Leroy Lad Panek, professor emeritus of English, has set out to explore the detective stories and serialized novels of the nineteenth century with which most twenty-first century readers are entirely unfamiliar. Sure, we all understand that Poe is often credited with creating the genre with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and his detective C. Auguste Dupin in 1841. We also know that interest in the genre really took off after Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes tale in 1887. But we may be less familiar with the detective stories that came before the first Dupin story, as well as the wealth of such stories written in the United States and Great Britain in the 1840s-1870s. Panek seeks to fill in some of the blanks.
I wish that Panek had spent more time analyzing the obscure, nineteenth-century detective stories and novels that he has kindly located for the reader. Lengthy discussions of common elements, themes, tropes, etc. would have been very welcome. What do these stories look like? How do they differ from the later stories (Sherlock Holmes and beyond) with which we are familiar? What kinds of crimes were commonly depicted? What was the level of violence? How were criminals portrayed? Victims? The detectives themselves? What role did nineteenth-century ideas about race and ethnicity play in these stories? What was the readership of detective stories? To what extent did readers initiate correspondence with publishers on individual stories? What was the relationship of detective fiction with the growing interest in “true crime” stories (many of which bore little resemblance to fact), also published in the nineteenth century? How did the detective genre fit into the growing field of “popular fiction,” dime novels, and the like?
Sadly, this kind of analysis is almost entirely lacking from the manuscript. Unfortunately I don’t feel able to answer these questions in detail, despite having just read BEFORE SHERLOCK HOLMES. We get a little of this in the chapters discussing the detective/crime stories of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but not for any of the more obscure works and authors. I’d have liked to see Panek spend much more time on the obscure stories he’s managed to uncover by scouring nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines. I would have also liked to see Panek connect his analyses to larger issues in American society at the time. For example, we have one brief, tantalizing mention of Anthony Comstock’s censorship. How much did the work of Comstock and other moralists affect the content of detective stories?
It may seem petty to mention this on top of my other criticisms, but I also didn’t find Panek’s prose to be particularly engaging. This is a topic that could have been fascinating. Instead, much of Panek’s narrative is leaden and plodding.
This is not to say that BEFORE SHERLOCK HOLMES is wholly without merit. The history of American magazines and newspapers was useful, and I found it interesting to read about how nineteenth-century British and American magazines and newspapers routinely plagiarized fiction from each other to reprint. Panek makes the useful point that the availability of a growing number of nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines in academic databases makes possible a thorough study of these early stories and serialized novels. Panek is at his best in opening the door to future conversations about what the world of pre-Holmesian detective stories looked like. This is an introduction to the genre and period; it is by no means the final word on the subject.
I hesitate to recommend this one to casual readers. It’s not a particularly fun or exciting read. Having said that, literary scholars interested in exploring some of the “pre-history” of the detective genre in the mid-nineteenth century might find it useful. Obviously a great deal of work remains in exploring this early history of the detective genre. We can certainly thank Panek for opening the door to this discussion, for doing some initial research on the topic, and for reminding us that there is a fascinating history to be written about early detective stories.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers