AMERICAN SHERLOCKS : STORIES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE AMERICAN DETECTIVE
Edited by Nick Rennison
No Exit Press. 333 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-85730-439-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
For those of us who delight in the discovery of old detective stories, especially those from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the appearance of another anthology edited by Nick Rennison can only be welcomed. Following on from The Rivals of Sherlock Homes (2008), Supernatural Sherlocks (2017), More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (2019), and Sherlock’s Sisters (2020), his new collection, American Sherlocks, provides another sampling of the adventures of a variety of detectives investigating murders, mysterious disappearances, robberies, and other misdemeanours.
As the title indicates, American authors of pulp fiction are on display. As in Britain, there were numerous magazines catering for readers who weren’t looking for high-grade literature and instead wanted stories that were easy-to-read, tickled the imagination a little, but didn’t demand too much in terms of complex characters and situations. They often did require the reader to suspend disbelief as the detectives unravelled sometimes bizarre methods of committing crimes, and in doing so displayed powers of deduction beyond the capacity of most people. It seemed a standard theme that ordinary professional policemen fumbled in the dark while those practising, in one way or another as amateur sleuths or private detectives, could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
One of the earliest American detective series was built around Nick Carter. a character created by John R Coryell for a serial in the New York Weekly in 1886. Rennison’s notes about how Nick Carter survived well into the late-twentieth century are fascinating. As he says, “There have been literally thousands of Nick Carter stories, nearly all of them the work of the mostly unidentified writers who followed Coryell”. And the portrait of Carter was altered to meet changing tastes as he developed from “a dime novel hero to Sherlockian consulting detective to hardboiled private eye…….and was even relaunched as a James Bond-style secret agent” in the 1960s. The story that Rennison uses was published in 1914 and involves an attractive actress, a mad doctor, a prison breakout, hypnotism, and much rascally behaviour. It’s notable for a conclusion which involves several pages revolving around a detailed description of a fight between Carter, accompanied by an assistant, and a gang of miscreants.
It might give an indication of the widespread fame of the Carter stories, and the audience they catered for, if I mention that, in another story, Clinton H Stagg’s “The Flying Death”, a young boy who is a kind of protégé of the “problemist”, as the detective is called, is said to see Carter as one of his fictional heroes. Thornley Colton, the detective, is blind, a fact that, as with Max Carados in the stories by the English author, Ernest Bramah, heightens his other senses. Combined with his analytical intelligence this enables him to come up with solutions to crimes that have baffled other people. In “The Flying Death” he deduces how a pistol can be fired without anyone being physically near it to pull the trigger, or having attached a cord to do it. I have to admit that my disbelief really did kick in with this piece. It’s in this story, too, that the sneering villain, explaining how he carried out his crime, says that “there’s Indian blood in me, mixed with the Irish”, as if it explains how he could be so clever and so devious. Racial stereotypes were often a feature of writing at this time, and not only in pulp fiction.
It’s possible to see them at work in the use of “wop” in more than one story to refer to Italians. Jacques Futrelle’s “The Problem of the Opera Box” sees an Italian exacting vengeance with a knife, a weapon favoured by Latins and the like, but disdained by sturdy Anglo-Saxons. Or in Rodrigues Ottolengui’s “Mr Barnes and Mr Mitchel” where there is a reference to a “sneaking Mexican”. The story concerns a rare jewel, the Montezuma Emerald, the theft of such items being a fairly standard ploy in detective fiction. George Barton’s “Adventure of the Cleopatra Necklace”, for example, has his detective, Bromley Barnes, tracking down the item in question. I was intrigued by Rennison’s notes about Ottolengui who “devoted most of his energies to his career as a dentist”, but also wrote four novels and a number of short stories. He pioneered “the use of x-rays in orthodontics” and edited a dental journal, and when he died in 1937 the obituaries focused more on those facts than on his fiction. Which is, perhaps, understandable. Unlike now, little serious attention was then paid to crime fiction, especially of the popular variety.
The racial stereotyping would upset people today, and certainly incline publishers to persuade their authors to delete any signs of it from their work. And what would be the reaction to some of the scenes in Arthur B Reeves’ “The Azure Ring”, where his hero, Craig Kennedy, described as “the scientific detective”, blithely uses a cat and a couple of white mice in his experiments to determine the lethal nature of a substance he suspects has been used to kill a young couple? To prove his point the animals die. I suppose it’s only fair to say that Kennedy, to reach his final conclusion regarding the quantity of the material required to kill a human, is prepared to subject himself to the test. He does so with a near-fatal result. But I can imagine animal lovers being concerned about the cat and mice, and possibly suggesting that the man had voluntarily used himself as a guinea pig, knowing full well the risks involved, whereas the animals had no choice in the matter.
Reeves is the one writer with two stories in the book, the other story being “The Mystery of the Stolen Da Vinci”, with the female detective, Clare Kendall, on the hunt for a painting said to be “the companion piece to Mona Lisa, painted about the same time”. The thieves turn out to be a couple of foreigners, again Italians, which could cause some people to think that, bearing in mind where the picture was painted, it was just being removed from the possession of a vulgar millionaire, and returned to its rightful home. But I doubt that the thieves were patriots who had that in mind. Rennison points out that the story was written around the time that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from the Louvre, so had some contemporary relevance. It’s also worth noting that the detective makes use of a telegraphone, a device which works along the lines of a tape recorder. It was an actual machine, invented by Valdemar Poulsen, known as the “Danish Edison”.
The contemporary crops up in Anthony M Rud’s “The Affair at Steffen Shoals”, which lets us see how Jigger Masters and his friend foil some spies who are passing secrets to the Germans. The story was presumably written during the period – 1917/18 – when the United States was involved in the First World War. The secrets are to do with plans for a new kind of gas that can be used with terrifying effect and must not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Masters manages to outwit the spy and his gang and help sink a German submarine into the bargain. It’s interesting in the way that it relates to the fact that there were numerous pro-German sympathisers in the United States owing to the large numbers of immigrants from that country.
Rennison mentions that old, supposedly humorous detective tales tend not to survive too well, but I did find Carolyn Wells’s “Christabel’s Crystal” quite entertaining as a gentle send-up of the Sherlock Homes–style story. Its female narrator, Elinor Frost, admits to not being familiar with different brands of cigar ash which, she says, are often key clues when attempting to identify who has been present in a room. There’s also an English aristocrat who, like Holmes, can pinpoint someone’s background from a quick glance at his complexion or his clothes. It’s mildly amusing, which is more than can be said for the laboured humour of Ellis Parker Butler’s “Philo Gubb’s Greatest Case”, where Philo, a paper-hanger by profession, and a keen amateur detective, adopts a number of disguises that fool no-one. It’s easy to see how it would have appealed at the time in the context of a casually-read magazine, but it has dated badly.
Carolyn Wells is one of only two women writers in American Sherlocks, the other being Anna Katharine Green. Her detective, Violent Strange, is a well-heeled young woman who moves in high society circles in New York, but also accepts assignments from a detective agency, though she’s fussy about which investigations she’ll accept. She’s reluctant to take on the case of “The Second Bullet”, but eventually agrees to meet the grieving widow whose husband and child have died in a mysterious shooting incident. There’s a somewhat implausible ending to the story, but Green’s writing is competent enough to keep the narrative moving and perhaps persuade the reader that it could have happened that way.
I think “competent writing” might well be the correct way to describe the better-told stories. None attain the heights of great literature, but they often have a drive and energy that moves the narrative along in a convincing manner. Hugh Cosgrove Weir’s “Cinderella’s Slipper” spotlights his engaging heroine, Madelyn Mack, who is known to chew cola berries to stimulate her thinking when the situation requires intense wakefulness and concentration. I had come across this story earlier, in Hugh Greene’s The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin, 1978), but it’s good to have it in print again. The writing is crisp and clean, with few wasted words.
A writer I’ve never encountered before is Samuel Gardenhire, “a Missouri-born lawyer who turned to writing fiction in middle-age”. He produced eight stories, one of which, “The Park Slope Mystery”, has his sleuth, Ledroit Conners, looking into a bizarre shooting in a highly-respectable household. I know that questions have sometimes been raised about Sherlock Holmes’s attitude towards women, but what are we to make of Conners who says, “I endeavour to avoid women”. His friend says “I glanced again at his pictures, where sylph and siren, Venus in nature with Venus à la mode showed every phase of beauty to the eye”. Conners, noting his friend’s action, says: “These do not count. You recall the temptation of St Anthony? I hold discipline to be good for a man. These I may love – none other”.
Whatever their qualities in terms of the writing, the stories in American Sherlocks always have an entertainment value. And Rennison’s introduction and notes add to the appeal of a book like this. Who can resist reading about Charles Felton Pidgin, who created Quincy Adams Sawyer, “a professional private investigator, clearly influenced by Sherlock Holmes”. Pidgin himself turned his hand towards various activities – a statistician, a writer of musical comedies for the stage, and an inventor, plus writing “more than a dozen novels”. His story, “The Affair of Lamson’s Cook”, has a neat twist in the tail.
Even if we only look at the late-Victorian and Edwardian years, there must be hundreds of detective stories buried in now-forgotten magazines and newspapers. Many of them may not deserve to be dug out and reprinted. But some can still interest and intrigue as their sleuths, both men and women, endeavour to hold the forces of evil at bay. Let’s hope that Nick Rennison will come up with more examples.