From Cuff to Holmes: Developments in Mystery

Nearly twenty years separate Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone from Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. Similarly, the texts exemplify nearly twenty years of literary development. Here, I wish to bring attention to the ways in which the detective figure is constructed between these novels in order to explore the fluctuating views of crime and justice in Victorian society. Specifically, I wish to highlight the connection between the emerging field of forensics as a possible explanation for shift from a character like Sergeant Cuff to Sherlock Holmes.

While there are many aspects which separate Cuff from Holmes, I would argue that the most genre defining differences spawn from their relationship with mystery and how the detectives contribute to narrative pacing. For example, Cuff’s first introduction is met with Betteredge’s disappointment that, “this celebrated policeman proved to be quite a mine of learning on the trumpery subject of rosegardens [sic]” (Collins 107). Gardening, as an activity, relies heavily on a strong sense of patience and faith in the process, and these traits carry into Cuff’s relation with mystery. A brisk 342 pages later, Cuff relays his account: “I have waited to make it a complete Report; and I have been met, here and there, by obstacles which it was only possible to remove by some little expenditure of patience and time.” (Collins 449). For Cuff, mystery necessitates precision and patience in order to deliver a “complete” report. In this case, his methods do not delay the narrative so much as they lack in offering progression. Sherlock could not be more different.

Contrary to Cuff, Stamford introduced Sherlock with excitement. Stamford outlines a problem in which a, “man is suspected of a crime months perhaps after it has been committed,” (Doyle 12) because there was no reliable way to test blood. Miraculously “[n]ow we have the Sherlock Holmes test, and there will no longer be any difficulty.” (Doyle 12). Even the way in which he uses Sherlock’s name, Stamford equates Sherlock to a mystery already solved. In many cases such as this, Sherlock’s relation to mystery resembles action rather than inquisition. The tension with Sherlock stories is rarely “What happened?” but rather “How does Sherlock know what happened?” This shift in knowledge appears through a narratively, in which Sherlock’s actions set the pace rather than a Cuff-like need for precision. For the Victorian reader, these stories may represent a reaction to new and emerging epistemologies, such as forensics. After all, the idea that actions leave definitive signs leaves little room in the mystery genre for the supernatural and slow-moving elements in The Moonstone.


Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Edited by Sandra Kempt, Penguin Classics, 1998, pp. 1-472.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Classics, 2001, pp. 1-128.


3 thoughts on “From Cuff to Holmes: Developments in Mystery”

  1. You do a great job of laying out how differently the two detectives function in the narrative. Your proposed explanation of forensics, as making detective work more action orientated is also really interesting, but I wonder too how this preference for action may be influenced by public opinions about police and criminals that you mentioned at the start. Does Sherlocks rapid pace suggest a growing preference for action over justice in the police force?

  2. I think analyzing the potential reason for the difference in the depiction of the detective in Victorian novels is really important! It is also important to note that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s primary occupation was in the medical field. He probably had more knowledge about the development of forensic methods and such than Collins did. Do you think that the action-oriented nature of Sherlock Holmes adds to or takes away from the development of the mystery?

  3. “the idea that actions leave definitive signs leaves little room in the mystery genre for the supernatural and slow-moving elements…”

    I like your thoughts about technology being vastly different between the two detective novels, and I agree that Sherlock focuses more on forensics than Cuff does. However, I don’t think that technology giving definite proof left less room for a mystery- in fact, rather the opposite, because even with Sherlock, the entire second half of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ ends up being the reveal, told by the culprit himself. Similarly, in another Sherlock story, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, Sherlock uses technology in a very different way (a smoke bomb to fool Irene Adler that her house is on fire) and still fails to conclude the mystery before Adler outwits him.

Comments are closed.