Sherlock Holmes may be the world’s most famous detective, but an equally impress ive fictional sleuth beat him into print by almost two decades. Jake Kerridge makes the case for Sergeant Cuff, HERO of the BRITISH detective novel’s debut, Wilkie Collins’ T
In addition to all things Sherlock, this issue honours the first ever British detective.
Who was British fiction’s first great detective? Here’s a clue: lanky bloke, some odd habits but a brilliant deductive reasoner, one with a fondness for making epigrammatic pronouncements and mysterious remarks. Well, as is so often the case in crime fiction, the obvious answer isn’t the correct one. I would claim that the first great detective was Sergeant Cuff, who appeared in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone (1868), almost two decades before Dr John H Watson first encountered Mr Sherlock Holmes in a lab at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887).
The Moonstone proved popular but it wasn’t until the advent of Mr. Holmes that detective fiction became recognised as a genre, and one that the public were always going to be clamouring for more of. One reason why Holmes still commands the attention of millions of people, whether on the page or reincarnated as Benedict Cumberbatch, is that every fictional detective who has come after him is a slightly diluted version: there is a bit of Sherlock in all of them. However, Holmes
was, in turn, a refined version of the small number of fictional sleuths who preceded him – especially Cuff. If there had been no Cuff, we’d have no Holmes.
Cuff, whom Collins based on the real-life Inspector Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard (as featured in his own TV series and played by Paddy Considine), is actually a jolly man. When Cuff arrives at the grand house of the aristocratic Verinder family, to investigate the disappearance of their fabulous diamond, the Moonstone, he displays an un-sherlockian compassion for everybody involved in the mystery, from the snooty victims to their servants.
Few actors are as good at conveying decency and good humour as John Thomson, so he was an excellent choice to play Cuff in the recent BBC One version of The Moonstone, even though he could hardly be further physically from the character as described by Collins: “A grizzled, elderly man, so miserably lean that he looked as if he had not got an ounce of flesh on his bones in any part of him.”
Antony Sher looked more the part in the previous BBC mini-series, aired in 1996.
Perhaps the austere Holmes and the genial Cuff would not get on, but they share numerous similarities. When asked, early in Collins’ novel, who has stolen the Moonstone, Cuff replies “nobody has stolen the diamond”, then refuses to elaborate, establishing the template for Holmes’ infuriatingly mysterious remarks about dogs doing nothing in the night-time, and so on. As Holmes once declared, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observance of trifles.” But Cuff got there first, as this statement shows: “In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world, I have never met with any such thing as a trifle yet.”
In contrast, while Holmes unwinds with his violin, Cuff is a dedicated horticulturist, and spends half his time at the Verinders’ house arguing with the gardener about the best method of growing dog-roses. Yet Collins anticipated Conan Doyle in the leavening of melodramatic stories with elements of everyday life, and humanising a character who, thanks to his formidable intellect, might otherwise seem like too much of a superman.
In fact, Collins did not just do it all first, he did it brilliantly. The Moonstone remains an irresistible novel, as full of red herrings, thrills and spills, and clever twists as anything that has come after it in the crime genre. It is astonishing to think that the book is so lively and funny when much of it was written while Collins was suffering from rheumatic gout which was so intense that the secretaries to whom he dictated the novel left his employment in rapid succession because they could not bear his agonised screams. Collins later declared that he would have died if the responsibility of writing the weekly instalments of the book “had not forced me to rally my sinking energies of body and mind – to dry my useless tears and to conquer my merciless pains”.
It’s a novel, then, which not only started a genre but also saved a life. Might I suggest to the makers of Sherlock that it would be an appropriate homage if Holmes were to meet a character named Cuff, and ask for some professional advice while giving him a hand with his herbaceous border?