Early Eyes

Historical and Literary Influences on the Genre

Trying to pinpoint the first fictional “private detective” (never mind the first “private eye”) is pretty much like nailing two pieces of jello together…
during an earthquake.

Nonetheless, all the following usual (and maybe occasionally unusual) suspects contributed to the development of the private eye as we now understand the term.

  • Sir Lancelot
    Slightly tarnished, but not afraid to continue searching for the dingus. Back then, it WAS a game for knights.
  • Robin Hood
    Ran his own agency, called his hard-boiled ops Merry Men. Didn’t get along with the cops.
  • François Eugène Vidocq
    (1775-1857)
    History’s first recorded real-life private detective.
  • C. Auguste Dupin
    Created by Edgar Allan Poe
    Literary debut: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841)
    The Big Daddy of them all. Created before the word detective had even been coined, Poe pretty much laid the groundwork for all fictional detectives to follow in the Dupin stories, establishing most of the common elements of detective fiction. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is widely considered the first detective fiction story. Literary buffs should also note that Dupin and Cooper’s Hawkeye made their literary debuts the same year.
  • Natty “Hawkeye” Bumpo
    Created by James Fenimore Cooper
    Literary debut: The Last of the Mohicans (1841)
    The first “wandering daughter” job?
  • Wyatt Earp
    (1848-1929)
    Brave, courageous and bold, or just a thug for hire? Cleaned up a town à la Red Harvest. Later became –get this — a real P.I.
  • Allan Pinkerton
    (1819-1884)
    The man who put the “eye” in “private eye.”  Also one of the first to write P.I. fiction… oh, sorry. “Memoirs.”
  • Charlie Siringo
    (1855-1928)
    The original cowboy detective. He worked for the Pinkertons. Whoopie ti-yi-yay, motherfuckers.
  • Ralph Henderson
    Created by by Charles Felix
    Literary debut: The Notting Hill Mystery (1862)
    An insurance investigator in arguably the first detective novel.
  • Miss Loveday Brooke
    Created by C.L. Pirkis
    Literary debut: “The Black Bag Left on a Door-Step” (1883)
    Arguably the first female private detective (and almost certainly the first created by a woman), Miss Brooke actually predated Holmes.
  • Sherlock Holmes
    Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Literary debut: A Study in Scarlet (1887)
    Like, I have to make a case here?
  • Mr. Spence
    Created by by Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwarz
    Literary debut: The Black Box Murder (1889)
    Was this the first private eye novel narrated in the first person by the detective?
  • Horace Dorrington
    Created by Arthur Morrison
    Literary debut: “The Narrative of Mr. James Rigby” (1897
    This early British rival of Sherlock Holmes is one of the most vile P.I.s of all time, and he appeared over a century ago.
  • Sadipe Okukenu
    Created by John E. Bruce
    Literary debut: The Black Sleuth (1907)
    Not just the first black eye, but one of the very first eyes of all, predating even Hammett and Daly!
  • Jim Hanvey, Florian Slappey and David Carroll
    Created by Octavus Roy Cohen
    Literary debut (Slappey): “The Fight That Failed” (1919)
    Literary debut (Carroll): “Gray Dusk” (1919
    Literary debut (Hanvey): “Fish Eyes” (1922)
    Both kinder, gentler Hanvey and unfortunate racial stereotype Slappey were detecting in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post (and Carroll had already appeared in novels and a play) before those uncouth hard-boiled private eye barbarians began popping up in Black Mask in the December 1922 issue.
  • Philo Vance
    Created by S.S. Van Dine
    Literary debut: The Benson Murder Case (1926)
    Just to keep things in perspective, Vance was a presumptuous, pretentious, monocle-wearing upper class twit, about as far from the mean streets as you can get, but for years he was America’s most popular detective, even after Hammett, Daly, Black Mask and the deluge…

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Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Any comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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