denouement: “There should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” 3) It is imperative that “no undue or inartistic means be employed to conceal the secret of the plot.” 3 Later writers explored the limits of these rules, but initially they focussed the genre.

By 1870, detective fiction was finding a popular American audience. Allan Pinkerton published The Expressman And The Detective(1875), the earliest American non-fiction account of a private detective. Pinkerton’s business card showed an unblinking eye with the motto “We never sleep,” linking his services with the phrase “private eye.” This popular book established the importance of both the hero, an extra-legal agent who explores a lawless world, and of an understated style employing objective descriptions and short, clear sentences. Still more popular was The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives (1877), in which Pinkerton detailed his company’s work fighting a semi-secret organization of Irish coal miners for the Philadelphia Coal and Iron Company. Working closer than Poe to the public pulse, he never allowed his protagonist, based on agent James McParlan, the eccentricity that precluded his immediate perception as a tough, hands-on “hero.” But McParlan, who infiltrated the Mollies and provided the evidence that led to twenty hangings, was not morally pure. Pinkerton understood that the public was interested in “the immersion of the eye into an almost surreal underworld, an underworld to which he must adapt in order to get his work done,” as Ruehlmann writes; he “creates an atmosphere of evil commensurate with a sense of the holiness of the mission and its necessity for the sanctity of moral order.” 4 Pinkerton himself wrote that the private eye “should become, to all intents and purposes, one of the order, and continue so while he remains in the case before us. He should be hardy, tough, and capable of laboring, in season and out of season, to accomplish, unknown to those about him, a single absorbing object.” 5

Arthur Conan DoyleIn England, by contrast, the detective genre underwent a more analytic, stylized development, exemplified in the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. His A Study in Scarlet (1887) introduced the sturdy Watson and the decayed aesthete Sherlock Holmes. Doyle adopted Poe’s formulae, cut his elaborate introductions, restating them in conversational exchanges between his two chief characters, and emphasized Poe’s least realistic feature: the “deduction” of astonishing conclusions from trifling clues. The English School of detection soon produced other great masters as well, such as G. K. Chesterton (The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911) and Eric C. Bentley (Trent’s Last Case, 1912).

American detective fiction, with its common man hero, was also influenced by the dime novel, which often drew on frontier settings and heroics that owed to the Leather-Stocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper in the early 1800s. Beginning in 1860, the yellow-colored, paper-backed books of the firm Beadle and Adams promised readers “dollar books for a dime.” 6 These “yellowbacks” fit in the pockets of Civil War soldiers and were printed on the cheapest newsprint, made from pure wood pulp without rag fiber, hence their nickname of “pulps.” Beadle and Adams had a standing order for 60,000 copies of each new book, and sometimes ordered a second printing within a week. Some of the yellowbacks went through ten or twelve printings, a phenomenal circulation for the day. President Lincoln, his vice-president and secretary of state, many senators, and even the celebrated clergyman Henry Ward Beecher have been named as readers of the Beadle and Adams novels. 7

The setting of the dime novel might be the West, the sea, the Maine woods or war, but in all of them a young, usually male protagonist is immersed in a foreign environment to which he must adapt quickly or perish. Dime novels imparted a great deal of practical lore about fishing or trapping or seacraft or “hunting Injuns,” along with the notion that the protagonist had a “right” to this setting or could domesticate it. The dime novel hero exhibits courage, honesty, and chivalry, not to mention a sense of Manifest Destiny. There is usually a female romantic interest, treated chastely. The endings were morally uplifting if not happy.

As early as 1874, authorities blamed dime novels for juvenile delinquency and crime, a debate that continues still. In the Boston trial of Jesse Pomeroy, prosecutors suggested that this sadistic murderer was motivated by “literature of the dime novel type.” Boston prosecutors used the same tactic against a man named Piper. In 1884, the New York Tribune charged that three boys had robbed their parents and “started off for the boundless West” because of dime novels. 8 The relation between crime and narrative about it has long been debated.

In the late 1880s, the American dime novel began to branch. Some were distinctly Western, evolving from the “Injun tales” of Seth Jones, a descendant of Cooper’s heroes. A new Western hero, Deadwood Dick, appeared in 1884 and became the most popular hero of dime novels. His creator, Edward L. Wheeler, eventually published eighty separate books on his adventures and those of Dick, Junior. 9 But an interest in the adventures of city life was also taking hold. Its heroes were the first urban, pulp detectives. The first Old Cap Collier story, Elm City Tragedy (1881), was based, like Poe’s “Marie Roget,” on an actual murder case in New Haven, Connecticut. 10 Old Cap CollierOld Cap Collier novels were written by various authors and eventually numbered over 700 titles. 11 So valuable was Old Cap that when he retired, he came back as the author of a second generation of novels. These novels were visually distinct: six by ten inch pamphlets, without illustration, in green covers. Inside were eighty pages of mayhem, according to Pearson, who has chronicled in a single book no less than five one-on-one fights, seven fights with gangs, twelve attacks with knives or clubs, one bombing, one poisoning, and one attack by a steel trap disguised as a chair. In this same story Old Cap beat two men “to a jelly,” hurled twenty-one men through the air, and choked one man until black in the face. 12

Old Cap had competitors, Broadway Billy and Jack Harkaway, but chiefly Old Sleuth. First appearing in 1872, Old Sleuth specialized in disguises and spoke in underworld slang. 13 The idea of an “underworld” owes not only to classic mythology, but to the difficulty Victorians had in conceptualizing the cityscape. Without tall buildings or good maps, they had no overview of proliferating streets and alleys, which often lacked numbers and even names. Popular publications explained the confusion to them by illustrations that used the “bird’s eye view” or the “mole’s eye view.” Old Cap and Old Sleuth used the latter to explain the city’s “underground” systems to fearful new urban residents.

The western/urban split intensified around 1890, the year picked by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner to mark the closing of the American West. The date has seemed notable to many scholars. Henry Nash Smith wrote that the hero of the dime cowboy novel then became “a self-reliant, two-gun man who behaved in almost exactly the same fashion whether he were outlaw or peace officer. Eventually he was transformed into a detective and creased in any significant sense to be Western” 14 Later, scholar Leslie Fiedler returned to this similarity, calling the detective “a cowboy adapted to life on the city streets, the embodiment of innocence moving untouched through universal guilt.” 15

As the dime novel turned the century, interest in the urban detective continued, but in a cleaned-up hero named Nick Carter. The Nick Carter Weekly anthologized his adventures, which were written by Eugene Sawyer and several other authors. Published by Street and Smith, the Nick Carter stories moved a step closer to hard-boiled fiction. For more urbane readers, however, there was an even cleaner lad, Frank Merriwell. Merriwell was a Yale student, polite, educated and could be counted on to win the football game against Harvard single-handedly on the last play: he was an influence on one of the most scandalous of later hard-boiled writers, James. M. Cain. 16 Nick Carter was almost as respectable, but he roamed the world, and his stories were packed with fights. Nick Carter and Frank Merriwell defined themselves against each other: street-smart and elite.

This split accentuated in the 1910-20 period, when the demand for easily read, popular fiction became immense. Over 20,000 magazines were in print by 1922. Leading the respectable pack were “slick paper” magazines, such as The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Smart Set, Scribner’s and Liberty. Slick magazines were printed on paper with a high fiber-rag and clay content, making them smooth to the hand, long-lasting, and brilliantly white. They featured generous illustrations, often in color, advertisements for hard goods, and they connoted higher social status. They printed fiction by leading authors of the Merriwell school (F. Scott Fitzgerald was their star) and they paid astonishingly well, up to a dollar a word. Their detectives were brilliant, witty, and eccentric; the crimes and methods of their solution tended towards Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The most celebrated of the slick magazine philo_vancedetectives was Philo Vance, the creation of Willard Huntington Wright, who wrote under the pseudonym of S. S. Van Dine. The wealthy Wright, who was the first editor of Smart Set, a trend-setting arbiter of Eastern style, set the tone in 1926 with the first of his twelve Vance novels, The Benson Murder Case. In this “Golden Era” of the detective novel, as critic John Strachy has called it, Wright was the perfect American counterpart to such English masters as A.A. Milne, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

At the other end of the spectrum were new incarnations of Old Cap, Old Sleuth, and Nick Carter. Their creators toiled for a penny a word and still published on disreputable pulp. These writers submitted to Nick Carter Weekly, Detective Stories, Girls’ Detective, Doctor Death, Brief Stories, Argosy All-Story or the more lurid Police Gazette, most of which offered readers 150 pages of fiction for ten or fifteen cents. The early leader was Detective Stories, owned by Smith and Street, which had published The Nick Carter Weekly. 17 Between 1920 and 1950, the prime of hard-boiled fiction, 175 different detective magazines graced the newsracks. Some of the pulp writers, using a dozen names, wrote 1.5 million words a year. “A million words a year is so usual,” wrote Frank Gruber, who credited this outpouring to the invention of the typewriter. He noted that earlier pulp novelists had written seventy thousand words a week in longhand. 18

The first significant hard-boiled authors appeared around 1923 and at the same magazine, The Black Mask. See the section about Black Mask for more information.


1 William Ruehlmann, Saint with a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye (New York: New York University Press, 1974), 22. Also valuable is Noel Bertram Gerson (aka Samuel Edwards) The Vidocq Dossier. 2 Edgar Allan Poe, The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1965), 14: 358. 3 Poe, 309, 33, 331, 360. 4 Ruehlmann, 26, 28. 5 Allan Pinkerton, The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (New York: G.W. Dillingham reprint, 1905), 17. 6 In Edmund Pearson, Dime Novels (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1929), 21. 7 Ibid, 46. 8 Ibid, 93-94. 9 Ibid, 202-3. 10 Ibid, 138-39. 11 Ibid. 139. 12 Ibid. 141. 13 Ibid. 191-96. 14 Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1921), 9. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), 104. 15 Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion Books, 1960), 476. 16 See “Man Merriwell,” Saturday Evening Post, June 11, 1927, pp. 45-51, by the hard-boiled writer James M. Cain for an interesting analysis of the Yale hero’s impact on the most scandalous author if his day. 17 Pearson, 210. 18 Frank Gruber, The Pulp Jungle (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1967), 40.