Detection and The City

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 26, 2013

The professional detective is primarily an urban figure. I touch on this association a few times in Brilliant Deduction, as well as how the rise of the detective profession to its greatest prominence coincided with the rise of the expanding industrial cities of 19th century Europe and America; the combination of very large concentrations of people (mostly unfamiliar to one another and constantly being joined by immigrants from the countryside or overseas), with evolutions in commerce (e.g. the spread of banking services) and transportation (e.g. the railroad’s enabling rapid access to distant points on the map) found old-fashioned law enforcement measures sorely wanting.

I was pleased to see some of the same ideas, recently, examined in a work looking at the other side of the phenomenon, i.e. cities. In City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, P.D. Smith considers seemingly more aspects of life than not, in fact, appropriately enough given his thesis that the tendency toward urban life is an essential part of what defines the human race. At any rate, a great deal of human experience since the beginning of recorded history has been part of the urban experience, certainly, crime and crimefighting being no exceptions.

Smith notes that “Crime fiction emerges at the same time as the rise of the great industrial cities of Europe and America,” including detective fiction, the prototype of which was Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

When “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was first published, the word “detective” did not even exist in the English language. The first detective department [in the Anglophone world] appeared the year after, in 1842. Even in 1840, New York… had no full-time, professional police force. Indeed, there was little serious crime. But over the coming decades the situation changed as the city grew rapidly. In 1859, the New York Herald complained: “Our record of crime to-day is truly appalling. Scarcely is the excitement attending one murder allayed when a fresh tragedy equally horrible takes place.” … Within thirty years, policing became New York City’s single largest expenditure and there was a growing fear of organised crime.”

Pretty much, yeah. Poe, of course, was partly inspired to write the first detective story by the exploits of the first detective, Vidocq… the word “detective” was introduced to the English language by Charles Dickens, in articles about Jonathan Whicher and other members of the detective force established to address London’s “appalling” crime problems… in the years ahead, the rapid growth of not only New York but newer American cities on the western frontier, such as Chicago and San Francisco, created opportunities for remarkable figures in both private detection (such as Allan Pinkerton) and public forces (such as Isaiah Lees). Even the one exception to Brilliant Deduction‘s otherwise urban-dwelling cast, Ellis Parker, may have lived and worked in a rural small-town setting but was at the same time firmly within the super-urbanized region that first spawned the term “megalopolis.”

One might indeed have subtitled my book The Story of Real-Life Great-City Detectives… except that it would have been thoroughly redundant.

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