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Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Dead Witness: Review

The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories by Michael Sims (ed) jumped right off the library "New Arrivals" shelf and into my hands.  Like I needed another book to read right now.  Like I don't have two-thirds of a Mount TBR pile of my own books to read for challenges this year.  Like I could really resist this combination: Victorian (Vintage!)--Mysteries!  The collection gathers some of the best stories about private investigators and police detectives from the mid-19th to the early 20th Century.  It includes well-known stories like Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" as well as rare gems like "The Secret Cell" by William E. Burton--a story that sees print for the first time since its initial appearance in 1837.  The tales take us from France to London to the Outback in Australia to high-society New York and the backwoods of Canada. 

Here's a run-down of the stories and some thoughts:

"The Secret Cell" by Burton: Quite well-done for an early detective story.  L-- (the only name given the detective) uses the art of disguise and chatting up pub regulars and innkeepers.  There is a highspeed chase (well--as high speed as one can get in horse-drawn carriages) and fisticuffs.  And there is even the use of a dog to track down the missing woman.  Realistic detective work--with an investigator who is not quite the eccentric that Dupin and Holmes will be.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe: The classic story credited with starting the whole detective ball rolling.  Dupin is a moody, night-loving character.  He uses an investigative method--observing everything and discounting nothing...until it can be proven irrelevant or impossible.  Definitely a forerunner of Holmes's method: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

"On Duty with Inspector Field" by Charles Dickens: This is a very uninteresting and confusing "true" story of life on the beat with a policeman.  It just did absolutely nothing for me.

"The Diary of Anne Rodway" by Wilkie Collins: Anne cannot bear to think that her friend Mary has been foully murdered and the culprit will get away.  The verdict at the inquest is accident--Mary has died of a blow to the head that could have occurred in a fall. Anne is convinced that Mary was struck down on her way home.  A piece of a man's cravat clutched in her friend's hand is the only clue to be had.  The diary reveals Anne's journey to find the truth of Mary's death.  Very enjoyable!

"You Are Not Human, Monsieur d'Artagnan" by Alexandre Dumas: A selection from the larger work The Vicomte de Bragelonne, this very short work is pretty matter-of-fact and leaves no mystery for the reader to try and unravel.  D'Artagnan goes and investigates the scene--which is not described to the reader at the time--and then lays his deductions before the king one by one.  No suspense, no mystery.  Interesting only for its place in the development of detective stories.

"Arrested on Suspicion" by Andrew Forrester, Jr.: Another very short piece--notable for the early use of the now time-worn trick of the "mysterious double." Also a fairly good example of a forerunner of today's police procedural.

"The Dead Witness" by "W. W." (Mary Fortune): The first known detective short story by a woman.  Published as an entry in a series featuring the "Memoirs of an Australian Police Officer."  Provides an interesting and slightly shocking surprise at the end--a convenient way to get the culprit to fully confess.

"The Mysterious Human Leg" by "James McGovan" (William Crawford Honeyman): From another series of articles purported to be the experiences of the workaday life of a metropolitan detective.  This one follows McGovan as he tracks down the body belonging to the mysterious leg.

"The Little Old Man of Batignolles" by Emile Gaboriau: This one features a shrewd but compassionate policeman named Mechinet.  We have a Watson-like companion--a 23 year old health officer who lives in the same tenant house as Mechinet.  The story opens with their meeting--and our narrator's attempts to discover what kind of man his neighbor is.  He realizes he has become friends with a detective when Mechinet is called out to investigate the death of a wealthy old man.  Everything points to the man's nephew--but our narrator is the first to call attention to a clue that will lead Mechinet to the truth of the matter.

"The Science of Deduction" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The opening chapters of The Study in Scarlet.  Chapters which give us the one of the most famous meetings of detective story history: "Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said Stamford, introducing us.  "How are you?" he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly give him credit.  "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."

"The Whitechapel Mystery": No fictional short story here.  Just an account of the very first of the attributed Jack the Ripper murders--from a newspaper article in the Evening News to the Daily Telegraph's transcript of the first day of the inquest.

"The Assassin's Natal Autograph" by Mark Twain: the opening of Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, this excerpt shows lawyer David Wilson securing the release of an innocent man (and identification of the guilty party) based on fingerprints--well before the first legal conviction using fingerprint evidence which took place in 1902.  A bit long-winded in build-up, but a very nice little synopsis of courtroom antics.

"The Murder at Troyte's Hill" by C. L. Pirkis: Starring Loveday Brooke--the first known female detective created by a female author.  Miss Brooke is presented as not only an intelligent and independent young woman, but as a woman who has taken up the profession because she is good at it.  She's not supporting a sister or a disabled husband.  She's not ultra-feminine to make up for her brains.  She's just a good detective. In this one, she gets to the bottom of the mystery of who killed Alexander "Sandy" Henderson, lodge-keeper to Mr. Craven of Troyte's Hill.  The police have fastened on to the son of the house, but Miss Brooke has reason's to doubt the official reading of the case.

"The Haverstock Hill Murder" by George R. Sims.  This features another female detective of the era--Dorcas Dene.  Dorcas is a former actress--which makes her particularly adept at the art of disguise.  And she puts her art to good use in helping Inspector Swanage discover who murdered Mrs. Hannasford of Haverstock Hill.

"The Stolen Cigar Case" by Bret Harte: Billed as one of the best Holmes parodies (of which there have been many, I have to say that this very short send-up of Holmes and Watson didn't do a whole lot for me.

"The Absent-Minded Coterie" by Robert Barr: Barr wrote short stories which featured a French predecessor to Christie's Hercule Poirot by the name of Eugene Valmont.  Valmont has a superior intellect as well as superior vanity to go along with it.  Considering that the fact is revealed in the very first paragraph, I don't feel bad about telling you that I'm a bit disappointed to find that the bad guys get away at the end of this story.  Valmont is very clever about discovering that Inpsector Hale's quarry is indeed up to no good--albeit not at the crime the English detective suspects.  But his vanity and belief in the superiority of French ways enables the culprits to escape with no fear of capture.  At least not for this crime.

"The Hammer of God" by G. K. Chesterton:  To my mind, a well-known Father Brown story.  At least I have seen it reproduced in several collections.  But it is a clever short story and shows off Chesterton's detective to good effect as he solves the mystery of how such a staggering blow could be delivered by such a small hammer.

"The Angel of the Lord" by Melville Devisson Post: Uncle Abner is another detective with a religious bent.  He is not a clergyman, but he is still very interested in sin and retribution.  Abner follows a man and proves how he disposed of both his partner and his horse.  I have to say that Uncle Abner's style of speech isn't one that just reaches out and draws me in.  Not a very long story, but I couldn't tell that in the reading of it....

"The Crime at Big Tree Portage" by Hesketh Pritchard:  November Joe is a regular backwoods Sherlock Holmes.  Using methods familiar to anyone who has read the Holmes stories, Joe covers the campsite at Big Tree Portage and holds up clues for his "Watson" Quaritch to see and be mystified by.  It's the small indications that lead Joe to the killer of Henry Lyon.

"The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage" by Ernest Bramah: Starring Max Carrados, a blind detective who has hyperacute senses which allow him to unravel an intricate plot--involving a kite, a plate of metal and a few pebbles at a window.  He prevents a murder, but is unable to prevent the suicide.

"The Case of Padages Palmer" by Harvey O'Higgins: This features Barney Cook, one of the youngest detectives of the era.  Barney begins as a telegram delivery boy and winds up being taken on by Walter Babbing and his detective agency.  In Barney's first "case" he helps Babbing track down a man using a very simple clue--the length of his cigar.

"The Intangible Clue" by Anna Katharine Green: One of a set of short stories starring Violet Strange--a young society woman who assists Mr. Driscoll with cases that involve the strata of society where she can move freely.  This story involves Miss Strange in a "sordid" murder case--something she never intended to be part of.  But...without her observations in the needlewoman's home, the perpetrator would never have been caught.

This is a pretty good collection of early detective stories.  Age of course will tell and there are several plots and twists that will seem old hat to regular readers of detective fiction.  It's good to keep in mind that some of these stories are showing off these plots and twists for the first time and to try and imagine how mystified the readers in the Victorian age must have been.  Three and a half stars for the entire collection.


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