Crime fiction. Early nineteenth century detective fiction became

Crime Fiction ENG 30920: Final essay 2017


Many of the texts on this course posit a
‘strange, foreign criminality lying at the edge of the knowable’ (McBreatney).

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Discuss the relationship between
criminality and race as represented in one or two of the texts from the


The crime novel
was one of the greatest literary revolutionaries to ever hit the world. From
the baffling murders of Madame L`Espanaye and her daughter in Poe`s iconic “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to the
adventures of Hercule Poirot as the leading detective in Agatha Christie`s
novels it cannot be denied that this genre has been enjoyed by readers of all
generations. Detective fiction has gone through rigorous change since it was
first developed. The genre gained popularity in the early nineteenth century
and has since gained a notable platform in literature. Earlier detective novels
are significantly different to the later stories in style, literary technique
and most notably the representation of people of an Eastern ethnicity or coloured
race. It is evident in these early novels, particularly from British writing,
that people with coloured skin were viewed as unusual and different. This paper
will research the stark contrast of race and criminality between early and late
detective stories. While many scholars would argue that early authors,
particularly British, came across as racist through their works, it is also
true that they were writing from their experiences of trying to understand
civilizations outside of Europe. The three points of discussion for this essay on
the connection between race and criminality particularly Eastern ethnicities, in
early fiction, that authors were following social ideologies rather than being
intentionally racist and lastly that the modern crime novel sought to reverse
the stereotypical roles placed on coloured people. The two novels that will be
discussed in detail in relation to the above points are Wilkie Collins “The moonstone” and “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley.  The first point that will be discussed is the
connection between race and criminality in early detective fiction.


Early nineteenth century detective fiction became widely
popular within English literature

before expanding out into Europe and the rest of the
world. British society at this time was enveloped in patriarchy, imperialism
and the Empire. They were the biggest Empire of the world, having already
colonised numerous countries and civilizations. Britain was the wealthiest and
most powerful nation of the 19th century. With the birth of the
Industrial revolution this further enhanced life in Britain and the dominant
nature of the Empire. In an article called “Exporting
culture” the author quotes


“The 20th-century prominence of the United
States in the areas of politics, economics, intellectual debate, and popular
culture has obscured the significance of Great Britain’s influence in the 19th
century” (Lawrence, 23, 2003).


Which emphasizes
just how powerful the British Empire was during this time. As such any civilization or group of people that came
from Eastern ethnicities or of a coloured race, by British standards, were the
exotic creatures of the world, discovered by the rich colonists. At first,
western society were fearful of the people from foreign countries. They used to
view them as savagery and animalistic in nature, unsure of how to understand
their differences in customs, traditions and beliefs.   `

British Authors of this generation, who were keen to
represent British city life in a positive light, were somewhat controversial in
the manners in which they would describe other cultures and races against what
they thought was normal. This was because British writers were heavily
influenced by imperialism (Johnston, 2005).  Crime fiction became the centre of English literature
and it encompassed these very ideas.  While early detective fiction is considered
highly intelligible in terms of structure and technique, it cannot be denied
that authors such as Poe or Collins were a part of a generation of writers who
coined the term of “otherness” when referring to people of an Eastern or `exotic`
background. Given the time frame of when these authors were alive, there were
many contributing factors that lead to foreign people being represented in
controversial ways through literature. In early nineteenth century Britan the
exposure that people had to the world beyond their front door was limited due
to lack of transport, media and education. Anything out of the ordinary,
particularly humans of a different ethnicity were so shocking and new to
people, which is why many saw them as fascinating creatures, rather than humans.  One country that was particularly subjected
to this racial ideology was India. By the middle of the 19th century
Britain had already colonised most of India and it became known as the “the
jewel in the British crown”. Wilkie Collins famous detective novel “The moonstone” is a great recount of the
events that happened during the Anglo-Sikh war in India and how Indian culture was
represented to the British reader of the nineteenth century.


Moonstone” is the first full-length
crime novel in English literature. The main action of the novel takes place
takes place in the years between 1848 and 1849, at the time of the second
Anglo-Sikh War in India, which established British control over that country
with great certainty through occupation of the vast areas of the Punjab. The
historical significance is emphasized at the beginning of the story. The Fourth
Anglo-Mysore War of 1789 until 1799 was an important English victory which marked
the beginning of Arthur Wellesley’s rule as Governor-General. This was
characterized by ruthless diplomacy extending what Wellesley referred to now as
“the empire” of the East India Company. In fact, the triumph at
Seringapatam, as Collins knew, depicted the establishment of England as the
major power on the sub-continent, at the same time confirming expansion and
exploitation as a company practice. (Reed, 1973)


The actual title of the story Moonstone, is a direct reference to a very rare diamond. It received
its unusual name from the connections it had to the Hindu god of the moon, Chandra. It
was said to be protected by hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu because it held such a
high, valued position to the Hindu religion. The plot of the story first brings
the reader into Indian culture, it presents the history of the jewel and it`s
important values which is crucial in understanding the rest of the story. The
plot than quickly jumps back into the present day where the female antagonist,
named Rachel Verinder, receives a large diamond on her eighteenth birthday, the
valued moonstone, that had been stolen years prior by British colonists during
the war. She is unaware of the great significance that this stone is worth and
that three Indian men have dedicated their life to protecting the stone. She
wears the stone to her birthday party that evening to which they have hired
three Indian jugglers who are present at the event. They are the guardians in disguise
and of course see the stone, aware of what it is and steal it back in the
middle of the night. Thus, begins the case of the missing moonstone and the
events that unfold for the present-day characters in the story. This where the
controversial ideas of the 19th century association with criminality
come into action. There seems to be a sense that throughout the novel Indians are
thought to have an agenda to commit crime and steal, not because their bad people,
just Indian. What Gabriel Betteredge, the main servant and narrator of
the story has some controversial lines of in the way he associates criminality
to the Indian race. He quotes

“Now I am not a sour old
man. I am generally all for amusement, and the last person in the world to
distrust another person because he happens to be a few shades darker than
myself. But the best of us have our weaknesses, and my weakness, when I know a
family-plate basket to be out on the pantry table, is to be instantly reminded
of that basket by the sight of a strolling stranger whose manners are superior
to mine” (Collins, 1886, 14). This was the biggest racial issue of the
nineteenth century when referring to groups of a coloured ethnicity. In white,
western culture it was always presumed that those with a dark skin tone were
criminals by nature. That they were not custom to the proper ways of the world
and that you needed to keep an eye on your possessions when in their company.
Even though the plot includes the Indians robbing the moonstone from Rachel, it
is the attitude that comes with presuming their intentions before they happened
that was wrong. Another controversial reference in the book is when Betteredge
decribes the moonstone as “devilish”.

“If he was right, here
was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian Diamond,
bringing after it a conspiracy of rogues, set loose on us by the vengeance of a
dead man”. (Collins, 40, 1886)

This quote has many
meanings. First, it suggests that the moonstone has supernatural abilities that
include invading a house and using its power to inflict danger on the family.
The use of the words “devilish Indian” in this context does not uphold Indian
culture in a positive light. One interesting and yet important reference in the
quote is when both nationalities are stated, the “English house” and the
“Indian Diamond”. It is almost a direct reference in suggesting that British
society are afraid of the countries they have invaded.  Betteredge, uses the words “invaded by a
devilish Indian Diamond” which is a metaphor regarding the anxiety many British
citizens feared, that the countries the British Empire colonized and oppressed
might one day come back and invade them.

The story is a
combination of ideas. While there are significant controversial racist
references to Indian folk, there are also plenty of positive ideas that help to
uplift the importance of their culture and beliefs. This leads into the second
point of the essay that argues that authors from the 19th century,
including Collins were following social ideologies rather than being
intentionally racist. This is evident in his novel, “The Moonstone”.

Before Herncastle has the stone at the siege of Seringapatam
in 1799, the stone has already passed through the hands of numerous vain
conquerors. The opening plot changes the protected object into a symbol of magnificence
and authority that no normal human should own, but which, despite its curse, sinful
soldiers and warriors of different nations have pursed. The fact that owning
what no one should possess merely adds to the Moonstone’s value and allure.

In the story it is emphasized that Indian civilization comes
from a place of worth and value. The Moonstones value and properties are
connected to “ancient Greece and Rome” which is the first indication
that India is not completely viewed as animalistic, violent or backward
thinking, that the beliefs of ancient civilisation are respected traditions and
beliefs. The British army storming Seringapatam under General Baird, whom,
Collins insinuates, no better than those eleventh-century Moslem invaders of
India under Mahmoud of Ginzi, who committed an act of gruesome vandalism and
sacrilege in stripping “the shrine of Hindoo pilgrimage, and the wonder of
the eastern world” (Collins, 2, 1886). The ruthless violent nature and
“rapacity of the conquering Mohammedans”, meet Colonel Herncastle
after the British army has converted the city’s Moslem defenders into a
“heap” of dead bodies. In retrospect outrageous, foolish,
hot-tempered, Herncastle is ridiculous when he boasts to his fellow officers
“that we should see the Diamond on his finger” (Collins, 3, 1886), for
he clearly has no idea of the dimensions of the valued object he resents and ploughs
through blood to retrieve but can never enjoy. Disgraced forever, Herncastle is
coerced to abandon his position in the Guards for the remainder of his life
being given over to the self-indulgent pursuit of happiness.

As the plot continues to unfold there is a wave of
uncomfortable presence when descriptions of Indian people are brought to the
surface. Many of the quotes are harsh and very blunt accounts towards Indian
folk.  There are numerous references
throughout the novel that describe the physique and characteristics of the
Indians in a controversial style.

“Going round to the
terrace, I found three mahogany-coloured Indians, in white linen frocks and
trousers looking up at the house”. (Collins, 14)

Betteredge, the main servant, describes the Indian jugglers
who come to the house as “mahogany-coloured”. Mahogany is a dark-coloured
wood that grows in exotic locations and it shows that Betteredge’s description
goes beyond a racist reference to the skin colour of the three Indian men.
While some readers would see this as racist, it is an accurate representation,
given the time era, as mentioned, they had no advance way of seeing people
through coloured pictures, so the description it needed to be extra clear
within literature. He associates their skin tone with a type wood that was
expensive and exotic, obtained only by trade with British colonies during the
nineteenth century, which is arguably a compliment if anything else because he
is referring to the colour of their skin to an expensive object. This example shows
how Indian people were described in early English literature.

 The conclusion of the story, no
one seems to regard the three Brahmins, as rightful protectors of the moonstone.
Herncastle maliciously leaves the stone to Rachel Verinder because she rejected
him, and he wants revenge, the Brahmins risk their lives by disguising as
people from a lower class of musicians and jugglers, to take back the stone.
They sacrifice and dedicate their lives to serve their god. This is a strong
and powerful depiction of Indians that show their passion and willingness to
protect what is sacred to them.

English literature during the nineteenth century gave rise and
popularity to the novel. Crime and detective fiction encompassed a wide range
of emotions such as love, lust, fear, anger and frustration. It brought readers
to the edge of their seats. Even years after Collins, detective fiction was
still at the centre of literature. Through pivotal changes in society such as
the birth of television, coloured photography and radio communication and
education between and of countries became more accessible. It is no surprise
that this had a huge impact on the way writers addressed certain issues such as
race and criminality in their works. This leads into the last point of the
essay that the modern crime novel sought to reverse the stereotypical roles
placed on coloured people, ” Devil in a
blue dress” by Walter Mosley does exactly that.

 “Devil in a blue dress” breaks down the
stereotypical mould by making the lead character a black man, a significant
step in Twentieth century detective fiction. This was a huge change given that
most literature had the leading roles as white men. Not only is the protagonist
African-American but he is also the detective who is solving the crime. Another
common perception in detective fiction in early years was to place the coloured
person into the position of criminality.

Easy Rawlins, is an African-American
hard-boiled private detective and World War 2 veteran. He has no family, is
self-educated and lives in the watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles. He is a
former Texas factory worker who has moved to California, mainly to escape the
influence of his friend Mouse, an unpredictable and violent character. When he
is fired from his aircraft factory job after a racial incident with his
foreman, Easy accepts the job of searching for Daphne Monet; ironically, the
danger into which the search leads Easy causes him to contact Mouse and ask for
his help. Easy’s is a divided character. Part of him wants to pursue the
American Dream and yet he finds his new job unsettling. He is haunted by his
World War II experiences in Europe, and he becomes increasingly uncomfortable
with the violent situations into which he is repeatedly drawn into including
his new case. Another side of Easy’s nature, however, enjoys his new lifestyle.
Eventually, Easy discovers that detective work provides him with an
independence and self-confidence, that gives him dominance and authority that
he has not previously had. Easy as a character is an iconic figure in literary history
due to his African-American background and where he has come from. The fact
that he is placed into a position of authority such as the detective role, places
other character into the position of criminality which was always associated
with coloured people. Even the character of Daphne Monet shows how she is accepting
of races and different lifestyles.

Easy is driven by the goal to achieve
financial security. He is barely getting by and after losing his job he believes
he can only get what is accessible to white people through criminal and violent
means. The character mouse quotes “And
a nigger ain’t never gonna be happy ‘less he accepts what he is,” (Mosley, 253,
1999). Mosley suggests
that desperate times call for desperate means. The novel takes place in 1948
when problems of economic security, joblessness and disenfranchisement were
prevalent in the black community.

Easy’s house and his connection to it
also brings up some ambiguity. Is Easy’s obvious love for his house because he
has attached some misguided notion of “whiteness” to owning land? Or does
owning a house give Easy agency and make him feel worthwhile in a world that does
not fulfil him. When he speaks about his house, he mentions the fruit trees and
the flowers. “Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper’s farm or that I
never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home” (Mosley,
56, 1999). 

The novel is a powerful representation of
where African-Americans were being placed into society both in 1948 and arguably
when the book was published in 1999. It is, however, Easy Rawlins, who lives in the 1940s,
is a modern fictional creation. Mosley took on writing as a social and artistic cause to
educate his readers about the many roles black people have played in United
States history. Easy has since become a favourite contemporary literary hero in
20th and 21st century crime and detective fiction.  


It cannot be denied that the representation
of criminality and race has changed over the years. Since the earlier detective
stories of the 19th century to the late 20th century
authors have continued to adapt, with the world around them. While some readers
or scholars will look at earlier novels such as “The moonstone” and see it as racist, there is also room for an argument
to suggest the authors did not have malicious intent, rather it was the time
that they lived through. If society had stayed the same authors such as Mosley may
have also described characters of a coloured race in a similar manner. Nonetheless
crime and detective fiction has remained at the forefront of our society
through every medium including cinematography. Crime fiction authors were
revolutionary in what they created.























Cunin, Elisabeth, et al.
CENTURIES.” Caribbean Studies, vol. 41, no. 2, 2013, pp. 31–60.

Collins, Wilkie, The
Moonstone, 1868,

Ewan. “Reinventing Fiji at 19th-Century and Early 20th-Century
Exhibitions.” The Journal of Pacific History, vol. 40, no. 1, 2005,
pp. 23–44. 

4.      Lawrence, Susan. “Exporting Culture:
Archaeology and the Nineteenth-Century British Empire.” Historical
Archaeology, vol. 37, no. 1, 2003, pp. 20–33. 

5.      Mosley, Walter “Devil in a blue dress” 1990

6.      Reed, R. John, “English
imperialism and the unacknowledged crime of The Moonstone, 1973, 286-287

7.      Soitos, Stephen The Blues Detective: A
Study of African American Detective Fiction, 1996,

8.      Reed, R. John, “English
imperialism and the unacknowledged crime of The Moonstone, 1973, 286-287

9.      Vielmas, Laurence Talairach, “Wilkie Collins,
Medicine and the Gothic” 2009



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