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Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 4

England 1890-1914 - The Romantic Era Page 1

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 "VIXERE fortes ante Agamemnona," wrote E. M. Wrong in his admirable Introduction to the Oxford collection of Crime and Detection stories, "but we have forgotten them, and tend to think of the pre-HOLMES detectives as of the pre-Shakespearean drama; to call them precursors only." And mere precursors they were, for the most part, though recent attempts have been made to disinter their literary bones, chiefly for the benefit of those aficionados of the esoteric, the edition collectors. John Carter has performed particularly able investigation in this field, uncovering a sizable list of writers in the form who flourished after Gaboriau and Collins but before Doyle. The specialist whose interests lie in collecting is referred to this valuable authority (see Chapter XIII). The rest of us can have little concern with authors who neither influenced the development of the detective story seriously in their own time nor are. remembered for themselves to-day. The few pre-HOLMESIANS who were exceptions on either ground will be discussed in due course.
One pre-HOLMESIAN (by a few months) who neither influenced others nor is remembered for himself to-day, but who deserves our brief attention for a unique cause, is the Anglo-Australian fiction writer, Fergus Hume (1859-1932). Although he published more than 130 hack works in his long lifetime, at least half of them in the mystery-detective category, his sole bid for fame rests on his first story, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, written while he was a barrister's clerk in Melbourne, and first published there.* For some unfathomable reason this shoddy pot-boiler received vastly more contemporary attention than Doyle's Study in Scarlet, issued about the same time. It was dignified by a full-length parody only slightly worse than the original; and by the time of its author's death it had sold more than half a million copies ómaking it, according to Willard Huntington Wright and other authorities, the greatest commercial success in the annals of detective fiction. Scarcely readable to-day, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab belongs among the famous "freak books" and is mentioned here for its historical interest only.
* Bibliographers have hitherto unanimously given the date of the Melbourne publication as 1887. However, an article in the London. Illustrated News, October 6, 1888, discovered by the present writer, places it a year earlier. This is confirmed by E. M. Miller's recent Australian Literature From Us Beginnings (Melbourne University Press, 1940), which gives a detailed account of the writing of the story and further states that the only known copy of the 1886 imprint is preserved in the Mitchell Library, Melbourne. Nevertheless, the real fame of the book dates from its London printing of 1887, so that the usual comparisons of it with A Study m Scarlet, issued in that year, are not without good basis.
 

them, as could only be expected, were cheap imitations long since forgotten. A few, however, deserve consideration on their own merits.
The first important English writer of detective fiction after Conan Doyle was Arthur Morrison. Born in Kent in 1863, he entered journalism after a short career in the civil service; to-day he is the last living survivor of the old National Observer staff, the famous "Henley group." Aside from his detective stories, which he belittles, he is well known for his sketches and novels; His graphic pictures of nineteenth-century London slum life in Tales of Mean Streets were classics of their time and place and have been credited with strongly influencing contemporary housing legislation (in which Britain has led America by so many years). His Painters of Japan, published in 1911, is still a leading work on that subject, and the British Museum acquired his collection of Chinese and Japanese paintings in 1913. In the First World War he held an important post in the civilian defense and personally telephoned the earliest warning of the first Zeppelin raid on London. An only son fought through the entire war and died in 1921 as the consequence of his service. To-day Arthur Morrison lives in quiet retirement at his rural home in Buckinghamshire, surrounded by his art treasures, a mellow septuagenarian survivor of what may well have been a better age. He is a Fellow and Member of Council of the Royal Society of Literature.
It was in 1894 that Arthur Morrison began his series of stories relating the adventures of MARTIN HEWITT, a barrister-turned-sleuth. HEWITT bears a resemblance both to HOLMES, who preceded him, and to R Austin Freeman medical-legal expert, DR. THORNDYKE, whom he antedated by a little more than a decade. He is less dramatic than the former and less scientific than the latter, but the tales in which he takes part (most of them of the short variety) are good if conventional detection, set against HOLMESIAN backdrops. He has his Watson, of course: one Brett, a journalist. Despite his similarity in many ways to Doyle's hero, he represents the first symptomatic reaction against the eccentric detective in fiction: the author lays considerable stress (which is not always borne out) on the investigator's commonplaceness.
For the most part the stories are well written (one must except a few unfortunate occasions when Morrison attempted to employ the argot of the underworld), and the problems, if not too baffling to-day, still make pleasant reading nearly half a century after they first saw print. The HEWITT books are four in number: Martin Hewitt: Investigator (1894), Chronicles of Martin Hewitt (1895), The Adventures of Martin Hewitt (1896), and The Red Triangle (1903). The first three are collections of short stories, the fourth, an episodic novel. They are almost impossible to find in their original state to-day, but HEWITT is well represented in the more carefully compiled anthologies.
Arthur Morrison added little that was new to the HOLMES formula, but his quiet and literate touch helped the detective story to survive an era when too many of its practitioners were second-rate workmen, content to imitate the more obvious and less admirable characteristics of the Doyle romances.

A less direct contributor to the detective story in the HOLMES era, but one of some technical importance, was Robert Barr (1850-1912). Born in Glasgow, he was taken to Canada by his parents at an early age. He grew up to become headmaster of a school in Windsor, Ontario, at scarcely twenty, and then drifted across the border to join the staff of the Detroit Free Press as a reporter. The exuberant American journalism of the 1870's was to his liking, and in 1881 his services were rewarded when the Free Press sent him to London as its representative. His facile pen quickly won him admission to the English popular magazines with his light and humorous tales, of which he wrote and sold hundreds. He died at sixty-two, at the height of his career.
As a writer, Robert Barr was literally that dubious entity, "a born story-teller," with little art in composition save an effortless narrative style. (Yet Stephen Crane, on his death-bed, chose Barr to complete his The O'Ruddy; and so acute a critic as Vincent Starrett has pronounced the touching collaboration "perfectly performed.") The public eagerly absorbed his ephemeral works, which were written first for magazine consumption and later made into books, only to forget them almost immediately. He would be virtually unknown to-day except for the presence in historical anthologies of some of the episodes from his Triumphs of Eugene Valmont (1906), his lone excursion into the detective field.
VALMONT was as Gallic as his name presumes, ludicrously pompous, and exceedingly fallible. His only present-day significance is as the first humorous detective of any standing. Creation of such a type was inevitable, as a reaction against the "master-mind" school of sleuthing. But, as many authors have discovered, it is a device that is singularly difficult to handle; for the instant that a detective becomes ridiculous or stupid, he is ipso facto a failure within the meaning of the act. A fictional sleuth may have his little vanities, he may even come to wrong conclusions; but, by the unwritten rules of the form, he must retain sufficient underlying dignity and skill in his profession to hold the respect of his readers: otherwise the whole structure falls. A successful modern example of the humorous detective is Agatha Christie popular HERCULE POIROT (who, incidentally, bears a pictured resemblance to VALMONT that seems more than accidental). But VALMONT himself was too broadly drawn. Only one or two of the stories in which he figured are at all readable to-day, and it must be concluded that Robert Barr was more important for the style he founded than for his own success within that mode.

From the earliest days of the police novel there has been a vast deal of high-flown talk about the "scientific31 detective. The plain truth is that few of the sleuths of fiction wearing this designation would know which way to turn if they found themselves in a real-life laboratory. The shining exception for all time is R. Austin Freeman's DR JOHN THORNDYKE. No other literary criminologist, so far as this writer knows, has been paid the tribute of having his fictional methods put Into use by the real police.


Chapter 4 Page 2

 

Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942     Layout © R.D. Collins
Howard Haycraft

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