What’s so gothic about the detective novels?

It goes without saying that when people think about “gothic,” they think about the supernatural and hauntings. However, in detective novels, specifically Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, readers barely see anything supernatural. The most supernatural thing in these two novels is the curse of the Moonstone, even then, it is left ambiguous whether there is an actual curse. When we think about the detective novels, we usually think about scientific methods and logic. In fact, S. S. Van Dine (1888-1939) published a set of twenty rules in 1928 for the detective novels. One of which denounces the presence of any supernatural factors in solving cases (Rule 8). So, how do the detective novels fit in with the Victorian gothic literature landscape?

In his article, John Bowen gives a few more identifying motifs of the gothic than just the supernatural. That includes: strange place; clashing time periods; questions of power, violence, and sexuality; the uncanny; the sublime; social crises; the feelings of terror, horror, and doubt. The Moonstone certainly invokes more traditional gothic motifs than A Study in Scarlet. In Collin’s The Moonstone, we have an ancient and sacred stone from India being brought to “modern” England; the Shivering Sand in Yorkshire where Rosanna Spearman meets her end; the physiognomic and/or racial others such as Rosanna, Limping Lucy, and Ezra Jennings; other numerous aspects; and most importantly, the terror that the novel brings to the readers. In Bowen’s article, he states that terror in the gothic “is concerned with the psychological experience of being full of fear and dread and thus of recognising human limits.” In other word, terror in the gothic is about giving readers a glimpse of the terrible things that could happen without actually showing the terrible things. In The Moonstone, readers are never shown the attacks of Godfrey or Mr. Lurker, the murders of the Indians and Godfrey, or the death of Lady Verinder. All of them are told and recounted to the readers. This allows the readers to feel the terror of the events, but still have a safe distance from them and immorality in the book, which is similar to other gothic novels like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Like Collin’s The Moonstone, Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and other Sherlock Holmes stories invoke a sense of terror in readers through the murders and mysteries that happen, whether in bustling London or in eerie Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor. In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes and Watson, like Mr. Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, are outsiders, looking into the murders that had already happened. In other word, while The Moonstone’s “detectives” are parts of the events in the book, Holmes is not. Most of the information he gets is from other people and his own observations after the fact. Interestingly, Bowen states that gothic generates a sense of intellectual doubt in readers, “create[ing] in our minds the possibility that there may be things beyond human power, reason and knowledge.” While this definition seems to talk about the supernatural and mythical, it can also be applied to Holmes’ Science of Deduction and Analysis (A Study in Scarlet, chapter 2). To an average person, which is Watson and the readers, this “science” seems unobtainable and ridiculous, to the point of magical, as Holmes can deduce the job of a random person on the street. Thus, while Holmes’ Science of Deduction and Analysis is grounded in logic, reason, and observation, it still contains a sense of unnatural and unreasonable, beyond the capability of an average human being.

In conclusion, what I’m trying to say is while the detective novels seem to stray away from the gothic conventions of Victorian novels, they, in fact, still utilize many gothic motifs, thus, allowing them to be a branch of the gothic genre.



Bowen, John. “Gothic motifs.” British Library, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-motifs. Accessed 15 November 2022.

3 thoughts on “What’s so gothic about the detective novels?”

  1. This was a thoroughly enjoyable post! I definitely agree. Though gothic may be primarily associated with the domain of the supernatural, the gothic’s real focus usually is exploration of “The Other” usually through the invocation of a mythological creature quite different from normal humans. But as you mention, this motif applies everywhere. In Scarlet, I wonder if we could apply the same lens to the plot’s villainous Mormons with their kidnapping and “harems.” Instead of being a balanced look at the doctrines of Mormonism, the Mormons seem to exist more as strange Others who go against “normal” marriage custom.

  2. The scenario in this novel, in the American Midwest, is also very Gothic, since it has an eerie beauty. It causes admiration because of its vastness, but this same open space causes fear and hides many dangers according to the narrator (the fauna and the Indigenous people). The prairies represent hope for the characters (an opportunity of escape from the Mormons) but also the death of Lucy’s father. It is a space of antagonism. Moreover, we don’t know the details of the father’s death and we only know of his freshly made mound.

  3. It’s so interesting how two opposing forces–the gothic supernatural and the explainable scientific–merge to become what is the early detective novel. I think that the application of epistemologies makes the inclusion of paranormal activity more difficult, which also potentially speaks to the society’s movement away from spirituality to science. This is interesting!

Comments are closed.