The Common Roots of Gothic and Crime

The Common Roots of Gothic and Crime
© Photograph by Force Prizma

One could say that the struggle between the Romantic Spirit and Reason was finally won by the latter, and it was rationality that came to represent the standard line of inquiry by the beginning of the twentieth-century. Still, this development did not automatically eliminate human longing for the marvellous, the fantastic, and the unexplainable. In fact, Maurizio Ascari, in his ‘Counter-History of Crime Fiction: Supernatural, Gothic, Sensational’, argues that “the enjoyment of readers depended precisely on the interplay between natural and supernatural elements, which engendered a fruitful tension between the domain of the intellect and that of the emotions”.

The industrial revolution, urbanization and technological advancements offered a lifestyle bereft of superstitions, premonitions and the irrational fear of the unknown, yet at the same time these very processes cast serious doubts on the place of humanity in the larger scheme of things. All these incredible developments such as electricity, railway, photography, telephone or automobile disrupted temporal and spatial certainties offered by pre-modern times, and introduced new entries into the dictionary of phobias, fears and unexplained phenomena. Paradoxically then, the proud march of social and political progress as well as scientific invention did not dispel the shadows of the pre-industrial times, but rather perversely illuminated new fields of obscurity and the uncanny.

Thus, “the melodramatic imagination,” clearly noticeable in a number of nineteenth-century literary genres, “represented a conservative antidote to modernity, whose aesthetic fruit was realism and whose ideological fruit was positivism” (Ascari 58). Victorian writers, in particular, relied on symmetry, parallelism and opposition in order to sketch the everlasting battle between good and evil forces, fateful events and their far-reaching consequences. Maurizio Ascari rightly identifies how the baroque plots, amazing coincidences and seemingly chaotic chance encounters on which the vast majority of Victorian plots have founded a hint at a reality in which people are mere puppets.

This preoccupation with auspicious turns of events and ghastly family secrets informs the concept of “gothic vestigiality” in which the sins of the fathers are visited on their children and which, in turn, nicely connects the Old Testament idea of retribution and the inescapability of punishment with the scientific emphasis on heredity and the Darwinian evolutionary theory (Spooner 246).

Thus, “gothic vestigiality” came to signify one of the central tropes of nineteenth-century fiction and as such permeated and shaped a number of genres, including that of crime fiction. To use Lucy Sussex’s expression, the Gothic could be seen as “a Pangea of genre literatures, containing within it the future continents of horror, science fiction (as with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’) and crime writing” (18). Lucy Sussex’s broad list is also echoed in Catherine Spooner’s lengthy enumeration of the specific genres influenced by the Gothic over the course of the nineteenth-century: “the ‘Newgate’ novel, Walter Scott’s historical fiction, the realist fiction of [Charles John Huffam] Dickens and the Brontës, the sensation novel, the ghost story, the American Gothic of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and crucially, the detective story” (246).

Notwithstanding the pervasiveness of “the melodramatic imagination” and “gothic vestigiality,” the last few decades of the nineteenth-century witnessed the detective story writers and critics giving shape to the new genre by deftly “denying its sensational heritage” (Maurizio Ascari 1) and, consequently, cutting any links to the Gothic. Spooner adds that “[i]n the climate of literary Modernism, Gothic was deeply unfashionable, and as a consequence Gothic associations were stripped from the detective story, which was regarded as merely a logical puzzle, ending by celebrating the triumph of rationalism” (246).

The emphasis was to be placed on rationality rather than emotionality, on the one hand, and on high-brow and intellectually demanding literature rather than Victorian melodrama, on the other. Spooner links this anti-Gothic stance to the “modernist desire for severance from the nineteenth-century and its supposedly torpid literary conventions” (248), which in turn could be subsumed under a much larger discussion of the place and function of the middle class on the eve of the twentieth-century. As the middle-classes were vivacious and indiscriminate consumers of Victorian sentimental and sensational texts, it only stands to reason that the modernist turn to high-brow literature marked an attempt to channel and shape bourgeois aspirations to the upper-class artistic patronage.

The newly emerging genre of detective fiction had to sever its ties from both its Gothic kin and sensational predecessors in the vein of the Newgate Calendar or William Wilkie Collins’ novels, and prove to the readers and critics alike that it had been purged of any residual emotional taints which were gradually transferred to the uncultured and easily excitable lower-class body. By denying middle-class readers their simple pleasures derived from Gothic and crime fiction, the modernist critics and authors wanted to remove generic literature from it is torpid, tacky and blatantly plebeian roots.

In a somewhat different vein, Srdjan Smajić describes the need for “generic purity” in crime fiction as a form of metatextual anxiety “that the supposedly rational genre in which the supposedly rational [Sherlock] Holmes feels at home is everywhere contaminated by the supernatural, occult, or irrational; that the epistemological principles and investigative procedures that define detective fiction’s characteristic modality are deeply implicated in what the genre insists on condescendingly treating as ‘rubbish’ and ‘pure lunacy’”. Unsurprisingly, intense anxiety that the generic purity might be unattainable begets even more anxiety to a point where authors somewhat neurotically begin to probe the boundaries between the genres. Thus, even the foundational detective stories of Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle were haunted by “clairvoyance, intuitionism and spiritualism,” which marked a titillating and illicit liaison between the two generic realms (Smajić 6).

The quest for generic purity in crime fiction was aided by a growing critical scholarship penned during the “Golden Era of Detective Fiction” in the 1920s and 1930s. Texts such as the 10 commandments of a mystery novel written by Ronald Arbuthnott Knox in 1929 (or a more detailed list by S. S. Van Dine from 1928) sought to give shape to the expanding corpus of texts and provide a consistent framework for future critical analysis. Some of these early essays were later collected by Howard Haycraft in ‘The Art of the Mystery Story’ (1946); he also published his own critical analysis of the genre five years earlier. These seminal works signed by Howard Haycraft presented original crime fiction texts and their analyses selected so as “to sustain a normative view of a genre whose borders were being traced with increasing sharpness,” effectively blocking unwanted elements which stood for cheap thrills and morbid Gothicism (Ascari 3).

As Joel Black suggests in ‘Crime Fiction and the Literary Canon,’ the emphasis on the powers of rational and logical mind served to elevate detective fiction as an art form wholly divorced from its sordid, sensational roots: “Whereas the artistry of criminal-centered crime fiction tends to lie in Gothic sensationalism and psychological analysis, the artistry of detective fiction has traditionally been attributed to its display of what [Edgar Allan] Poe called ‘ratiocination’ and Arthur Conan Doyle ‘intellectual acuteness’”.


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