Well, Mr. A.,
I’ve never found myself in a position to write you, never really found a reason to axe you one of those -er- prescient questions you’re always gettin’ tossed at you.

But I feel compelled for some truly inexplicable reason to correct your usually unbelievably right self for what is surely a little boo-boo on your part.

In your latest (to me) column (in the San Luis Obispo New Times) titled “Whodunit” you state:
"one of the earliest was the writer who largely created the genre [dectective story], Arthur Conan Doyle. In “The Musgrave Ritual” (1893)…

I may be mistaken, but Wilkie Collins, who died in 1889, is generally regarded as the originator of the detective genre, his most notable works being “The Woman In White” and “The Moonstone.”

That’s all I have to say.
Christopher T. Arata

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Boards, Surfan, glad to have you with us. You cited the column, but it’s helpful to others if you also provide a link – saves lots of time. In this case, it’s In whodunits, it’s “the butler did it.” Who did it first?

Cecil didn’t say that Doyle created the genre, he said Doyle “largely” created the genre. There were certainly earlier detective/mystery stories than Doyle’s. Aside from Collins, Charles Dickens wrote at least one detective story, and Edgar Allen Poe before him “created” the format. But Doyle popularized it, extravagantly, and the wave of detective fiction of the early 1900s was based (largely) on Doyle’s set-up.

And if you mention Sherlock Holmes today, most everyone knows whom you mean. While if you mention Wilkie Collins’ Inspector Cuff, I suspect you’d get blank stares.

Well, I may be mistaken, but credit for “origination”, it seems to me, regardless of what is being discussed, is distinct from citing those making it “mainstream”. Elvis Presley, for instance, was the "originator of no music.
But you would get little argument from anyone that he surely made popular what others created.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are detective stories in the Greek version of the Book of Daniel, found in complete modern Bibles either there or separated out as “Bel and the Dragon” and “Susannah and the Elders”.

Crime and punishment - hmm, could be a good title for a book - have always been worthy subjects for stories, especially morality tales.

I would argue that Poe’s giant step forward was that he split the crime story from the morality story to make it a purer intellectual puzzle.

He also had the timing to be writing after the first police forces in the sense that we understand them today had evolved, so the methods and antagonisms in his stories are still identifiable with today.

And then he included tropes that everybody would later build on: the searching for clues, the impossible crime and the locked room, the least likely suspect, codes and ciphers, the case ripped from the headlines, the adoring assistant to the brilliant amateur who is superior to the bureaucratic forces and can solve crimes from his armchair, and more.

Later writers did not plunder Daniel and Susannah for tropes, they went straight to Poe and adapted (sometimes stole) his concepts and mannerisms wholesale. Doyle certainly did.

That’s enough for me to anoint Poe as the true progenitor of the genre mystery. Doyle added a true series character, whose life could be entered into by fans as adoring as his Watson was, and added a grand sense of atmosphere, but I’ve been trying to think of any innovations that can be laid at his door and none come to mind. I don’t think that even the supervillain almost equal to the superdetective was his. But I stop thinking at midnight and it’s after that now.

Doyle was the popularizer, took what was already becoming commonplace, and had the good fortune to launch a great character when an entire publishing world clamored for mystery short stories.

But Poe created everything and put stories out that lasted despite being tossed into a publishing world that had no concept what to do with them. I see no contest here. I go Poe. (to paraphrase Pogo)

Somehow I suspect you have not read the stories in question.

A good argument could be made, in fact, that the “police procedural” school does owe to “Susannah and the Elders” that which it does not owe to Jack Webb.

No doubt that that might be a fun argument to hear, but realistically there is no need to expend the effort. Police procedurals drew on the existence of modern police forces.

And it’s fairly certain what Poe drew upon. Vidocq’s (ghostwritten) Mémoires (U.S. title, Memoirs of Vidocq, French Police Agent). François Eugène Vidocq was a crook who reformed and used his knowledge of the underworld to become first chief of the police department under Napoleon. His Memoirs were published in 1828, but he went on to become - a private detective.

It can be said that the detective story wasn’t truly possible until after Vidocq, although that probably overstates the case.

But just to forestall any possible confusion, let me note that I never stated that Poe is responsible for police procedurals, which are not on my list of his innovations.