Thursday, 2 May 2013

New review of new book on detective history

One of the central aspects of my work on the Pace case was the effort by Scotland Yard detectives (led by Chief Inspector George Cornish) to solve the mystery of Harry Pace's death.

The Pace matter, as I show in the book, proved a particularly difficult one, and the detectives were ultimately unsuccessful.

However, researching the history of the case required also considering many aspects of police history more generally, something that I've also followed up on in a series of recent (and forthcoming) publications on the broader context of inter-war policing (and police scandals).

In this vein, my review essay on a fascinating new book by Haia Shpayer-Makov on the history of police detectives -- both in fact and in fiction -- has just been published at Reviews in History.

It starts like this:

‘A detective’, wrote a crime-fiction reviewer in 1932, ‘should have something of the god about him’:
It was the divine, aloof, condescending quality in the old great ones of Poe, Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins and Sherlock Holmes that made their adventures so glamorously irresistible. A writer of detective stories might have a style as brilliant as Poe’s, as consummately competent as Collins’s, as pompously absurd as Doyle’s – it did not matter: what mattered was whether he gave us a detective whom we could worship.(1)
Even the most ardent fan of crime fiction might think ‘worship’ an overstatement; nonetheless, by the time those words were written, detectives had indeed become among the most popular figures of modern literature. In the decades since that ‘golden age’ of crime fiction, police detectives have often even managed to hold their own against their previously more celebrated private counterparts, whether in print, on television or at the cinema. As The Ascent of the Detective makes clear, such trends are remarkable in view of the suspicion that greeted real-life police detectives in their early years and their frequent literary belittlement.

Detectives have become a familiar and popular part of both real and fictional police work.

As Shpayer-Makov's book shows, that was not always the case.

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