A really clever mystery with an unconventional plot and
The past few weeks have been enormously busy and so I have found it quite tricky to find the time to read anything. When I do, I find I cannot hold my concentration for more than a few dozen pages. Fortunately I remembered that I had something in my TBR pile that was that sort of length – the last of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Auguste Dupin short stories.
The Purloined Letter sees G-, the prefect of the Paris police, approach Dupin for advice on the matter of a stolen letter written by the queen’s lover. That letter is being used by the thief to blackmail her and gain influence.
The prefect is certain of the culprit’s identity and has executed a thorough search of his property but cannot find any sign of that letter. This puzzles him as he is sure that the thief must have the letter somewhere close at hand to keep it safe and enable him to produce it if necessary. The prefect asks for Dupin’s help and gives him a description of the letter.
We then jump forward a month as G- returns to speak with Dupin. The search has been fruitless and he tells Dupin he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can find the letter. Dupin tells him that he should write him a check as he knows where the letter is and proceeds to explain how he found it.
If that brief synopsis of the plot sounds familiar, it is because this story shares a lot of common elements with Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Scandal in Bohemia. In both cases we know the thief’s identity from close to the start of the story and each features a document related to an affair with a royal that could destroy a monarchy. On top of that, there are also a few story beats that the two short stories seem to have in common.
Obviously we cannot suggest that Poe’s work, as the older, is in any way to blame for those similarities. The problem is that it is impossible not to be aware of them as the later story, as one of Doyle’s most celebrated, will likely be one that readers have already encountered. That is unfortunate as I think that may serve to blunt the impact of one of the story’s most satisfying ideas.
I should probably also take a moment to say that while I think there is a lot of shared intellectual ground between the two stories, they differ in enough elements and themes to feel quite distinctive from each other. Several of the tweaks Doyle makes serve to make those themes feel all the stronger.
Getting back to the basic scenario, I think this story does a fine job of establishing the facts of the case in a consice manner. We understand the stakes and the circumstances surrounding the crime, the question is how they managed to execute that plan.
Structurally I feel that this story also represents a pretty significant improvement over its two predecessors. Where the relating of the facts in those stories seemed a little awkward, the more conversational approach used here not only helps break up the material into smaller, more manageable chunks, it also helped me engage more with the information being provided.
I also appreciated that Dupin feels more engaged in the action here than in his other two adventures. He even plays an active role in the case, travelling to a crime scene rather than remaining as a purely armchair detective. This more active approach works pretty well .
All in all, I think that each of these characters did an amazing job today.
This is the first murder mystery based on the details of a real crime. It first appeared in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.
As important to the development of the detective story as the previous Dupin mystery but nowhere near as engaging.
A little over a year ago I wrote about the first of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Dupin mysteries, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. At that time I had every expectation I would blog about all three stories and actually read this one in preparation for that. Unfortunately that was right about the time real life got in the way of my blogging and by the time I was ready to write about it, the memories had faded too much to put anything accurate or coherent together.
Well, this week I decided to go ahead and read it again so the story is now fresh in my mind. I don’t know if I can promise that my thoughts are all that more coherent than they would have been a year ago though…
Like its predecessor, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is more of a long short story than a novella. It is also narrated by the same nameless friend of Dupin who is still in awe of his friend’s ability to use ratiocination to logically work through and posit explanations for crimes.
One significant difference between this and the other two Dupin stories is that both the narrator and sleuth do not at any point leave their sitting room to investigate the crime. Instead they will be armchair detectives, gleaning and then reinterpreting the facts given in the reports appearing in the city’s newspapers.
The crime in this story is quite famously drawn on a real unsolved case that had occurred several years before Poe wrote this. That victim was Mary Cecilia Rogers, a cigar girl who disappeared once, then reappeared when she returned from an apparent elopement, before disappearing for good three years later. Several days after that second disappearance her body was found floating in the Hudson River having appeared to have been murdered.
As you may have noticed from the title Poe gave his story, he makes little attempt to disguise the source of his inspiration. You don’t need to be a genius detective to see the links between the names Marie Rogêt and Mary Rogers. And even if you missed it, Poe’s narrator directly makes the connection for the reader just a couple of paragraphs in.
Most of the essential points of the case are presented here as they were – the changes he introduces are mostly incidental. Names are altered. The location is changed but the most essential points are the same.
For this reason many have pointed to the story as being one of the first instances of a crime writer finding inspiration in a famous, real-life crime. In a technical sense I think that it true but I would suggest that there is a gulf between what Poe is doing here and what, for example, Agatha Christie does in The Murder on the Links or Dorothy L. Sayers in Strong Poison. Where those writers took inspiration as a starting point for a narrative, Poe is fictionalizing here to enable him to posit his own ‘very rigorous analysis’ of a real crime.
I think it is clear that this is his intent from some of the storytelling decisions Poe makes. Most tellingly, once Dupin gleans everything he can from the newspaper reports the story simply stops. He identifies what he thinks is the logical explanation of the crime but does not create any additional evidence or provide us with any sort of an ending in which his deductions can be proved.
Similarly the device of telling us what happened through an extended newspaper report that has been constructed from the information gleaned from other previous newspaper reporting feels rather clunky and formal. We are simply presented with long blocks of uninterrupted reporting with little opportunity for characterization or comment. I believe that had storytelling been Poe’s primary concern or interest there would have been some form of interviews or at least a visit to the scene of the crime.
Poe however is primarily interested in the idea that processes of logical reasoning are more important than interaction with the evidence. That belief in the process is not unique to Poe – it is not difficult to see it reflected in the approaches taken at times by Holmes or Poirot – but Poe’s dedication to it can come at the expense of engaging storytelling and certainly I believe that is the case here.
I don’t think it helps much that the case itself is nowhere near as mysterious as that in the previous story in spite of Dupin’s claims that this is ‘a far more intricate case’. There is nothing approaching an impossibility in the crime and while the police may not have been able to produce a clear resolution to the case, some overlooked clues do rather stand out in the reporting to the point where the police appear astonishingly incompetent for not considering them.
For instance, there is a point at which Dupin presents several additional paragraphs from previous newspaper reports that were omitted in the main account of the crime. There are several points in those accounts that are so clearly presenting a possible alternative explanation of the crime that it is incredible when our narrator claims:
Upon reading these various extracts, they not only seemed to me to be irrelevant, but I could perceive no mode in which any one of them could be brought to bear in the matter in hand.
The only possible explanation for his thinking the clues irrelevant is that our narrator is an idiot.
While I get the need for the sidekick to be continually amazed by the mental prowess of the detective, it hardly feels earned at that moment. He has certainly shown diligence and solid reasoning but every deduction is reasonable and replicable by the reader.
On a similar note, some of Dupin’s blanket assertions can seem rather silly. For instance I can only echo JJ’s bafflement at the idea that ruffians are more likely to possess handkerchiefs than shirts (and I’ll refer you to the wonderful, spoilery conversation he had with Christian about this story).
There are a few deductive moments however that feel more impressive. I was particularly taken with the inferences Dupin draws from a description of some of the victim’s effects. Delivered without hyperbole, it comes off as a thoughtful and credible block contributing to our understanding of what has happened.
Unfortunately there were just not enough of those moments for me to feel fully engaged in this story. While the real case may have gripped America for months, this fictionalized version felt rather too dry and academic and I never really felt connected to the events of the crime.
The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is certainly another significant work in the development of the detective story. While the illustrations of ratiocination may not be as spellbinding as those in Poe’s previous Dupin story, the process is illustrated well and help to further establish the armchair detective model we would see emulated half a century later by Conan Doyle. I just wish that Poe had been a little less focused on proving a point and taken greater care to give us a compelling story with a satisfying resolution.
Originally published in 1878 Ebenezer Gryce #1 Followed by A Strange Disappearance
When the retired merchant Horatio Leavenworth is found shot dead in his mansion library, suspicion falls on his nieces, Mary and Eleanore, who stand to inherit his vast fortune. Their lawyer, Everett Raymond, infatuated with one of the sisters, is determined that the official investigator, detective Ebenezer Gryce, widens the inquiry to less obvious suspects.
A reminder that being important doesn’t always equate to being entertaining.
I have been told that one of the frustrating things about following my blog is that I often post about books that can be a little hard, if not impossible, to find. While I have no intention of stopping reading and writing about those types of books, I am aware that for many people the institutions and businesses they typically rely on to find new books are inaccessible to them.
For at least the next few months I have decided to feature several books a month that are within the Public Domain and that you can read online for free. Some of those books will be well known but I intend to stick with my habit of picking out an occasional obscure or little-reviewed title to discuss.
Today’s book is perhaps not widely known though given it is a landmark title as the first successful work of detective fiction by a female novelist. The book, the first by Anna Katharine Green, was a bestseller becoming popular on both sides of the Atlantic and influencing other mystery writers including that little-known writer, Agatha Christie.
The story concerns the death of Horatio Leavenworth, a wealthy retired merchant who was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head in his library. As no one could have left the mansion before the discovery of the body, suspicion falls on the other members of the household.
Everett Raymond, a young lawyer who had been sent on behalf of his firm to handle the case, forms a strong attraction to one of the suspects and works with the official investigator in the hope of proving her innocence.
While I do not generally read others’ reviews until after I have written my own, I did take a look at several articles discussing why the book had fallen from popularity including the excellent one by Curtis Evans which I link to below. A common theme seems to be that Green’s writing style is very much in the Victorian style making it hard going.
Certainly I think it is fair to say that her storytelling style is not as direct as it could be. A good example of this comes when Everett offers his initial descriptions of the deceased man’s two young cousins, rhapsodizing for several paragraphs about their beauty. This sort of stuff can certainly be dull and feels unnecessary but I never felt Green’s language is too complex or obscure to be understood, even if she does employ some melodramatic turns of phrase. Nor do I think it out of keeping with Conan Doyle’s efforts inA Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four several years later, both of which feature lengthy and rather dull accounts. It does sometimes make for frustrating reading however as overwrought and melodramatic passages serve to slow the narrative down.
One of the reasons I think it is particularly problematic is that Green chooses to begin her book with the murder having already taken place and our protagonist already knowing some basic details of the case. The practical effect of this choice is that the scenes in which we get to know Everett and later Gryce have to happen during the inquest – a section of the book which already feels quite dense – and this material serves to slow those chapters down considerably.
To return to that earlier example of the florid paragraphs in which Everett rhapsodies about a woman’s beauty, this is not only establishing her qualities. It is also used to tell us something of nature that we will need to understand to justify some of his later efforts in investigating the case.
Though Everett can be a somewhat melodramatic and long-winded narrator, I did find him to be quite a charming protagonist. I liked his attempts to be gallant (such as his revulsion at the idea of being ‘a spy in a fair woman’s house’) and appreciated that Green points out some of the moments where he struggles to reconcile his duties to the law with his personal feelings about the case in some brilliant conversations with the much less partial Gryce.
I also appreciated that Everett’s relationship with Gryce, the man formally investigating the crime, is more professional and cordial than warm. There clearly there are moments in the adventure where each man frustrates the other and even work against each other – a reflection of their different priorities in their handling of this case.
The first section of the novel follows the revelations made at an inquest into the murder, providing us with introductions to the characters and the basic details of the crime. Green gives us an effective outline of the key points of the case and while I wished she didn’t always feel the need to provide every beat of the proceedings, the information is clearly conveyed and establishes an interesting crime scene where the evidence seems to point at one person.
Having established the case that has been made against the subject of Everett’s affections, the subsequent sections focus on the investigation itself.
Unfortunately these sections surprisingly feel less energetic and exciting than the earlier inquest chapters, in part because there are so few significant revelations. While Everett and Gryce identify what they need to find and have a plan to get it, the journey to acquire that information feels a little slow and there are few surprises.
When we do get some information however things pick up again and the final quarter of the book, though packed with melodramatic developments and declarations, feels pacier and much more entertaining. Some of the elements used by Green feel primitive compared with works even a decade later (my favorite such moment involves a very breakable code used in chapter twenty-eight) but I was impressed by just how many ideas appear here that would be standard elements in future works.
I suspect that most readers will find aspects of the killer’s confession a little ridiculous – particularly the chapter in which we read their account of the crime which goes on too long.
The problem that I think The Leavenworth Case has is that because of many of its modern detective story elements such as its forensic discussions it feels like it should belong to a later era than the one it was actually written in. I do think though it is important to remember that this is essentially a transitional text, moving us from a style of sensation fiction to something approaching the modern detective story. I certainly did not judge it to be any less satisfying than A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four, both of which also have their moments.
This issue really sums up my feelings about the book as a whole. It is undoubtedly an important title in the development of the genre but its slow midsection and dense, melodramatic prose means that it wasn’t always all that entertaining to read.
Curtis Evans wrote a superb piece for Crime Reads that looks at how the critical reception for this novel has changed in the years since it was first published.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime writes a brilliantly detailed review that is broken down into themes and goes pretty deep. There are some spoilers there but all are marked so can be avoided. It can best be summed up as melodramatic but well-constructed.
Criminal Element published a post in which they discussed the book, dubbing it ‘the most popular mystery novel you’ve never read’.
Note: some editions, including the first, exclude The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. If purchasing separately make sure that the story is either in your copy of Memoirs or His Last Bow if you wish to collect the whole Holmes canon.
In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective’s notoriety as the arch-despoiler of the schemes concocted by the criminal underworld at last gets the better of him.
Though Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr Watson solve what will become some of their most bizarre and extraordinary cases – the disappearance of the race horse Silver Blaze, the horrific circumstances of the Greek Interpreter and the curious mystery of the Musgrave Ritual among them – a criminal mastermind is plotting the downfall of the great detective.
Half-devil, half-genius, Professor Moriarty leads Holmes and Watson on a grisly cat-and-mouse chase through London and across Europe, culminating in a frightful struggle which will turn the legendary Reichenbach Falls into a water double-grave . . .
Though the stories may not be as famous as those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there are several that struck me as among Conan Doyle’s best.
Today I continue my series of posts in which I revisit stories from the classic Holmes canon. This time it is the turn of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – a volume that contains several of Holmes’ most famous cases.
The Adventure of Silver Blaze remains one of the most iconic Holmes short stories which I think reflects its relative simplicity. It is a good story with a simple but cunning solution.
The Final Problem is similarly quite superbly atmospheric and contains some thrilling action moments. Not to mention it introduces us to Moriarty – one of the most significant characters in the Holmes canon.
Not every story thread proves successful. Stories like The Adventure of the Cardboard Box feel rather silly and some repeat themes and ideas. Still, even when Conan Doyle’s plotting fails to thrill, he is always highly readable and gives us some truly great moments here.
Originally published in 1886. Also known as: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
‘In addition to being one of the most amazing crime stories ever written, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is probably the most remarkable of all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. It would be unfair to the reader to give away the secret of this thriller. Suffice it to say that every page grips and the unforgettable portrait of a mast criminal takes shape until the sensational climax is reached, a climax of dramatic intensity, without equal in the realm of detective fiction. If one wished to append a moral to this crime fantasy it might well be this: “The self you choose to-day, and not the self you chose yesterday, is the fate of to-morrow.”’
An unsettling and horrific story which poses interesting ideas about human nature.
Today’s review is likely to be a shorter one which is perhaps appropriate for a story that some may question being included on this blog at all. Certainly were it not for the Detective Club reissue I would probably never have thought to look at this through the lens of detective fiction. Even now I still would primarily describe it as a work of horror or sensation fiction, though I can see how it can be read as a work of detective fiction.
Part of the reason that I think I view the book that way is that its secret is so widely known and a big part of pop culture. Many subsequent books and movies have evoked its key idea, some times as pastiche, others in outright parody, so that it has become as widely known as the iconic secret spilled in The Empire Strikes Back or perhaps the resolution of Murder on the Orient Express. In other words, even if it could once have been read as a mystery I think most people who come to it will already know the answers.
For those who know absolutely nothing about the book, and knowing that many blurbs purposefully avoid describing the plot, let me give you the very basics of the starting premise. A lawyer learns of the crimes of the brutish Edward Hyde and is puzzled by the hold he seems to have on his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll. This prompts him to investigate the matter more directly.
I am not sure when I first learned the secret of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but it was certainly long before I had ever actually encountered a copy of the book. As such I cannot really speak to how effective its core mystery is – I came to it already familiar with its secrets. This, it turns out, is not an entirely bad thing as there is still plenty to admire here from the philosophical questions the narrative poses to Stevenson’s quite wonderfully weighty prose and the clever structure of the piece.
The book’s comparative brevity means that it can be read in a single sitting and unlike some other works of the period, it moves at a decent pace and the meaning of the language used is generally clear even when a particular word or phrase is unfamiliar or archaic. Accordingly the book can feel quite modern in some aspects, especially when you consider the psychological themes it explores. While its language may be Victoran, the attitudes and ideas feel more in keeping with the psychological crime fiction of the early-to-mid twentieth century.
As much as I enjoyed the novella, I do have to acknowledge that if viewed purely as a mystery there are some elements here that will frustrate. While I think the explanation given for the strange events is wonderful and bizarre, it does not fit into the usual rules detective fiction plays by.
Viewed alongside the equally macabre and horrific events of a (relatively) contemporary work, The Murders at the Rue Morgue, the events depicted here do not feel much more far-fetched. In fact, I would argue that the reader of this story may well get closer to the solution by themselves by a process of logical deduction, even if they cannot deduce the whole of it. Still, where that story seeks to root itself in something purporting to be reality, this story chooses to embrace the fantastical.
For those looking for a pure genre read I would suggest that you are best avoiding this but for everyone else I would suggest that this is at least worthy of a look, particularly if you are one of the few who does not already know its secrets (and if you don’t, make sure you avoid reading most blurbs or the Goodreads page). Its brevity means it really is not much of a time commitment and I do think it does play with some interesting ideas.
I have a couple of ongoing reading projects on this blog but probably the one I am enjoying most is working back through the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have written before about their importance to my development as a reader of crime and mystery fiction and while I have found some stories simply didn’t match up to my memory of them, it is fun to return to these stories and look at them with fresh eyes.
The Sign of Four is one of the stories that I recall thinking quite highly of when I read it for the first time but I will admit to not having revisited it once since I first read it. I am not even sure that I saw the Jeremy Brett adaptation in spite of owning a copy on DVD.
The novel begins with a restless Holmes complaining about the lack of mental stimulation from his work. That situation changes however when he is consulted by Mary Morstan, a woman whose father disappeared a decade earlier after returning from India. Six years ago she began to receive a pearl in the mail at yearly intervals from an anonymous benefactor after she responded to a newspaper advertisement inquiring after her. That anonymous benefactor included with the most recent pearl a request for a meeting, telling her in the note that she was a wronged woman.
Holmes takes on the case and sets about trying to uncover the identity of the sender of the pearls. The trail will lead him to discover a body, poisoned with a dart, and start him on a search to find the man’s killer.
The opening to this book is absolutely wonderful and I think it goes a long way toward solidifying Holmes’ character. Watson’s criticism of his friend’s reliance on drugs (that famous “seven per cent solution of my own devising” for stimulation gives us a window into Holmes’ personality, making his desire to solve crimes a compulsion.
I also really quite enjoy the passage in which Holmes draws a series of inferences from his observations about a watch in his friend’s possession. Sometimes I feel these sequences in which Holmes shows off his craft can feel a little hollow or like they contain short skips in logic but I feel that the deductive chain here is far more solid and convincing.
As a child I was quite taken with the scope of the tale on offer here, particularly given how this is a story that is rooted in historical events and describes actions that took place a continent away. Having since become better read in the mystery genre, I can see that this story shares a fair amount in common with The Moonstone, itself a totemic work in the genre. While I think this story is a separate and distinct work, I was a little less taken with its inventiveness on this second reading.
I think the bigger issue though is a structural one.
The first part of the story is quite engaging as we rattle around London and meet figures from the Morstan family’s past. Not only is Holmes in strong form, the question of the pearls feels significantly odd that, even knowing the solution in advance, I felt drawn into the story once again. I also found the characters we are introduced to in this first part of the novel, particularly Thaddeus Sholto, colorful and entertaining and enjoyed learning more about his own family history.
I also quite liked Mary Morstan, even if Watson’s romantic pangs (if not yearns!) can read a little laughably. It all goes to show that Watson is at heart an old romantic, even if he can’t count his wives correctly.
The problems come in the lengthy account that closes out the story. Having pushed all of the action and incident to the front of the novel, this final section feels very static by comparison. While this problem is hardly unique to this novel – A Study in Scarlet had many of the same issues – The Sign of Four is less entertaining because of the type of information we are being given.
In that earlier book the reminiscences section is full of information we could never have known but for that account. Here however we should have already worked out a general idea of what had happened so rather than providing us with brand new information we are instead really just filling in the gaps. Unsurprisingly this makes for a significantly less compelling reading experience.
In addition to the structural similarities there is also some thematic overlap with the previous title. This is unfortunate, particularly when you read the two novels back-to-back, as it makes them seem a little less creative. This reliance on formula is all the more striking when you consider the diversity of story type and theme on offer in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
So unfortunately I can’t say that The Sign of Four quite lived up to my memories of it. There isn’t much mystery to engage the reader past the murder itself and the last third of the book is a drag. All of which is part of the reason I think first time Holmes readers would be well advised to skip the early novels and go straight to the far more rewarding short story collections.
Puzzle Doctor shares his views on this novel and, like me, was not enamored with the ‘really dull’ flashbacks.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue is less than sixty pages long so why am I devoting an entire post to discussing it? It is because the story is one of the seminal texts in the development of the detective genre, if not the foundational one upon which all others are based.
When I watched the Great Courses lecture series about mystery and suspense fiction at least five or six of the lectures discussed this book. They went into quite some depth, dissecting some of its ideas and construction so I came to it already knowing the solution. This, of course, reduces some of the pleasure of following the case but I think it’s safe to say that regardless of one’s skills at ratiocination, few if any readers could work out its solution for themselves.
The story concerns the grisly murders of a mother and daughter in their Paris home in a locked room on the fourth floor. The mother had her throat cut with a razor and her body was deposited in a yard near their home while the daughter’s corpse is found with a broken neck, stuffed upside down into the chimney.
C. Auguste Dupin decides to investigate the case himself when an acquaintance is accused of the murders. His method is to use the process of ratiocination by which he means the process of unpicking a problem through following a process of observation and making logical deductions.
I think it is important to recognize that Poe intended these stories to be explorations of this process of ratiocination as much as entertainments. They were an intellectual exercise and while few writers today would set out to write tales of ratiocination, this aspect of the story clearly influenced Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. After all, those sequences in which Sherlock lists small details about a person’s appearance and uses them to provide evidence for his observations evoke the idea of ratiocination.
The story begins with the narrator explaining how they made the acquaintance of Dupin and explaining his methods. Once these are established we get a section in which the facts of the case are related similar to in a dossier mystery where we get accounts from a variety of sources. The story concludes with Dupin making a series of statements based on what he sees as the logical conclusions that can be drawn from the various sources.
For the most part the conclusions Dupin reaches are pretty solid although I dispute the interpretation of the clue that relates to a language various witnesses heard spoken. For one thing (taking pains to be as vague as possible here), I find it hard to believe that the witnesses would interpret that information in the way Dupin suggests. Still, I think the deductive process is interesting and I certainly think the explanation given for the murders is as imaginative as it is macabre.
With regards the latter, I should perhaps state that the tone of this story is grisly and horrific. Poe describes the injuries to the two women in detail, painting a very effective picture of the violence of the scene. It is very effective and quite in keeping with Poe’s other works, reading as much as a horrific, penny dreadful-type account than as a detective story.
As with Holmes, Dupin is not a warm person or one to whom the reader is likely to feel close. His brilliance makes him somewhat remote though he forms a firm friendship with a man who will become his biographer. The primary source of interest here is the case and the method by which it will be solved, not the personality of the detective. That being said, I appreciate that he is given something of a personal motivation to look into the murders in addition to the intellectual challenge.
Often when a work is suggested as being an important or landmark one there can be a feeling of disappointment or anticlimax when you actually read it. Happily though I can say that I quite enjoyed the experience of reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue. It is quite dry in places, being a product of the writing style of its period, and I do think it is fair to say that the conclusion reached is unlikely but the process of getting there is clever and interesting enough to make it a worthwhile short read in its own right.
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
In the Fog introduces us to The Grill, an incredibly exclusive club in London that has existed since the restoration. Four members who have never met each other before are sat around the dinner table making conversation while a fifth member, Sir Andrew, sits in an armchair absorbed in a mystery novel.
One of the diners points out Sir Andrew and notes that an important vote will be taking place in Parliament that day on the Navy Increase Bill. Sir Andrew’s support is thought to be critical in swaying other members and if he were to make it to the House it would almost certainly result in it passing. Keen to prevent this from happening the diner begins to recount the story of a mysterious event that took place in the thick London fog in the hope of attracting Sir Andrew’s attention long enough for him to miss that vote.
Richard Harding Davis structures his story by splitting it into three sections, each narrated by a different character. When the first narrator finishes his tale, another of the diners steps in to take his place by telling other tales that supposedly relate to that first one. Each time Sir Andrew’s curiosity gets the better of him as he wants to find out the truth about what happened.
This novella is driven by its plot, reading more like an adventure story or thriller than a detective tale, particularly in the second tale. Each of the narrators’ accounts are rich on incident and I did enjoy the way that they each fold back in on the others. Part of the fun is in anticipating how the story might be spun out by someone else and there are a few points in the third tale that are a little unexpected.
The book also contains some wonderfully evocative descriptions of what walking the streets of London in thick fog felt like. That helped me understand better what life was like a hundred years ago and how people could cope with just inches of visibility.
Davis’ characterization on the other hand feels quite slight with little time spent on developing the back stories of any character other than Sir Andrew (who is himself not the most complex of characters). By the time we reach the end of the book we understand a little about characters’ plans and goals in life but we get little sense about their interests beyond their desire to get in his cab. This struck me as a little disappointing and I found that I was wishing that the book were a little longer to give these characters a little more room to shine in that narrative.
In the Fog is often very entertaining and I really enjoyed its sense of wacky energy but looking at it as a mystery story it does have a problem derived from its tone and premise. From the start of the novella we are aware that the three narrators are playing a game and that their stories are fictional. This in no way damages the work as a comedy – in fact, it probably heightens it and elevates an element of the ending – but it means that the mystery element of the book feels a bit anticlimactic.
When viewed primarily as a comic work, In the Fog is quite charming and creative. It moves quickly and I enjoyed each of the three tales though the first is probably the richest and most intriguing. If you like stories in this style then I would certainly recommend taking a look at this – it is a really quick and entertaining story – but just be prepared that there is no puzzle here to solve.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a capital city (Where)
Yesterday I teased on my Twitter account that this week I would be discussing the first appearance of one of the most iconic detectives in literature. That detective is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Though A Study in Scarlet introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes it was not my first encounter with the character. That was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which I followed with the other short story collections and The Hound of the Baskervilles.
By the time I reached A Study in Scarlet I must have been about twelve years old. I recall being tremendously excited that my secondary school library had a copy and checking it out, looking forward to experiencing this piece of literary history for myself. Unfortunately twelve-year-old me ended up being somewhat disappointed with the tale but I have revisited it several times since then and found I appreciated aspects of it more than I did back then.
The story begins by introducing us to Dr. John Watson, an army medical officer who has returned to England to convalesce after being wounded in service in Afghanistan. A friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes who, he notes, is rather odd but in need of someone to share lodgings with in the city. He soon becomes curious about Holmes’ work and is invited along when the consulting detective is summoned by Inspector Gregson to take a look at a strange crime scene.
They find a man dead with a grotesque expression on his face. There are no signs indicating a physical altercation about the corpse or in the room but a word ‘Rache‘ has been written on the wall in blood…
When reading this I am always struck by just how effective these opening chapters are and how well Conan Doyle establishes the characters of Watson and Holmes. Later stories add more details to both men’s lives but I think the core elements of each character’s personality are present already and I really enjoy their interactions.
Probably my favorite of these moments occurs early in the second chapter. It is a passage in which Watson attempts to catalog Holmes’ limitations only to give up in frustration. Holmes intrigues and yet baffles Watson as he cannot understand the detective’s absolute focus on developing some skills and knowledge at the expense of other, more everyday pieces of information.
What I like about this section and, indeed, the character of Holmes in general is that he is established to be flawed rather than superhuman. Watson likes him and so we are inclined to do so as well and yet it is clear that he could be frustrating company. Perhaps more importantly though the flaws help justify the brilliance and there is something quite entrancing about following his deductions and investigative process even if it is rarely fair play.
Similarly I think the two sequences in which Holmes and Watson investigate crime scenes are quite effectively written, particularly the first one. The message written in blood on the wall is perhaps an excessively dramatic touch (though it was one of the parts of the novel that really worked for me as a pre-teen) but I think the puzzle is surprisingly subtle. Holmes’ observations and explanations are clever and when the circumstances of the murders are explained in the final chapters of the novel I think the crime scenes make sense.
The problems with the book are found in its second half which suddenly diverges from the style and tone of the story up until that point, telling a historical narrative. This was an enormous shock to me when I first read it as it doesn’t feel integrated into Watson’s narrative. It wasn’t what I had been expecting and didn’t match what I wanted from the book at all, striking me as dull.
On revisiting the novel I find more to appreciate in these chapters. While the change of style and setting is quite abrupt, I think Conan Doyle’s depiction of the landscape and the realities of a harsh journey in the first chapter are quite striking and evocative. There is a sense of isolation and a need to survive in difficult circumstances that I think he really conveys well.
What doesn’t work for me is the tone of the second half of the novel in which every emotion is heightened to an absurd degree. Whether it is a moment of sickly sweetness in the midst of despair or the “so it has been decreed” speeches, this second half of the book lacks subtlety of character or in terms of the situations Conan Doyle creates. I would even say that it is so over the top that rather than encouraging empathy it makes the plight of the characters seem unreal.
The return to London and the narrative voice of Dr. Watson is welcome and the final few chapters of the book do a good job of pulling together the information and explaining how Holmes was able to identify the killer. Some aspects of their motivation and plan are explained and while Conan Doyle still employs that heightened, dramatic tone at times, I think he finds a better balance with the colder analytical voice of Sherlock Holmes to end on a stronger note.
Were it not for its status as the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes I suspect we would not remember A Study in Scarlet as a standout story. It has some wonderful moments that establish the characters of Holmes and Watson as well as two interesting murders but the second half of the book feels drawn out and very heavy. Still, it is a landmark adventure for the character and for that reason alone I think it is worth experiencing.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by Poison (How)
This is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.
It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.
Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.
The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.
Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.