Crime how they depicted race. The two novels

Crime Fiction ENG 30920: Final essay 2017


Many of the texts on this course posit a
‘strange, foreign criminality lying at the edge of the knowable’ (McBreatney).


Discuss the relationship between
criminality and race as represented in one or two of the texts from the


The crime novel
was one of the greatest literary revolutionaries to ever hit the world. From
the baffling murders of Madame L`Espanaye and her daughter in Poe`s iconic “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to the
adventures of Hercule Poirot as the leading detective in Agatha Christie`s
novels it cannot be denied that this genre has been enjoyed by readers of all
generations. Detective fiction has gone through rigorous change since it was
first developed. The genre gained popularity in the early nineteenth century
and has since gained a notable platform in literature. Earlier detective novels
are significantly different to the later stories in style, literary technique
and most notably the representation of people of an Eastern ethnicity or
coloured race. It is evident in these early novels, particularly from British
writing, that people with coloured skin were viewed as unusual and different.
This paper will research the stark contrast of race and criminality between
early and late detective stories. While many scholars would argue that early
authors, particularly British, came across as racist through their works, it is
also true that they were writing from their experiences of trying to understand
civilizations outside of Europe. The three points of discussion for this essay on
the representation of race and criminality are the objectification of Eastern
ethnicities, particularly Indians, in early fiction, how modern crime novels
sought to reverse the stereotypical roles placed on coloured people and lastly
how authors of both generations were revolutionary in how they depicted race.
The two novels that will be discussed in detail in relation to the above points
are Wilkie Collins “The moonstone”
and “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter
Mosley.  The first point that will be discussed
is the objectification of Eastern ethnicities, particularly Indians, in early
crime fiction.


Early nineteenth century detective fiction became widely
popular within English literature

before expanding out into Europe and the rest of the
world. British society at this time was enveloped in patriarchy, imperialism
and the Empire. They were the biggest Empire of the world, having already
colonised numerous countries and civilizations. Britain was the wealthiest and
most powerful nation of the 19th century. With the birth of the
Industrial revolution this further enhanced life in Britain and the dominant
nature of the Empire.  Any civilization or
group of people that came from Eastern ethnicities or of a coloured race were the
exotic creatures of the world, discovered by the rich colonists. At first,
western society were fearful of the people from foreign countries. They used to
view them as savagery and animalistic in nature, unsure of how to understand
their differences in customs, traditions and beliefs.   

British Authors of this generation who were keen to
represent British city life in a positive light, were somewhat controversial in
the manners in which they would describe other cultures and races against what
they thought was normal. This was because British writers were heavily
influenced by imperialism (Johnston, 2005).  Crime fiction became the centre of English
literature and it encompassed these very ideas.  While early detective fiction is considered
highly intelligible in terms of structure and technique, it cannot be denied
that authors such as Poe or Collins were a part of a generation of writers who
coined the term of “otherness” when referring to people of an Eastern or exotic
background. Given the time frame of when these authors were alive, there were
many contributing factors that lead to foreign people being viewed in
controversial ways. In early nineteenth century Britan the exposure that people
had to the world beyond their front door was limited due to lack of transport,
media and education. Anything out of the ordinary, particularly humans of a
different ethnicity were so shocking and new to people, which is why many saw
them as fascinating creatures, rather than humans.  One country that was particularly subjected
to this racial ideology was India. By the middle of the 19th century
Britain had already colonised most of India and it became known as the “the
jewel in the British crown”. Wilkie Collins famous detective novel “The moonstone” is a great example of how
this ethnicity was represented to the common white British man of the
nineteenth century.


Moonstone” is the first full-length
crime novel in English literature. The main action of the novel takes place
takes place in the years between 1848 and 1849, at the time of the second
Anglo-Sikh War in India, which established British control over that country
with great certainty through occupation of the vast areas of the Punjab. The introduction
of the novel, emphasizes the historical significance of the story. An important
English victory in what was the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War of 1789 until 1799
distinguished the beginning of Arthur Wellesley’s rule as Governor-General,
which was characterized by ruthless diplomacy extending what Wellesley referred
to now as “the empire” of the East India Company. In fact, the triumph
at Seringapatam, as Collins knew, depicted the establishment of England as the
major power on the sub-continent, at the same time confirming expansion and
exploitation as a company practice. (John R. Reed, 286-7)


The actual title of the story Moonstone, is a direct reference to a very rare diamond. It received
its unusual name from the connections it had to the Hindu god of the moon, Chandra. It
was said to be protected by hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu because it held such a
high, valued position to the Hindu religion. The plot of the story first brings
the reader into Indian culture, it presents the history of the jewel and it`s
important values which is crucial in understanding the rest of the story. The plot
than quickly jumps back into the present day where the female antagonist, named
Rachel Verinder, receives a large diamond on her eighteenth birthday, the valued
moonstone, that had been stolen years prior by British colonists during the war.
She is unaware of the great significance that this stone is worth and that
three Indian guards/priests have dedicated their life to protecting the stone.
She wears the stone to her birthday party that evening but when the Indian
jugglers, who are present at the event, see the stone, aware of what it means, steal
it back in the middle of the night. Thus, begins the case of the missing
moonstone and the events that unfold for the present-day characters in the
story. As the plot continues to unfold there is a wave of uncomfortable
presence when descriptions of Indian people are brought to the surface. Many of
the quotes are harsh and very blunt accounts towards Indian folk.  There are numerous references throughout the
novel that describe the physique and characteristics of the Indians in a
controversial style.

“Going round to the
terrace, I found three mahogany-coloured Indians, in white linen frocks and
trousers looking up at the house”. (Collins, 14)

Betteredge, the main servant,
describes the Indian jugglers who come to the house as “mahogany-coloured”.
Mahogany is a dark-coloured wood that grows in exotic locations and it shows
that Betteredge’s description goes beyond a racist reference to the skin colour
of the three Indian men. While some readers would see this as racist, it is an
accurate representation, given the time era, as mentioned, that had no advance
way to see people through coloured pictures, it needed to be extra clear within
literature. He associates their skin tone with a type wood that was expensive
and exotic, obtained only by trade with British colonies during the nineteenth
century, which is arguably a compliment if anything else. This example shows
how Indian people were described in early English literature. The rest of what
Betteredge says, however, is controversial in the way he associates criminality
to their race. He goes on to say

“Now I am not a sour old
man. I am generally all for amusement, and the last person in the world to
distrust another person because he happens to be a few shades darker than myself.
But the best of us have our weaknesses, and my weakness, when I know a
family-plate basket to be out on the pantry table, is to be instantly reminded
of that basket by the sight of a strolling stranger whose manners are superior to
mine” (Collins, 1886, 14). This was the biggest racial issue of the nineteenth
century when referring to groups of a coloured ethnicity. In white, western
culture it was always presumed that those with a dark skin tone were criminals
by nature. That they were not custom to the proper ways of the world and that you
needed to keep an eye on your possessions when in their company. Even though
the plot includes the Indians robbing the moonstone from Rachel, it is the attitude
that comes with presuming their intentions before they happened that was wrong.

Another controversial
reference in the book is when Betteredge decribes the moonstone as “devilish”.

“If he was right, here
was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian Diamond, bringing
after it a conspiracy of rogues, set loose on us by the vengeance of a dead man”.
(Collins, 40, 1886)

This quote has many
meanings. First, it suggests that the moonstone has supernatural abilities that
include invading a house and using its power to inflict danger on the family.
The use of the words “devilish Indian” in this context does not uphold Indian
culture in a positive light. One interesting and yet important reference in the
quote is when both nationalities are stated, the “English house” and the “Indian
Diamond”. It is almost a direct reference in suggesting that British society
are afraid of the countries they have invaded.  Betteredge, uses the words “invaded by a devilish
Indian Diamond” which is a metaphor regarding the anxiety many British citizens
feared, that the countries the British Empire colonized and oppressed might one
day come back and invade them.

This story is a combination
of ideas. While there are significant controversial racist references to Indian
folk, there are also plenty of positive ideas that help to uplift the importance
of their culture and beliefs.

Before Herncastle acquires the moonstone at the siege of
Seringapatam in 1799, the stone has already passed through the hands of numerous
vain conquerors. The opening narrative transforms the sacred object into a
symbol of opulence and power that no mere mortal should possess, but which,
despite its curse, immoral warriors of various nations have sought to acquire.
In fact, owning what no one should possess merely adds to the Moonstone’s value
and allure.

The connection of the properties of the Moonstone to
“ancient Greece and Rome” is the first indication that India is not a
barbarous and backward series of petty principalities but an ancient
civilisation with respected traditions and beliefs. The British army storming
Seringapatam under General Baird, whom, Collins implies, no better than those
eleventh-century Moslem invaders of India under Mahmoud of Ginzi, who committed
an act of gruesome vandalism and sacrilege in stripping “the shrine of
Hindoo pilgrimage, and the wonder of the eastern world” (Ch. 2). We hear
of the ruthless barbarism and “rapacity of the conquering
Mohammedans”, then meet Colonel Herncastle after we have been told that
the British army has converted the city’s Moslem defenders into a
“heap” of corpses. In retrospect absurd, foolish, hot-tempered,
Herncastle is ridiculous when he boasts to his fellow officers “that we
should see the Diamond on his finger” (Ch. 3), for he clearly has no idea
of the dimensions of the sacred object he covets and wades through blood to
attain but can never enjoy. Dishonoured forever, Herncastle is compelled to
renounce his commission in the Guards before he is 22, the remainder of his
life being given over to the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.

Ironically, until the close of the novel, no one seems to regard the
three Brahmins, as the gem’s rightful guarders. While Herncastle maliciously
bequeaths the stone to Rachel Verinder to punish the family that she rejected
him, the Brahmins risk their immortal souls by masquerading as members of a
lower caste of musicians and jugglers, to retrieve the gem, dedicating and sacrificing
their lives to the service of their god. This is a strong and powerful depiction
of Indians that show their passion and willingness to protect what is sacred to

English literature during the nineteenth century gave rise and
popularity to the novel. Crime and detective fiction encompassed a wide range of
emotions such as love, lust, fear, anger and frustration. It brought readers to
the edge of their seats. Even years after Collins, detective fiction was still
at the centre of literature. Through pivotal changes in society such as the
birth of television, coloured photography and radio communication and education
between and of countries became more accessible. It is no surprise that this
had a huge impact on the way writers addressed certain issues such as race and
criminality in their works. This leads into the second point that shows a stark
contrast of how race is presented in “Devil
in a blue dress” by Walter Mosley.

 “Devil in a blue dress” breaks down the
stereotypical mould by making the lead character a black man, a significant
step in Twentieth century detective fiction. This was a huge change given that
most literature had the leading roles as white men. Not only is the protagonist
African-American but he is also the detective who is solving the crime. Another
common perception in detective fiction in early years was to place the coloured
person into the position of criminality.

Easy Rawlins, the lead detective, has no
family and is self-educated. He is a former Texas factory worker who has moved
to California, mainly to escape the influence of his friend Mouse. When he is
fired from his aircraft factory job after a racial incident with his foreman,
however, Easy accepts the job of searching for Daphne Monet; ironically, the
danger into which the search leads Easy causes him to contact Mouse and ask for
his help. Easy’s is a divided character. Part of him wants to pursue the
American Dream and yet he finds his new job unsettling. He is haunted by his
World War II experiences in Europe, and he becomes increasingly uncomfortable
with the violent situations into which he is repeatedly drawn into. Another
side of Easy’s nature, however, enjoys his new lifestyle. Eventually, Easy
discovers that detective work provides him with an independence and
self-confidence, that gives him dominance and authority that he has not
previously had.

In chapter 15 of Devil in a Blue Dress,
Mr. Albright says, “We all owe something, Easy. When you owe out then you’re in
debt and when you’re in debt then you can’t be your own man. That’s capitalism”
(147-148). This quote, despite coming from the story’s main lead, encapsulates
a lot of Easy’s ideologies and philosophies. First, the mortgage debt that Easy
owes to the bank is what engenders all his actions. Second, the masculine
undertones of Albright’s statement seem to stay throughout Easy’s narrative.

Easy’s house and his connection to it
also brings up some ambiguity. Is Easy’s obvious love for his house because he
has attached some misguided notion of “whiteness” to owning land? Or does
owning a house give Easy agency and make him feel worthwhile in a world that does
not fulfil him. When he speaks about his house, he mentions the fruit trees and
the flowers. “Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper’s farm or that I
never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home”






























Cunin, Elisabeth, et al.
CENTURIES.” Caribbean Studies, vol. 41, no. 2, 2013, pp.
31–60. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Johnston, Ewan. “Reinventing Fiji
at 19th-Century and Early 20th-Century Exhibitions.” The Journal of
Pacific History, vol. 40, no. 1, 2005, pp. 23–44. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Collins, Wilkie, The
Moonstone, 1868,

Soitos, Stephen The Blues Detective: A
Study of African American Detective Fiction, 1996,

Mosley, Walter “Devil in a blue dress” 1990



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