Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Detective Fiction and a Devotion to Logic

Logic has been the guiding star of many a fictional detective: Sherlock Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin, Hercule Poirot. The list goes on and on when you consider the number of detectives who use their minds and not their fists to solve murders, burglaries, and all sorts of conspiracies before they destroy the government.

In 1841, Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which he introduced Dupin and logical detection to the world. This story is the archetype for innumerable detectives since then -- Holmes, Poirot, and Nero Wolfe among them -- where the narrator of the story is a personal friend of the detective and the solution to the case is presented before the reasoning that lead up to it. Dupin was also the archetype of the brilliant, logical detective.

Dupin was the founding character of what would eventually become common tropes of detective fiction: the eccentric but brilliant detective, the bumbling constabulary, the first-person narration by a close personal friend. Contrary to some later detectives, Sherlock Holmes included, Poe sets up the Paris police as a foil to the detective -- law enforcement very much does not want Dupin's help in this tale. Poe himself called his Dupin stories "tales of ratiocination" as opposed to detective fiction, a term that would come into being later.

Across the pond in England, Charles Dickens added a mystery subplot to Bleak House, where a lawyer is murdered in his office and Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan Police Force has to solve the crime. However, it's Wilkie Collins, a protege of Mr. Dickens, who's The Woman in White is considered the first great mystery novel. T.S. Elliot called Collins's The Moonstone (1868) "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels ... in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe."

Where Poe crafted the brilliant detective that's such a fixture of the genre, Collins added in several other characteristics that mark many twentieth century mystery novels:

  • English country house robbery
  • An "inside job"
  • red herrings
  • A celebrated, skilled, professional investigator
  • Bungling local constabulary
  • Detective enquiries
  • Large number of false suspects
  • The "least likely suspect"
  • A rudimentary "locked room" murder
  • A reconstruction of the crime
  • A final twist in the plot
You'll notice that Poe and Collins share the bungling constabulary and reconstruction of the crime tropes of detective fiction. I think both of them are equally responsible for birthing the genre, but also agree with the historians who place the genesis with Poe and not Collins. That might also be an American-centric viewpoint (for which I apologize to my international readers).

And then, in 1887, we come to one Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street, London. If anyone can be said to rocket detective fiction into the stratosphere, then Holmes is it. The brainchild of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes has become a by-word for the part of the brilliant outside detective who assists the police with solving crimes via his brilliant deductive reasoning. Conan Doyle stated that he based Holmes off Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Conan Doyle worked as a clerk at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary. Dr. Bell was apparently famous for drawing large conclusions from the smallest of observations.

What does this all offer to Steampunk? Well it depends on what you're looking for. In the case of George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes use their deductive reasoning skills to discern the whereabouts of a missing automaton, investigate the strangulations attributed to a glowing policeman, and battle a zombie plague in London's slums. The Affinity Bridge is Steampunk wedded to Detective Fiction in the tradition of Holmes and Dupin.

Much of Steampunk has a devotion to logic inherent in the tale. Victorian sensibilities abound with logical deduction and reasoning, at least in fiction, and stories like The Affinity Bridge carry it forward into Steampunk tales. Alexia Maccon, nee Tarrabotti, the heroine of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, is also highly devoted to logical reasoning when it comes to the underpinning conflict of the stories.

Logic and science fiction go hand-in-hand in other words. Logical underpinnings to the world, mystery subplots, and all sorts of clues and puzzles included in a story are the hallmarks of Detective Fiction and the class of Steampunk that owes its roots to the great detectives of Victorian fiction.

Tomorrow: A special guest blogger writes on Steampunk Fashion
Monday: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles


Elisabeth Black said...

Great post! An english prof of mine introduced me to The Woman in White, which is really the best of Collins's novels, in my opinion.

L. T. Host said...

You know, I just went to Barnes and Noble last night, and then I come read this and there are MORE BOOKS I need to go buy now.

Great post, can't wait for your guest tomorrow!

JournoMich said...

Fantastic. I still think it started with Poe, but (please don't shoot me) Collins did an even better job of it! Poe was a fantastic spinner of tales, weaver of the macabre. But Collins fully enhanced his characters and plumped up his stories to include all that you listed and more. It is from both roots--as well as later writers like Conan Doyle and Christie--that we owe our heritage.

I wasn't familiar with 'The Affinity Bridge' before noe. I assumed steampunk claimed the same roots as mystery, owing much to Conan Doyle and his Victorian London and tinkering detective.


Matthew Delman said...

Beth --

I wouldn't have even recognized Collins's work if you didn't comment about him on a previous post. Now I know his importance, which is awesome.

L.T. --

Mwahahahaha! My evil plan is working.

Michele --

I've yet to read either author in any detail when it comes to their mystery stories, so I'm going to reserve judgment on who did it better until I do. Your thoughts are always appreciated though!

Adam Heine said...

This post makes me want to read Batman. Also (not surprisingly) Sherlock Holmes.

The Daring Novelist said...

I was trying to put my finger on what attracts me to steampunk, when I'm really much more of a mystery person than an sf or fantasy person. You've put your finger on it!

Yes, I think the roots are very similar.