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Decoding the Detectives. Kate Roach. Work on popular representation of science dominated by ‘mad scientist’ Common emblems, bubbling vials, white coat Often scripted as an ‘over-reacher’ like Victor Frankenstein. Cartoon from British Guardian newspaper in Turney (1998).

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Decoding the Detectives

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Work on popular representation of science dominated by ‘mad scientist’

  • Common emblems, bubbling vials, white coat
  • Often scripted as an ‘over-reacher’ like Victor Frankenstein

Cartoon from British Guardian newspaper in Turney (1998)


different type of scientist visible in crime and detective genres

  • forensic psychologist, pathologists and detectives join forces in a script that reverses the ‘over-reacher’ and restores moral order
  • studies of detective fiction acknowledge the importance of science, often within a Foucauldian framework. Studies of the representation of science do not acknowledge detectives as scientists

Detectives and Mad Scientists

How do the representations themselves intersect?

Is the detective an alternative model of science to that associated with the ‘mad scientist’?


The Moonstone Wilkie Collins (1868)

  • A seminal work of detective fiction – very influential for later novelists
  • ‘detective fever’ infects a whole cast of characters, including Sergeant Cuff, the Scotland Yard detective, and Ezra Jennings, the scientist/medical assistant

Left, Sergeant Cuff, middle, Gabriel Betteredge. Illustration by Arthur Fraser (active 1865-1898) for The Moonstone (London, 1890)


The ‘celebrated Cuff’

“when it comes to unravelling a mystery, there isn’t an equal in England…”

In appearance he is a

“grizzled, elderly man, so miserably lean” with a face “sharp as a hatchet”, skin “as yellow and dry as a withered autumn leaf” and eyes that “had a very disconcerting trick…of looking as though they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself. His walk was soft; his voice melancholy; his long lanky fingers were hooked like claws. He might have been a parson, or an undertaker…”

The Moonstone


The ‘irrepressible Jennings’

  • provides a vital key to the final solution in The Moonstone
  • “the most remarkable looking man…His fleshless cheeks had fallen into deep hollows…His nose presented…fine shape…His forehead rose high and straight from the brow. His marks and wrinkles were innumerable…[his] eyes, stranger still, of the softest brown – looked out at you, and…took your attention captive at their will…[his hair] had lost its colour in the most startlingly partial and capricious manner…”
  • a man with a secret, “My story will die with me”
  • The Moonstone

The Gothic Scientist-Magician

  • William Godwin’s alchemist in St Leon (1799)
  • “feeble, emaciated and pale, his forehead full of wrinkles and his hair… white as snow. Care was written into his face…yet his eye was still quick and lively…”
  • Mary Shelley’s (1818) Frankenstein has “grown pale with study, and…[his] person…emaciated with confinement”
  • George W Reynolds (1844) anatomist in Mysteries of London was “pale, but good-looking, with light hair, and a somewhat melancholy expression of countenance. He was attired in deep black… his voice was mournful…”
  • Mary Braddon’s (1861) scientist-magician Laurent Blurroset in Trail of a Serpent is “a pale, thin studious-looking man…seated amongst papers..familiar to the pale student whose blue spectacles bend over the pages of crabbed Arabic…”

The aesthetic of the ‘knowledge seeker’

  • pale, thin, wizened looks, claw like hands, mesmeric, or sparkly eyes give them an aura of magic, or secret knowledge common to many fictional scientists
  • features associated with the wizard/alchemist, witch/old hag, gothic scientist and detective indicate a nexus of:
  • knowledge ● secrecy ● power
  • this is the heritage of the modern ‘mad scientist’
  • Cuff and Jennings share this aesthetic as well

Schutz phenomenology of the social world

  • features of the knowledge-seeker commonly recur - an example of typification
  • a thinking construct, or schema, that allows individuals to understand the world and communicate in terms of socially embedded stock knowledge
  • typifications are variously detailed, vague, familiar and precise and they are always open to change - they are not stereotypes
  • they encompass inherited stock knowledge and personal experience

Typifying the Detectives

  • Dickens (1850-52) in Household Words writes of detectives “steadily pursuing the inductive process”, thoughtful as though “engaged in deep arithmetical calculations” and have “suspicion directed by careful inference and deduction…”
  • In four reports of their work, Dickens details tracking a known offender; entrapment of a known offender; undercover work and a lucky break – no deduction or induction in evidence
  • Dickens’ detectives work in the picaresque tradition, they are of the people, with more brawn than brains

Cuff’s success

  • Cuff is able to negotiate the London streets and their people in similar style to Dickens’ Inspector Field (1851) who has “coiners and smashers droop before him; pickpockets defer to him… etc”
  • Cuff’s success materialises in picaresque-styled scenes, as hero of the people, following examples Richmond, the Bow Street Runner (1827) and Vidocq, the French detective (1828 in English)
  • Dickens and Collins sanitise the picaresque – retaining the heroic element but dispensing with the criminal

A Novel Typification of the Detective

  • Cuff fails as knowledge seeker and where Jennings succeeds
  • Cuff doesn’t live up to his image as ‘knowledge seeker’
  • Collins reflects dichotomy in contemporary culture where detective department is variously eulogised and castigated
  • two typified traditions combine – the knowledge seeker and the picaresque

“In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing…his thin hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His hands invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed with extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments…”

A Study in Scarlet (1887)

  • Holmes modelled largely on the knowledge-seeker, also has a peculiar talent for disguise, a truly picaresque skill

Detectives and Mad Scientists

Share the aesthetic of knowledge-seeker

The detective shares heritage with the ‘mad scientist’ and the picaresque hero