It's a crime! (Or a mystery…)

Guest Post: Birth of Clue by James McCreet

It's a Crime! is delighted to welcome back James McCreet with another guest post.  Here he offers an insight into literature’s long-standing debt to crime writing.

Birth of a Clue

TS Eliot famously described Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone as "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels” and he was not alone among literary men with a penchant for criminal thrills. Kingsley Amis liked James Bond books so much that he wrote one himself (Colonel Sun, 1968), while arch-wordsmith Anthony Burgess couldn’t resist writing his own “eschatological spy novel” Tremor of Intent (1966).

We shouldn’t be surprised. In a genre sometimes derided as frothily commercial, we can count such ‘literary’ productions as Umberto Eco’s (The Name of the Rose, 1986), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s brain-melting The Erasers (1953), Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths. In each case, these heavyweight authors have leaned heavily upon (and luxuriated in the pleasures of) the tropes and narrative structures created by the originators of detective fiction. Indeed, when Agatha Christie had her unreliable narrator own up to the murder in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), she pretty much threw postmodernism out with the bathwater.

The truth is that, from the very beginning, detective fiction has been intensely self-conscious about the sort of narrative forms literature relies on for pace, irony and games of intertextuality (how many echoes in Eco’s Rose?) Anyone doubting this might look at GK Chesterton’s finely wrought Father Brown stories, which influenced Borges, who in turn influenced Eco.

But rather than a long, chronologically argued case, it might instead be interesting to approach the matter in microcosm and look at the very atom of the crime genre, the single progenitive element that propels it: the clue itself. It is not, perhaps, the kind of investigation that Sherlock Holmes might have made, though the bibliophile C Auguste Dupin could conceivably have whiled away an afternoon seeking the answer. In the annals of etymology and in the earliest texts of the genre, we can discover the essential narrative thread of crime and the hook it hangs on. Where did the clue come from?

A red herring presents itself at the outset. The original spelling of the word was “clew”, whose primary meaning was “a ball formed by winding thread” or the thread itself. Only obliquely – and only in connection with a thread, a connection – was it the clue we recognise today: “An indication to follow, a slight direction, a ‘key’”.

It’s not clear precisely when the spelling migrated to “clue”, or when the separate meanings began to coalesce. Certainly, there is an early record of “clue” in Isaac Watts’ “Logick: or the right use of reason in the enquiry after truth” (1725), though books tend to show more of a gradual differentiation in the early 1800s, with “clew” used for thread, and “clue” used for an indication or key.

In fact, the first persuasively investigative reference is in a book that has often been called the first detective story: William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). Here, the narrator avoids being seen by anyone “lest it should in any degree furnish a clue to the researches of my pursuers.”

One might expect Vidocq’s 1828 memoirs of the Parisian secret police to yield a few notable examples, but there appears to be none in the French or English. Thus, Thomas de Quincey’s short story The Avenger (1838) is the next instance, showing a curious similarity to Godwin’s phraseology when footprints impressed on a parquet floor “might furnish a clue to the discovery of one at least among the murderers.”

By around 1840, the game seemed to be afoot. This was, after all, the decade when London’s Metropolitan Police set up its Detective Force (1842) and in which Edgar Allan Poe wrote the seminal Murders in the Rue Morgue (1842). Would it be more than a hunch to suggest that Poe, who was quite happy to ‘borrow’ some of de Quincey’s ideas (see Poe’s Masque of the Red Death v. de Quincey’s earlier Klosterheim) had also read The Avenger with interest?

Poe may not have been the first to formalise the etymology of the detective’s clue, but he was certainly the one to establish its critical importance to the rest of crime fiction. In fact, Poe uses both “clew” and “clue” interchangeably in Rue Morgue – but this is no case of sloppy synonyms. He was a master cryptologist, a keen linguist and a man for whom no word was idly used.

The key to the mystery can be found in a letter of 1846 in which Poe asked his correspondent, “where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself, the author, have woven for the express purpose of unravelling?” For Poe, the narrative line of story was a thread – a “clew” – that he twisted in order to untangle. In the story’s opening lines, he remarks that the analyst glories “in that moral activity which disentangles.” This is the very DNA of plot: the reader as detective (as reader).

In Rue Morgue, the thing that reveals the solution to Dupin – the clue – is a nail in a sash window. This nail, which is broken inside the wood, had led the police detectives to wrongly deduce that the window had never been opened. Why a nail? Well, the thread in a mythological labyrinth was customarily tied to a nail at the entrance so that the hero could find his way back. In Poe’s story, the nail is therefore the physical and figurative point at which the narrative line is fastened: essentially, the way in and out.

TTL But Poe hasn’t finished yet. We’ve had a narrative clew and a physical clue. What should we now make of the fact that Rue Morgue is set in Paris, that his detective is French and that the French word for nail is . . . “clou”? Clew, clue, clou – the three are a trinity that establish the meaning definitively. Red-handed, the ghost of Poe chuckles from beyond the grave, no doubt joined by Christie and Chesterton.

If the clue was embryonic before Poe, it was fully fledged after him. And thus began a tradition that continues to this very day. Whatever the book – whether pulp beach reading or Martin Amis – the untangled thread is what keeps us up at night.

James McCreet’s latest book, The Thieves’ Labyrinth, is out now. See him discussing sex and violence at July’s Theakstons Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.



This entry was posted on June 5, 2011 by in Guest Article.