Is Sherlock Goth???—Detective Fiction and the Gothic

Is Sherlock goth???

(I stumbled on this lovely image by @Pencil_Fangirl on Instagram)
(I stumbled on this lovely image by @Pencil_Fangirl on Instagram)

I talk a lot about how modern horror fiction and paranormal romance have descended from the classic Gothic novel. Well, detective stories are yet another example of a popular genre that rose up from this immensely fecund area of fiction. Many of the earliest detective stories were written by authors of Gothic fiction, or otherwise incorporated Gothic elements. In fact, detective fiction is a relatively young genre, and its origin is generally accredited to one of the greatest gothy patriarchs of all—Edgar Allan Poe.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)

Poe, most known for his horror stories and creepy poems, is also considered to have written the first modern detective story—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a short story published in 1841. The story features C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur investigator whose traits have become the basis for many other popular fictional dectives—he’s introverted and brilliant, solving crimes through an intricate trail of logic that no one else could have discovered. He also has a sidekick who narrates the story, serving much the same role as Watson does for Sherlock Holmes.  In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin takes up the puzzling case of the double murder of a woman and her daughter that had taken place in a room that no one else could have accessed. He solves the case by concluding that the murderer was, in fact, an escaped orangutan!

Poe’s influence on the genre can be seen not only in the similarities that other popular detective stories bear to his first tale, but also in the name of the prestigious award presented annually by the Mystery Writers of America—the Edgar Awards. This year’s nominees were recently announced in a press release and the winners will be chosen in April.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)

 If “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was the first modern detective story, then The Moonstone is generally considered the first modern detective novel. The crime in this story is the theft of a precious gem called the Moonstone from the young heiress Rachel Verinder on the night of her birthday. An example of the Imperial Gothic and a product of “Orientalism,” The Moonstone simultaneously romanticizes and “others” the East by revolving around a gemstone with supernatural qualities and a bloody history that was stolen from an Indian temple. The story is told through a collection of different characters’ accounts. Though one of these characters—Sergeant Cuff—is a detective, many other characters are involved in uncovering the solution, and the focus of this story is more on the actual crime than on the man solving it. While Poe’s Dupin introduced tropes relating to the detective character, The Moonstone initiated many tropes of the mystery genre in general, such as the red herring, the re-creation of the crime scene, and the stakeout. The story also has a very surprising twist ending that catches almost every reader off guard.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

And thus, we arrive at our most iconic detective of all—Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure you’re already starting to see the connections I’ve lain out between this classic detective and his more gothic predecessors. But Sherlock not only has his roots in the dark and dreary, gothic elements often find their way into his stories, as well—most notably in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The setting alone is enough to put this one in the creepy category: the mystery takes place on the foggy moors of Devonshire, rumored to be haunted by a hellish hound. The hound is allegedly part of the Baskerville curse, in which an ancestor of the once-great family sold his soul for the power to hunt down a girl he wished to kidnap. Now people are dying of fright on the moors, and Sherlock must discover if there is any truth to this legend. An aristocratic family in a spooky setting with some dark secretes of violence from the past, returned to haunt the present—what could be more gothic? Of course, in the end, the logical wins out over the paranormal—one of the primary differences between the detective/mystery genre and the gothic. Nonetheless, the gothic influence on this story is clear.

Who are your favorite detectives? Have you read any of the stories mentioned above? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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