Before Sherlock: Four Great Detective Stories

Detective fiction did not begin with Sherlock Holmes. If you have enjoyed the adventures of fictions greatest detective, you will enjoy these four works which represent the beginnings of this genre in France, Britain, Germany and the United States.

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Monsieur Lecoq

After a violent brawl in a dangerous Parisian bar leaves three men dead and one injured, an ambitious young policeman begins to unravel a tale of murder, political intrigue and revenge with its roots in the unsettled times which followed the fall of Napoleon.

The character of Monsieur Lecoq is based on the real life Eugène François Vidocq, a former criminal who became the first director of the French detective force, the Sûreté, as well as the father of modern criminology. Lecoq (we never learn his first name ) has a number of characteristics shared with Holmes – he is a master of disguise, he examines the crime scene scientifically for clues, he aims to solve baffling mysteries by the use of reason and he is prone to give patronizing lectures to his intellectual inferiors.

Late nineteenth century Paris is brought to life by Emile Gaboriau, a contemporary master regarded as the founder of the French tradition of detective fiction.

The book has twice been filmed.

The Moonstone

This novel by Wilkie Collins was originally published in episodic form in Charles Dickens’ magazine “All the Year Round.” It was an instant success due to a number of factors: the masterful characterization, the realistic depiction of the effects of opium, the clever plot twists and the way in which the tale is told – pioneering the technique of using multiple narrators and “extracts” from newspaper and letters to provide a sense of realism.

It deals with the theft of a fabulous diamond which had previously been looted by a British army officer from a Hindu temple and introduces Scotland Yard detective Sergeant Cuff (a character based on the real-life Inspector Jonathan Whicher).

The Moonstone is the first of a recognizable breed taken up with enthusiasm by writers such as Agatha Christie – a whodunit mystery set in an English country house. T. S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.. in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe”, and Dorothy L. Sayers praised it as “probably the very finest detective story ever written.”

The novel has been filmed once by Hollywood and at least four times for television.

Mademoiselle de Scudéri

A band of bold robbers calling themselves “The Invisibles” is terrorizing the darkened streets of Paris during the reign of King Louis XIVth, stealing jewels from wayfarers and often killing their victims with the swift thrust of a stiletto dagger. Can an elderly poetess rely upon her intuition and her instincts to help bring the gang to justice when the feared Chambre Ardente established by the King has failed?

Or are things not quite so simple as they appear?

This work, by the famous E.T.A. Hoffman, is regarded as the first German detective story.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

A perennial favorite since its publication, the story has been adapted for radio, TV and film many times.

Two atrocious murders in nineteenth century Paris leave the police baffled. Madame L’Espanaye has had her throat cut so badly that her head is nearly severed from her body and her daughter has been strangled and her body stuffed up a chimney. The bodies are found in a room on the fourth floor with the door locked on the inside. Can the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin succeed in tracing the criminal when the official police remain clueless?

Well, of course he can! But the way in which the author Edgar Allan Poe presented the story and depicted his main character began a whole new branch of literature, one that has since given pleasure to untold millions of readers. As Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”