When I was a kid in elementary school in India, a lot of the children’s books we used to read in English were relics from our former colonial masters. Characters like Billy Bunter and Biggles, and stories about life in British boarding schools, were the stuff that populated our imaginations. One author, in particular, held our attention like no other – her name was Enid Blyton, and her literary output was prodigious. Among the many children’s series she wrote (the Secret Seven, the Famous Five, the St. Clare’s series), my personal favorite was the Five Find-Outers. The name fascinated me – purposeful, yet so simple. What better way to describe sleuths than as a group of people who find things out. It may not be a stretch to say that it was the Five Find-Outers who ignited my life-long interest in detective fiction. From there, I graduated to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen, and much later, combined that with an equally deep fascination for historical fiction to arrive right here – where you are reading this now.
Reminiscing about the Five Find-Outers got me thinking about questions that are at the heart of our quest on this blog – when did the business of sleuthing start? Who were history’s first detectives? Who were the first bunch of people who wanted, and were presumably paid, to “find things out?” I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer to these questions, but there are some useful clues. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest formal legal systems (dating back to 1700 BC), established that both the accuser and the accused in a legal case had the right to present evidence in support of their arguments. Presumably, either they themselves, or their hired help, would have to collect such evidence – so we could speculate that these “evidence collectors” were the first private investigators, sleuths, gumshoes, or whatever we care to call them.
Of course, more formal systems of criminal justice prosecuted by rulers and their regimes later arose in many parts of the world. Take China, for instance, with its system of prefects who reported into local magistrates and were charged with law enforcement. Other cultures such as Japan and Korea also devised and established similar systems. Ancient India had its formal systems as well, codified in scripture in the Manusmriti and the Vedas, with a formal structure that included plaintiffs, defendants, written statements, trials, advocates, juries, and judges. The power to enforce the law flowed from rulers to their representatives to communities, village watchmen, and intelligence agents.
However, in pre-modern Europe (ancient Rome and Greece, for instance) crime was largely viewed as a private matter, in so far as its investigation and prosecution. Once the plaintiff had a case, it could be brought before the courts for a verdict and penalty – but the process of getting there was the individual’s responsibility. I suspect this is the context and background for authors like Steven Saylor to invent characters like Gordianus the Finder – for private citizens in such societies would have a need, and be willing to pay, for someone to look into crimes committed against them so they could be brought to justice.
In terms of modern criminology, though, most historians believe that the “first” private investigator and detective was a Frenchman named Eugène François Vidocq in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. A former criminal, Vidocq was not only the head of a private detective agency but also later in life (in 1813, to be precise) established the Sûreté Nationale, the French equivalent of Scotland Yard and the FBI. Scotland Yard, in turn, was established a few years later (in 1829), resulting in an official cadre of police detectives, soon followed by the New York City Police Department in 1844. The rest, as they say, is history. Criminology became a formal profession, not only spawning real-life crime-solvers of the private and public varieties, but a whole genre and subculture of fiction to keep us turning pages deep into the night.
So the next time you enjoy stories about your favorite historical detective, whether it’s Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, or Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma, or PC Doherty’s Telamon, spare a thought for the rich lineage of real-life “find-outers” throughout history that these fictional sleuths owe a debt of gratitude to – from the evidence collectors of Babylon to the prefects of ancient China to the sheriffs and crowners of medieval England, all the way to the “bobbies” and Pinkerton agents of more recent times.