Visit Homepage
Skip to content


Heather Worthington, The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction
(New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 216 pp.
ISBN 1403941084 $65.00 (hbk)

Lucy Jane Kay

Heather Worthington’s The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction is a highly accessible and erudite study drawing on extensive archival material to identify early sources for the emergence of detective and crime fiction. The author provides the economic context for the publication of various broadsheets and ‘the sea of ephemeral and periodic literature produced in this period’ (p.1). Worthington uncovers the ideologies surrounding the readership of a wide range of published materials and, drawing on Foucault’s ideas regarding state-imposed discipline, presents a compelling argument for the disciplinary function of the police detective. She comments intelligently throughout on issues relating to gender and class and draws attention to the evolution of popular acceptance of the figure of the police detective. Supported by quotations from a range of publications, the work recreates the flavour of the period and bolsters the author’s arguments about the relation between private and public spheres.

The book is divided into three sections. The first identifies publications that have hitherto received little critical attention: the broadside material and Blackwood’s criminography. In the second section, Worthington considers the ‘pseudo-autobiographies of professional men’ (p.3) and the creation of a discursive space for the detective in both fictional and factual literature and in reality. Finally, the author examines the New Metropolitan Police and its changing relation to the public and analyses the political dimensions of surveillance and the gaze.

In the first chapter, Worthington suggests that the criminal broadsheet publications invaded the privacy of death through the public accounts of executions, often sensationalised, dramatised and priced to attract the working classes. As crime is constructed as a sovereign offence, the criminal loses his or her individual identity. The author draws attention to the broadsheets’ focus on the staging of executions and signifying processes. The publications offer a monitory function through their use of emotive language. Moving on to De Quincey and, in particular, his essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, published in the February 1827 issue of Blackwood’s, Worthington states that ‘… this essay exemplifies the intellectual appropriation of the sensational crime of the broadsides by the literary establishment’ (p. 24). Worthington sees De Quincey as an ‘authorial proto-detective’ (p.27), providing as evidence his psychological insights into crime and analytical methods. Thus, she argues, the earlier sensationalism of the broadsheets is appropriated as other discourses contribute to the development of the genre, allowing for reformation of the criminal and reinstatement into the capitalist state. This parallels contemporary moves towards penal reform and a shift from crime to criminal.

Noting the middle — and upper — class appeal of Blackwood’s, Worthington considers the significance of personal narratives and the frequent medical discourses linking crime to disease. The specialist agent is linked to the later professional detective through the use of reconstruction and profiling techniques. Worthington then analyses sensational fiction in Blackwood’s, identifying a Gothic flavour and eroticisation of the female body in several stories. She details the relation between criminal, audience and reader and the construction of the criminal as infectious. Her consideration of Warren’s ‘Expiation’ leads to her comments on the use of narrative voice to construct the reader as detective, as in the later work of Agatha Christie. Worthington’s descriptions of lurid accounts of murder are both captivating and instructive, leading to debates on the secular versus the divine in the latter end of this section.

In the second section, Worthington considers Samuel Warren’s short stories in greater detail. The narrating physician, she suggests, creates a discursive place for the detective and thus contributes significantly to the figure’s evolution. Through a move toward moral instruction, these stories clearly identify the disciplinary detective. Worthington describes the narrative of ‘Cancer’ in which a female patient is undergoing — we conjecture — a mastectomy without anaesthesia. A letter from her husband provides her only relief from pain and thus ‘The good, devoted wife survives the operation and is pronounced cured’ (p.55) The dangers in and to a woman in the absence of a male figure and the concept of the incomplete family are also highlighted in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek fashion. Worthington expands the scope of her argument to the legal profession through an exploration of Warren’s work as a barrister and his accounts of crimes in The Experiences of a Barrister. Many of the cases relate to women and property and the protection of their rights. Worthington posits Warren as an early armchair detective whose profession and discourse are legal, though his methods and social mobility are more in keeping with the private detective. She further suggests that in later stories in Experiences, the emphasis shifts from the identification of guilt to the proof of innocence. The judicial system itself is now open to criticism. Pre-figuring Poe’s detectives and Sherlock Holmes, the aptly named Ferret works as an investigator in the private sphere, legitimised by the law. The similarities between detective and criminal and the contest between equal minds are strongly evident in Experiences, as is the difference between law and justice.

In her final section, Worthington examines the influence of the New Metropolitan Police Force. Here she outlines the Force’s transition from government-controlled police to publicly accepted entity. She suggests that, in London in particular, the increase in population led to the rise of a criminal class. She points to the significance of property — or theft of property — as the central concern of an increasingly mercantile metropolis whilst, at the same time, the ostentatious show of commercial wealth and the juxtaposition of poverty and riches contributed to the creation of criminal desires. According to Worthington, the influence of the press changed negative public perceptions as accounts became increasingly sympathetic to police activity. The police were represented as employees of the public, not of the state, policed in turn by the watchful eye of the press.

Worthington offers a perceptive analysis of the character of Waters, the policeman/detective in Recollections, and suggests that he represents the domestic model as he adopts a chivalrous relation to the cases he investigates and promotes a docile society characterised by patriarchal values. Worthington suggests that Waters employs intellectual detection, intuition and chance in his work, thus prefiguring future private detectives, many of whom are constructed as liminal figures, mediating between public and private worlds, the moral and the criminal. These early models, suggests Worthington, culminate in the figure of Sherlock Holmes and the establishment of the crime genre.

In her conclusion, Worthington draws attention to the gaps in her work; a second book is required to consider fully the development of the Holmes figure. While at times points are overly emphasised and the writing becomes rather dense, the book represents a significant contribution to the understanding of the origins of the detective genre. With its extensive archival research, Worthington’s study is not only highly informative, but amusing and varied throughout.

To Cite This Article:

Lucy Jane Kay – ‘Review: Heather Worthington The Rise of the Detective in Early Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]