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

Crime Scene - - CONTENTS -

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?

The Moonstone is avail­able on DVD and down­load at­ John Thom­son as­collins’ com­pas­sion­ate sleuth.

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