Stranger Than Fiction
By Dean Jobb
“Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, Sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?” Gabriel Betteredge, the head servant in the household of Lady Verinder, asks another character in the 1868 novel The Moonstone. “I call it the detective-fever . . . you’re certain to catch it.”
Wilkie Collins’s story of intrigue and a priceless stolen diamond (the Moonstone of the title) introduced one of the earliest professional detectives in English literature, Sergeant Cuff of the London police. “When it comes to unraveling a mystery there isn’t the equal in England,” readers are assured, and his first order of business in The Moonstone is a meticulous examination of the room where the gem had been stored. “In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world,” he snaps when a colleague doubts the value of a piece of evidence, “I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.” Betteredge, who observes Cuff as he makes his inquiries, is soon infected with the mystery-solving bug.
So was the Victorian public. Crime and murder were obsessions in the nineteenth century. Readers craved “sensations” and the vicarious thrill of peering into an abyss of wickedness and scandal, at a safe distance. Writers scrambled to produce novels based on the latest outrage, while London’s theater promoters sometimes brought crimes to the stage before the real-life offender stood trial. The mainstream press, taking its cue from the Illustrated Police News and other lucrative, crime-filled publications, offered lurid accounts of brutal deaths and the trials that followed. Apologies might be offered if readers had to make do with disappointing accounts of “commonplace murders.”
Murder was a spectacle that could be enjoyed in person as well. Streets were clogged with carriages as the curious tried to catch a glimpse of the house or alley where a murder had been committed. People of all classes jostled to gain admission to London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, to watch the ritual of trial and conviction. Thousands witnessed the final act in the tragedy—the execution of the offender. The morbid vigils persisted even after public hangings were banned in Britain in 1868, but those denied a chance to see the culprit hang could visit Madame Tussaud’s London museum, where the Chamber of Horrors featured the wax likenesses of infamous murderers.
The creation of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1829 and its detective branch in the 1840s introduced a new player to this spectacle of crime and punishment: The professional investigator. Charles Dickens had been the first to popularize the work of Scotland Yard’s detectives. He lauded their “unusual intelligence” and their powers of “keen observation and quick perception,” in an 1850 magazine article. One, Inspector Charles Field, became the model for Mr. Bucket, the investigator featured a few years later in Dickens’s novel Bleak House. The “steady-looking, sharp-eyed” Bucket sized up situations and read people with ease. “Nothing,” Dickens wrote, “escapes him.”
Wilkie Collins, too, found inspiration in the ranks of the detective branch. Sergeant Cuff was modeled on Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard—they even shared a passion for gardening—and The Moonstone was based on one of Whicher’s most famous cases, the murder of a child in 1860 at a country estate, Road Hill House. But Dickens and Collins were latecomers to the detective story. Edgar Allan Poe had created the genre in the 1840s, as the first detectives were hitting the streets of London, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and other stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur sleuth who used logic and reason to solve mysteries. Physician and aspiring author Arthur Conan Doyle, in turn, combined Poe’s groundbreaking character with the observational skills and rapid-fire deductions of his former medical-school instructor, Dr. Joseph Bell, to create Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of them all.
Holmes and his crime-solving partner, Dr. John Watson, debuted in 1887 in the murder mystery A Study in Scarlet. A critic in the Edinburgh newspaper The Scotsman hailed it as an entrancing tale that proved “the true detective should work by observation and deduction.” Holmes describes himself as a “consulting detective”: When the police are stumped in their efforts to solve a crime, they come to him for help. “They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able,” he assures Watson, “to set them straight.”
A second Holmes adventure, The Sign of the Four (a title later shortened to The Sign of Four), was a tale of murder, betrayal, and lost treasure published in England and the United States in 1890. By now readers knew that Holmes was an expert in chemicals and poisons and had published a book on the arcane subject of distinguishing varieties of cigar ash. They had tagged along as he scoured crime scenes, magnifying glass in hand, in search of boot prints, traces of mud and blood, and other clues. And they had watched him upstage the hapless Inspector Lestrade and other plodding Scotland Yard detectives. When London’s police are “out of their depths,” he comes to the rescue. “You have brought detection as near an exact science,” notes Watson, “as it ever will be brought.”
Conan Doyle revived Holmes and Watson in the summer of 1891 for a series of short stories published in London’s The Strand Magazine. Each month, they solved a new mystery, from a scandal involving royalty to the bizarre case of a man hired by the shadowy “Red-headed League” to produce a handwritten copy of an encyclopedia. The wide audience and serialized approach made Holmes a sensation. Newsstands and booksellers were besieged by readers eager to pay sixpence for the latest installment. Major newspapers across the United States republished each installment, earning the detective an American following.
Bucket set the stage for Cuff. Poe’s Dupin inspired Conan Doyle to create Holmes, the perfect fictional hero for an era when gathering clues and unraveling mysteries became a guilty pleasure. ”
As the nineteenth century neared its close, readers were “less interested in what crimes were committed,” the British historian and literary critic Judith Flanders has noted, “than in how they were solved.” By October 1891, when the Canadian doctor Thomas Neill Cream arrived in London—after killing as many as six people in the U.S. and Canada—to launch his murderous assault on the women of the downtrodden Lambeth neighborhood, England and America were in the grip of a new strain of “detective-fever.”
“Detectivism up to date—that is what Dr. Conan Doyle has given us,” journalist Harry How proclaimed in a profile of the author, published in the magazine that was making Sherlock Holmes famous. Nothing, it seemed, could escape the keen eye and razor-sharp mind of the newest detective on the block.
Letters flooded into Conan Doyle’s London home, many from readers convinced his creation was a real person. Some correspondents asked the author to forward their letters to Holmes or requested the detective’s autograph. Others presented real-life cases—a disputed will in Bristol, a poisoning in New Zealand—for Holmes and Watson to tackle. A note arrived from a tobacconist in Philadelphia who hoped Conan Doyle could help him to track down a copy of Holmes’s book on the varieties of cigar ash.
Another character seemed real as well: Inspector Lestrade. In story after story, the Scotland Yard detective overlooked clues, chased the wrong suspect, or appealed to Holmes for help in solving a baffling case. In one Strand Magazine offering, Holmes berates the inspector for allowing onlookers to tramp around the body of a murder victim “like a herd of buffalo,” almost obliterating the killer’s boot prints. Advertisements for The Strand stories touted Holmes’s ability to solve cases that “defied the best talent of Scotland Yard—a ‘talent’ for which he had a considerable amount of contempt.” Conan Doyle, for his part, seemed oblivious to how his stories were unfairly tarnishing the Yard’s image. “My experience of British police,” he once noted, “is that they are much more efficient than they seem.”
While Dickens and Collins had portrayed Scotland Yard detectives as clever, even heroic figures, Lestrade helped to perpetuate a new stereotype: the policeman as the bumbling fool. In productions staged in London’s music halls, police officers were the villains or made the butt of jokes. The press was often hostile, especially if an investigation into a high-profile crime appeared to stall. Editorials demanded arrests and questioned the competence of the police. Citizens who felt their safety was compromised were allowed to vent their frustration in angry letters to the editor. Punch poked fun at Scotland Yard’s “Defective Department” while the Pall Mall Gazette questioned the intelligence of detectives and “muddled-headed” bobbies alike.
Scotland Yard’s finest bristled when they read or heard the name Sherlock Holmes. Histories of the force record their resentment at being presented as “inept bunglers with a chronic need for the help of a consulting detective,” the impression that “fools flourished at Scotland Yard.” The Police Review, a pro-police trade journal weary of Conan Doyle’s persistent “sarcasm at the expense of Scotland Yard,” condemned the author for “circulating mischievous popular fallacies” about the methods and competence of its detectives. The adventures of Holmes and Watson made detection look easy, like a genteel parlor game anyone could play. But catching criminals in the real world, grumbled Frederick Wensley, who joined the Metropolitan Police in the late 1880s and rose to the rank of inspector, required hard work, patience, and resourcefulness. Building a case that would stand up in court, he scoffed, required more than “the exercise of pure reason,” a knack for spotting details, or “flashing deductions.”
“The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” one of the stories featured in The Strand Magazine in the winter of 1891-92, pitted Holmes against one of his most formidable adversaries. Dr. Grimesby Roylott trained a venomous yellow snake with brown spots (the “speckled band” of the title) to enter a locked room, kill his step-daughter, and escape without leaving a trace. Only a medical man with knowledge of toxins and their deadly effects, Holmes believes, someone as devious as the notorious physicians-turned-murderers William Palmer and Edward Pritchard, could plan and execute such a near-perfect crime. “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals,” he tells Watson. “He has nerve and he has knowledge.”
Fiction would soon collide with fact as Thomas Neill Cream, a doctor from America, returned to his old haunts in London. Cream would create one of the era’s greatest sensations and challenge the investigative skills of Scotland Yard’s detectives. Sherlock Holmes’s observation that doctors who kill were “the first of criminals” would soon prove eerily prophetic.
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a section of Dean Jobb’s new book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books/ July, 2021), which recreates the hunt for the notorious killer. Details: www.deanjobb.com