Trinity College Library Exhibition, The Body in the Library – The Great Detectives 1841 – 1941

Posted on: 23 January 2009

An exhibition titled  The Body in the Library –  The Great Detectives 1841-1941 opened in Trinity College’s  Long Room on January 22nd  last. The exhibition which illustrates the origins of the detective story in the mid 19th century and the growth in popularity of fictional heroes such as Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown and Hercule Poirot focuses on the first golden age of crime writing in the 1920s and 1930s. One of Ireland’s leading detective fiction authors, John Connolly opened the exhibition.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are:

– A 1919 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of mystery and imagination illustrated by Harry Clarke

– Wilkie Collins’ The moonstone, serialised in All the year round, January 1868

– Fergus Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab (London, 1888) – the best-selling detective novel of the 19th century

– The first series of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes published in The Strand Magazine in 1891, with Sidney Paget’s original illustrations

– Two books by M. McDonnell Bodkin, featuring detective Paul Beck and his son

– Magazines featuring short stories by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, providing a rare opportunity to see the stories with their original illustrations.

– A first edition of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929)

The exhibition will run until June 14th next. In association with the exhibition a public symposium on crime writing, featuring authors and critics, will be held in April as part of the Trinity Long Room Hub programme of public events.

About the Crime Writing Genre:
The first true detective story was Edgar Allan Poe’s The murders in the rue Morgue, published in 1841, which featured C. Auguste Dupin as detective.Charles Dickens, with Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, and Wilkie Collins with Sergeant Cuff in The moonstone, made contributions to the new genre but the major development in the 1860s was the creation of Inspector Lecoq by the French writer Emile Gaboriau.  Gaboriau’s stories were the model for Fergus Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab, which was the publication sensation of London in 1887.  More than a quarter of a million copies were sold within a year. Arthur Conan Doyle produced the first Sherlock Holmes novel A study in scarlet that same year but it had only minor success.  Sherlock Holmes achieved lasting popularity with the publication of short stories in The Strand Magazine in 1891.  The character owes some of his qualities to both Poe’s and Gaboriau’s detectives.

The success of the Conan Doyle stories drew other authors into the field.  These included the Irish barrister M. McDonnell Bodkin who created Paul Beck and E.C. Bentley who produced Philip Trent.  Science was a strong element in stories written by R. Austin Freeman which featured Dr. Thorndyke while G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown relied on intuition and knowledge of human nature.

Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot in The mysterious affair at Styles in 1920.  A number of other super sleuths followed including Dorothy L. Sayers’ pompous Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion.  Although these characters occur in books spread over several decades, the fundamental absurdity of the position of super sleuth led to more sympathetic depiction of police detectives such as Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion.  The prime continental model was George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.  A much more robust type of story developed in America in the 1920s which broke away from European influence and reflected life in America.  This was the start of the hard-boiled detective, the private eye who held to some private loyalties, had some slight regard for the law and saw most police forces as corrupt.  Among the famous creations were Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, drawn from the author’s experience of working for Pinkerton’s detective agency, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe who featured first in The big sleep (1939) and in Farewell my lovely  (1940).

The detective story in America continued to develop in a tough style and more realism came into European writing in the 1950s and 1960s.  Enthusiasm for the genre in written form and in film and television continues unabated.