Edited and introduced by Nick Rennison

No Exit Press. 351 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-0-85730-260-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns


Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have an established place in English literature, and have inspired many imitators, not to mention film, radio, and television versions of the adventures of the famous private detective and his friend, Dr Watson. The stories were originally published in The Strand magazine, the first one in 1891. But Holmes wasn’t the only detective around in the late-Victorian and Edwardian years. However, I would guess that many of their creators were most likely inspired by Doyle’s success to turn their pens to producing material for the mass-market publications which abounded at the time. Nick Rennison mentions a few of them: The Windsor Magazine, The Idler, The Pall Mall Magazine, Pearson’s Magazine, Harmsworth Magazine, even the Railway Magazine when crime occurred on the rails.  It perhaps wasn’t just the Holmes stories that helped set the style. Some of J.E. Preston Muddock’s “Dick Donovan” stories were published in The Strand in the early-1890s, alongside Holmes, so he can hardly be called a copier in any way.

Of the numerous stories that appeared in print in the period concerned, it has to be admitted that only a few have survived in terms of their literary qualities. And not many of the authors been remembered in literary histories. You won’t find their names in the indexes of John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969) or, Doyle apart, Nigel Cross’s The Common Writer: Life in nineteenth-century Grub Street (Cambridge University Press, 1985), to name just a couple of examples I have on my shelves. One or two do sneak into Peter Keating’s The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel, 1875-1914 (Secker & Warburg, 1989). The Sherlock Holmes stories are briefly discussed, and Arthur Morrison, Ernest Bramah, E.W. Hornung, and a couple of other names are mentioned.

There’s no doubt that some of the  writers were what are usually referred to as “hacks”, churning out stories, novels, and anything else that would find a place in print. There were dozens of magazines anxious to keep their pages filled with entertaining accounts, fictional and otherwise, that would interest their readers. Rennison, in one of the informative introductions he provides for each of the stories in More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, says that Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, in collaboration with Eustace Robert Barton (“a doctor and part-time writer”), wrote crime stories, as L.T. Meade, featuring a female detective, Miss Florence Cusack. Smith published almost 300 books, of one sort or another, many of them “for girls, often with a school setting”. It’s unlikely that any of them are read now, though some of her crime stories have stayed the course.

I have to admit that I find the notes about the writers often almost as interesting as the stories they wrote. Hugh Cosgro Weir had been a journalist, written for pulp magazines, set up an advertising agency, and produced screenplays in the early years of the film industry. The afore-mentioned J. Preston Muddock had travelled in India and the South Seas, and prospected for gold in Australia. But there was also Herbert Keen, who wrote a few stories about a detective named Mr Booth and his friend Mr Perkins, and then appears to have disappeared into obscurity. Rennison says he has been unable to find any information about him, but it is possible that he used a pseudonym, or that he only wrote the Booth/Perkins stories and moved on to other things.  

The stories have survived because enthusiasts like Rennison have rescued them from the forgotten books and magazines they were in. He edited a previous anthology, Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (No Exit Press, 2008). The late Hugh Greene compiled four collections, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin, 1971), More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin, 1973), Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin, 1976), and The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin, 1978). Michelle Slung edited Crime on her Mind (Penguin, 1977), which had stories about female sleuths, mostly from the pre-1914 period. The Dead Witness (Bloomsbury, 2012), edited by Michael Sims, was another focusing on Victorian detective stories. The Edwardian Detectives, edited by Greg Fowlkes (Resurrected Press, 2012) is a bulky collection from a publisher specialising in old detective tales. Michael Cox gathered together Victorian Tales of Mystery & Detection (Oxford U.P., 1992). Inevitably, there are duplications in some of the collections and others like them. I make no claim to completeness and have simply used the books I have in my possession when writing these notes.

Bearing in mind that the magazines must have been constantly looking for material, and the writers under pressure to meet deadlines, it’s not surprising that the quality can vary a great deal. Richard Marsh’s “Conscience” throws the spotlight on a young woman with the ability to lip read. Relaxing in Brighton one day she notices three men who are passing on information to each other about a well-dressed woman. The next day the woman is found dead. Some time later the lip reader is in Buxton and again sees the same three men exchanging details about a woman who soon dies. When the men are observed at Euston clearly up to the same trick, our sleuth intervenes. It’s at this point in the story, if not earlier, that one’s ability to suspend disbelief totally breaks down. It isn’t as if the writing is particularly interesting in itself, and the coincidences are just too much to accept.

Another author, David Christie Murray, is held to task by Rennison for deliberately taking his cue from the Doyle stories about Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, and other detectives, Murray’s “John Pym” has a faithful friend who tells the story. The detective smokes a pipe when weighing up the facts of a case, and experiments with chemistry. And, Rennison adds, “the plot of this particular story is so blatantly lifted from one of Holmes’s most famous adventures, published a couple of years earlier, that it is a wonder Doyle did not sue Murray for plagiarism”.

Along with the routine stories there are several examples of good writing. Arthur Morrison created two detectives, Martin Hewitt and Horace Dorrington, for a series of crisply written and entertaining stories that still have appeal. Interestingly, both examples rather turn conventions upside down, one by allowing a murderer to escape abroad, though with a hint that he will likely come to a bad end, anyway. The other has a twist in its tail when a jewel that has led to a murder, is thrown into the Thames by an irate woman who had thought to profit from stealing it. Although Morrison’s most famous fictional detective was Martin Hewitt, Rennison suggests that his other one, Horace Dorrington, is perhaps more provocative as a character. He describes him as a “sociopath” who, while hunting for criminals, is not averse to getting in on the action himself. It could be that Morrison, who had grown up in a rough part of London, had come across types like Dorrington. He wrote two books, Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago, which are often referred to in accounts of nineteenth century English social-realist writing about criminals and the working-classes.

The story about Dorrington, “The Case of the ‘Mirror of Portugal’ “, is partly set in Soho and involves foreigners who are, clearly, a shifty lot. A short, narrow street has a café called The Café des Bon Camarades, and it is implied that it’s probably little better than its surroundings, which are described as “even a trifle dirtier than these by-streets in that quarter are wont to be”.  Another reference in the same story refers to Soho’s “foreign colony of that quarter”. There is a thread of uncertainty about foreigners and their habits and ambitions running through several of the stories in More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The chief villain in Richard Marsh’s “Conscience” is said to have spent time in the East when young.  India and Indians are present in Headon Hill’s “The Divination of the Kodak Films”, though not in a negative manner. But the Indian character is kept hidden away so as not to disturb the servants. India also provides some of the background to E.W. Hornung’s “One Possessed”, where an officer who served in that country has been affected by being too immersed in studies of the murderous Thug cult. Hornung, incidentally, is probably best remembered for having, in the 1890s, created Raffles, a “cricket playing gentleman-burglar”. Some of his exploits were turned into a radio series which still crops up on Radio4Extra.

Other examples of foreign influences not being benign can be found in “The Jewelled Skull”, a Dick Donovan mystery involving the case of a spoiled young man who has been stealing valuable items to ingratiate himself with a group of opium addicts. Going back to Headon Hill’s story, it seems that even foreigners who aren’t Indian or Chinese, or generally exotic, are likewise not to be trusted. The attractive and ambitious American socialite, Miss Stella Hicks, is said to have “an inordinate desire to marry a ‘title’ “,  something which is “a weakness common to most of her fellow countrywomen”. And although it’s nowhere stated that Captain Vandaleur in “The Arrest of Captain Vandaleur” is not British, his name sounds suspiciously foreign. There is a dangerous “Spanish Brazilian fellow” in “The Case of the Muelvos y Sagra” whose “swarthy” appearance immediately puts the narrator of the story on his guard. R. Austin Freeman’s “The Mandarin’s Pearl” has an obvious Eastern connection.

“After Holmes, the deluge”, said the American Sherlock enthusiast Vincent Starrett, who himself wrote detective stories featuring Jimmy Lavender, Chicago Detective, as well as an easy-going memoir, Born in a Bookshop (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). And it’s true enough. It’s difficult to estimate just how many detective stories were published between 1890 and 1914, or how many now-forgotten scribblers wrote them. There are more than a few people writing crime novels, not to mention TV scripts, nowadays, though it’s probably more difficult for them to place short stories in appropriate magazines. They simply don’t exist in the same quantity as they did in the late-Victorian/Edwardian years. It may be more relevant to consider, as Rennison does, that TV has, in many aspects, taken the place of magazines in terms of constantly needing fresh material.

More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating collection, partly because of the ways in which the stories throw light on the social attitudes of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras. What is quite noticeable is that most of the crime takes place among the middle and upper-classes. Few working-class types make an appearance, other than as servants, cab drivers, staff at railway stations, and similar jobs. Working-class people didn’t own much of value, so no jewels were likely to go missing. And they were not going to run into complications about wills and inheritances such as occur in Percy James Brebner’s “The Search for the Missing Fortune”. Murders in the slums and poorer parts of cities tended to be squalid affairs, often resulting from an excess of alcohol. They lacked the sophistication of a death in a country house occupied by a group of elegant guests, or in a town house owned by a man with a reputation for losing large sums at gambling.

A final note. In “The Jewelled Skull” a servant, describing the oddball son of the house, says, “I should say he has a slate off”. The meaning is clear enough, and a modern equivalent might be to say of someone that they have a screw loose. But I’d never come across the expression, “he has a slate off”, and can only assume that it was in general use in the 1890s or so. I could be wrong, and it’s not an important point that has any bearing on the story. It just intrigued me.

More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is great fun to read, and the stories often entertain and impress with their twists and turns. Nick Rennison has done a fine job in bringing them together, and his introduction to the collection, and his general comments, provide a good guide to what was evidently a lively period in popular literature. One wonders how those near-anonymous writers lived and what happened to them?