crime fiction home

Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 4

England 1890-1914 - The Romantic Era Page 2

Buy Crime and Mystery Books

 One good reason for this unique situation lies in Freeman's training and background. Born in London in 1862, he attended private schools and took up the study of medicine. Like Conan Doyle he was impressed by the methods of one of his medical school instructors (in Freeman's case a specialist in medical jurisprudence, Dr. Alfred Swayne Taylor), and also like Doyle he was later to "sit" his mentor as model.
After taking his medical degree, Freeman went to the Gold Coast of Africa, where he acquired the material for his first (non-detective) books and a case of black-water fever that permanently impaired his health. Invalided home to England, he practised his profession in various not very profitable capacities—one comprehends the presence of the forlorn "locum tenens" in so many of his tales—including a term as medical advisor at Holloway Prison, where he learned to know his "old lags." Eventually his health made further active practice of any sort inadvisable, and he turned to fiction and the creation of the medico-legal detective story, in which he stands preeminent to this day.
The Red Thumb Mark (1907) was the book which marked his debut in the form, at the age of forty-five. In respect to puzzle-and-solution, this remarkable volume remains one of the undisputed milestones of the genre. What is of but slightly less importance, it served to bring into existence the immortal THORNDYKE and his delectable associates, Jervis and Polton. To-day the bombs of the barbarians have written physical finis to the familiar chambers in King's Bench Walk; but in some happier and imperishable country of the mind, one likes to believe, the admirable trio still serve the cause of abstract justice with insufflator and micrometer.*
A shy, modest man, looking the solid Britisher he is, Dr. Freeman makes his1 home at Gravesend, Kent. There, in the heart of "Hell's Corner," he was reported still to dwell in 1941, aged seventy-nine, philosophically pursuing his writing and numerous hobbies in a personally designed bomb-shelter in his garden. He is known to be an expert bookbinder, a capable wax and clay modeler, and an amateur painter of the academic school, as well as his own laboratory technician. To prospective interviewers he invariably replies: "I have no desire for personal publicity." Unlike his famous character, he is married, and has two sons.
The numerous Freeman books, still happily appearing at yearly intervals at this writing, are of a uniform detectival excellence, if slightly monotonous in their resemblance to each other. Special significance, however, attaches to The Singing Bone (1912), in which the author made the experiment of revealing to the reader the full stories of the crimes first, then describing the steps leading up to the solutions by the detective. This rather dangerous departure—perilous in that it dispenses almost entirely with the puzzle and suspense elements—Freeman never repeated in toto; but in all the THORNDYKE stories the revelation of the criminal will usually be found subordinated to the means of detection. In another writer
* A particularly timely and delightful "reconstruction" of the THORNDYKE legend and surroundings, in the best Baker Street Irregular manner, has recently been provided by P. M. Stone, the American collector and authority on Freeman, in his essay "sA King's Bench Walk," published in the omnibus volume Dr. Thorndyke's Crime File (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1941).

this might be grounds for criticism, but in Freeman's skilled hands so fascinating is the business of investigation (based on actual experiments worked out in the author's extensive laboratory) that we scarcely notice the absence of mystification.
As a craftsman in the more literary sense, Dr. Freeman presents an interesting anomaly. His narrative style is so often that of late-Victorian romanticism that it is not unusual to find him unconsciously classified in the Doyle period. Indeed, the domestic trappings of a typical Freeman tale bring to the fire-lit chambers in King's Bench Walk much the same mood of snugness and nostalgic bachelor bonhommie which is destined to bespeak Baker Street to the end of time. But in his pioneer insistence on the fair-play method, the creator of JOHN THORNDYKE, MD, was a Modern before the Moderns. He was the true and undoubted "parent" of the scientific detective story in the highest meaning of the phrase, and remains to-day the living dean of that form—if not, indeed, of all detective story writers of whatever style or persuasion.
A perennially favorite device of writers of detective fiction is the "arm-chair" detective, who solves crimes without visiting the scenes, by the application of his invariably bulging brow to the recounted facts. In real life such detection could not be taken seriously, but used occasionally in fiction it makes a welcome if never too plausible variant of the conventional methods. One of the first writers to employ the formula extensively was Baroness Orczy (1865- ), with her OLD MAN IN THE CORNER tales. (The convention had been used earlier by M. F- Shiel in his PRINCE ZALESKI stories; which, however, qualify only somewhat dubiously as detection.)
Emmuska, Baroness Orczy, was born in Hungary, the only child of Baron Felix Orczy, a composer and conductor of some note, and Emma Orczy, nee Comtesse Wass. As a child she knew Wagner, Liszt, Gounod, and Massenet, all friends of her father. Though she spoke no word of English until she was fifteen, all her writings are in that language. After early studies in Brussels and Paris, she enrolled in the Heatherley School o,f Art in London, where she met a young English student, Montagu Bar-stow, whom she married. Some of her paintings were hung at Royal Academy shows and she had a modest success as an illustrator, both alone and in collaboration with her husband, who had become a well-known artist. He in turn collaborated with her in the creation of her colorful hero, the "Scarlet Pimpernel," with whose numerous and popular romantic adventures she is chiefly identified in the public mind. It was at his suggestion also that she decided to try her hand at detective stories, which both husband and wife were fond of reading.
The nameless OLD MAN IN THE CORNER, who solves crimes as he sits at a corner table of a London ABC tea shop, tying and unraveling complicated knots in a piece of string as he talks, made his appearance in a book of the same title in 1909, returning in 1926 in a second volume called Unraveled Knots. A danger inherent in the "arm-chair" method, and frequently illustrated by the OLD MAN stories, is the tendency of the plots to become static; too often, also, they mistake intuition for deduction. Nevertheless, some of the more readable of the OLD MAN tales have found their way into anthologies, where they represent a mildly diverting but essentially minor and rather archaic sub-development in the literature.
For some years now, Baroness Orczy has made her home in Monte Carlo, where she is surprisingly youthful and vigorous in her middle seventies. The outbreak of war in 1939 found her in England and nearing seventy-five; characteristically, she hurried home to Monte Carlo to do relief work among her neighbors. At latest reports she is still there.
Her contribution to the detective story has been neither large nor significant, but it is essentially pleasant and entertaining.

For a good generation after HOLMES, virtually every fictional detective of consequence was either an outright amateur or, at the least, a private consulting agent, engaged in outshining and humiliating the minions of the law. With AEW Mason M. HANAUD, of the Surete, we come for the first time since Gaboriau to a really notable police detective. In this single sense HANAUD may loosely be called a descendant of LECOQ. But there the resemblance ends, for in contrast to the lumpish sensationalism of Gaboriau, the HANAUD adventures are among the most subtly conceived and described in the genre. Mason, though he chooses a Gallic mise-en-scene, and though he handles French judiciaire procedure like a native, is an Englishman, and is thus not under the compulsion most French writers of detection seem to feel, of following literally in the footsteps of the feuilletonist.

Born in London in 1865, Alfred Edward Woodley Mason was educated at Dulwich College and Oxford. An early career as an actor gave him a sense of theater that may well account for the adaptation of so many of his books to the stage and screen. He turned to literature at the age of thirty. In illustration of his many notable popular and critical successes, The Four Feathers may be mentioned among his novels and The Witness for the Defence among his works for the theater. The most painstaking of craftsmen, he often travels half-way around the globe to absorb at first hand authentic color and detail for a single elaborately conceived and executed story. A term in the House of Commons inevitably produced a political novel; experiences during the First World War as the civilian Chief of the British Naval Intelligence gave him material for a number of volumes of superior adventure and intrigue.
The first HANAUD book was At the Villa Rose (1910). The second, The House of the Arrow, did not appear until fourteen years later. The large-bodied, rapier-witted detective and his Greek Chorus, the wine-loving Mr. Ricardo, have appeared in three other full-length novels and one rather obscure short story, published at long intervals. Despite this relatively small representation, HANAUD easily stands out as one of the indisputable "greats" among fictional sleuths.
A favorite topic of debate among the cognoscenti is whether At the Villa Rose or The House of the Arrow is the greater achievement. Granting the former the advantages of priority, the present writer nevertheless alines himself with those who hold that the reader must go to The House of the Arrow to experience the full flavor of

Chapter 4 Page 3


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


Books Wanted     Bibliography     Dust Wrapper Art     Home