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 local cops.
  • Daniel Boone
    An early childhood hero–thanks to the historically dubious but child-friendly NBC television series where the frontiersman was portrayed by Fess Parker–who may have whetted my appetite for manly heroics, and whose 1776 rescue of his kidnapped daughter–the original wandering daughter job–left a deep ding in American mythology and culture, including the Shamus game. 
  • François Eugène Vidocq
    History’s first recorded real-life private detective.
  • C. Auguste Dupin
    Created by Edgar Allan Poe
    Literary debut: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (April 1841, Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine)
    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 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? Apparently inspired by the real life story of frontiersman Daniel Boone and the 1776 search for his daughter, taken by hostile Native Americans.
  • Allan Pinkerton
    The man who put the “eye” in “private eye,”  Pinkerton founded his own private agency, The North-Western Police Agency, soon to become The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, in 1855. Also one of the first to write P.I. fiction… oh, sorry. His “memoirs.”
  • Ralph Henderson
    Created by by Charles Felix
    Literary debut: The Notting Hill Mystery (1862)
    An insurance investigator in arguably the first detective novel.
  • Fred J. Dodge
    Legendary Wells Fargo man, he worked for them for over fifty years, much of it undercover, rounding up everything from rustlers to train robbers.
  • Charlie Siringo
    The original cowboy detective. He worked for the Pinkertons. Whoopie ti-yi-yay, motherfuckers.
  • Wyatt Earp
    Brave, courageous and bold, or just a thug for hire? Cleaned up a town à la Red Harvest, long about 1881. Later became –get this — a real P.I.
  • 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, Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
    Like, I have to make a case here? The world’s most famous detective, bar none. Obviously inspired by Poe’s Dupin–so much so that Watson even directly compares Holmes to Dupin in  A Study in Scarlet
  • 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 hard-boiled deluge…


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

2 thoughts on “Early Eyes

    1. Thanks for the lead, LeRoy. I can see which rabbit hole I’ll be falling into next.

      By the way, folks, LeRoy’s the author of several great books on the early days of crime fiction, including After Sherlock Holmes: The Evolution of British and American Detective Stories, New Hard-Boiled Writers, and my favourite, The Origins of the American Detective Story.

Leave a Reply