If you want to see where your way of mind was born, go to the 19th century, which begins with the French Revolution and ends with the First World War. You will find very little of who you are—how you think, how you consume, how you get high, how you make money—in the world before this long century. For example, the detective—who in our time is a more common figure than the priest—is born in the 19th century. In a series of articles published around 1851 in the journal Household Words, the novelist Charles Dickens wrote about London’s first detective force, which had seven members, one of whom, Inspector Field, inspired the character of Inspector Bucket in what is almost the first detective novel in the history of mankind, Bleak House. I say almost because its core, its essence, is not a crime, but instead a broken heart.
The inventor of the pure detective form is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, whose short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in 1841 and featured an inspector, Dupin. But the first detective novel, a novel whose essence is a crime and whose mode is the detection related to that crime—a whodunit proper—is Wilkie Collins’s 1868 masterpiece The Moonstone.
Then I saw the raging sea, and the rollers tumbling in on the sand bank, and the driven rain sweeping over the waters like a flying garment, and the yellow wilderness of the beach with one solitary black figure standing on it—the figure of Sergeant Cuff.
With modifications connected to geography, medium, and time, the figure of Sergeant Cuff is repeated through the rest of the 19th century, and across the span of the 20th century, in the figures of Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Lieutenant Columbo, Detective Lennie Briscoe. The first, main, and best chapter of The Moonstone, which is narrated by a butler, Gabriel Betteredge (the book has a total of eight narratives by different witnesses), introduces Sergeant Cuff. The detective is hired to investigate the theft of a precious stone, which itself was looted by a corrupt British officer from a sect in India that worships a moon god. The night after the British officer bequeathed the mysterious jewel to his niece, an attractive and slender 18-year-old woman named Rachel Verinder, it disappeared. Its loss looms as a complete mystery, and the clues are confusing everyone, and to make matters more perplexing, there are three Indians (apparently jugglers) lurking near the country estate.
Sergeant Cuff must make sense of this mess. Like the detectives that follow him, he is eccentric. In between working out the clues and observing suspects, he frequently stops to talk about roses with the gardener “…[W]ith a bottle of Scotch whisky between them,” says Betteredge, “[the two were] head over ears in an argument on the growing of roses… As far as I could understand it, the question between them was, whether the white moss rose did, or did not, require to be budded on the dog rose to make it grow well. Mr. Begbie said, Yes; and Sergeant Cuff said, No.” Cuff’s passion for roses is much like Holmes’s passion for bees.
Collins, who was a close friend of Dickens, wrote the first detective novel, The Moonstone, while he was totally high on laudanum. This is why the novel is so intoxicating, so atmospheric. The drug seems to shoot through the body of the work, and we see through a lurid haze the exoticized/eroticized world of Victorian interiors, landscapes framed by train windows, and night encounters on city streets. The detective is invented to throw the light of knowledge on this crepuscular society, whose center is increasingly destabilized by trade, commerce, and financial exchanges with the other strange societies. Betteredge: “…[H]ere was our quite English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian diamond.”
At the end of The Moonstone, the mystery is solved, order is restored—Sergeant Cuff’s work is done. But by 1889, Cuff’s successor, Holmes, is a junkie. From the end of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four:
“[T]he division seems rather unfair,” [Watson] remarked. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it. Jones gets the credit, pray, what remains for you?”
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it.