The Detection Club Project – R. Austin Freeman: The Mystery of 31 New Inn

#9: R. Austin Freeman

Freeman’s precise literary style, like his calligraphic handwriting, suggests a dry, painstaking man, more comfortable with microscope and test tube than the ebb and flow of human emotions. In fact, he was a romantic whom women found highly attractive, but his personable manner concealed a streak of ruthlessness.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I first became aware of R. Austin Freeman because of his significance to the development of the inverted mystery story which he claimed to have invented with his story story The Case of Oscar Brody in his short story collection The Singing Bone. I have suggested before that this is possibly a little misleading as there are a number of earlier stories that have the reader follow a criminal in devising and committing a crime, but Freeman does provide an innovation in showing that a crime writer can maintain interest and suspense in showing the detective piecing together a puzzle whose solution we already know. Later writers in that subgenre like Freeman Wills Crofts and E. & M. A. Radford as well as the TV series Columbo owe a considerable debt to R. Austin Freeman’s approach.

Freeman’s first efforts in the field of mystery fiction were short stories, penned along with fellow medic John James Pitcairn under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown. These stories followed the roguish conman Romney Pringle who apparently uses his observational, scientific and deductive skills to track down other criminals.

He found his greatest literary success a few years later however with the publication of The Red Thumb Mark, the first of the Dr. Thorndyke stories. These stories are at first glance reminiscent of Doyle’s Holmes adventures, particularly in the way that the sleuth takes a small number of physical clues and uses them to construct elaborate theories or explanations of puzzling situations but there are some important differences.

The first is that the Thorndyke stories feel far less sensationalist with less of a focus on surprising the reader. One of the things that I feel defines Freeman from earlier writers is his dedication to the idea of fair play – being careful to point out the clues that Thorndyke will use and to give the reader time to consider their importance. As a case in point, Freeman includes a note at the start of The Mystery of 31 New Inn to explain that he has tested a key concept used in the novel and can attest to its practicality.

The way Thorndyke acquires and processes that evidence is also somewhat different. While Holmes may talk of methodically eliminating possibilities, there are times where the conclusions that are reached from evidence may feel rather arbitrary. In contrast, Thorndyke carefully assembles facts, conducts tests and assesses how his findings alter the likelihood of his theories being correct. Accordingly his progress can be slower and less dramatic but that is no bad thing for those who enjoy playing at being an armchair detective as it allows the reader additional time to consider the solution.

The other significant difference is that Thorndyke is a considerably warmer character than the often misanthropic Holmes. Freeman’s detective is apparently quite handsome and also quite personable both towards his friends and also those he comes into contact with in his investigations. For Freeman though the point of interest is in the science rather than the character of his sleuth and while I quite enjoy Thorndyke’s company, I read Freeman primarily for his plots.

Martin Edwards’ history of the Detection Club contains a good amount of discussion of Freeman’s background and character with a particular focus on his enthusiasm for eugenics in the period between the wars. One of the things he notes was that Freeman authored a book on the topic, Social Decay and Regeneration, which he felt prouder of than his many mystery novels. While he was not alone in his beliefs, he was certainly in a minority within the Detection Club and Edwards provides a couple of examples from the works of Sayers and Christie skewering those expressing such views.

The work I selected to read for this project was one of Freeman’s earlier Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, The Mystery of 31 New Inn. I ended up opting for this one over some of his later works partly out of a sense of intrigue at the story’s premise but also because it is a work in the American public domain, meaning that it is easily accessible. Given that many of the posts in this series, at least in the immediate future, will require sourcing out of print and rare works, it is nice to be able to point to a work that everyone can obtain easily. As it happens, I also think it is a strong example of the author’s style…

The Mystery of 31 New Inn by R. Austin Freeman

Originally published in 1912
Dr. Thorndyke #4
Preceded by The Eye of Osiris
Followed by The Singing Bone

A man falls gravely ill, but is reluctant to call a doctor. As his condition worsens, he is eventually forced to seek medical aid—but he does so only under the condition that the physician does not learn his identity or address. Dr. Jervis is therefore transported to the man’s home in a 4-wheeled cab with tightly closed shutters. When he arrives, the doctor finds that the patient—who has been introduced with a pseudonym—exhibits all of the signs of morphine poisoning. But the sick man’s caretaker assures Jervis that this is outside the realm of possibility. Knowing neither the patient’s real name nor where he lives, Jervis feels both helpless and puzzled, so he consults his friend Dr. John Thorndyke. Versed in the nuances of medicine and law, Thorndyke is the only person who can solve this cryptic case.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn begins by reintroducing the reader to Dr. Jervis who is covering a fellow doctor’s practice which he is away. He receives a visit from a man who has been sent to summon him to assist a reluctant patient. The sick man, who is apparently highly mistrusting of doctors, has apparently only consented to be seen if his physician does not know his identity or the location of his home. Jervis is not pleased at the conditions but agrees to attend. When he does he is shocked by the patient’s condition, suspecting morphine poisoning. Feeling unsure of what to do given the strange circumstances of the case, Jervis seeks Dr. Thorndyke’s advice.

As it happens Dr. Thorndyke is about to embark on a puzzling case of his own. It concerns the recent death of a man who for reasons unknown decided to write and sign a new will with almost identical terms to one already in existence. There is one issue with the wording of the document however that proves highly significant because just hours before his death, the deceased unexpectedly inherited a sizeable sum of money which thanks to the change in wording would go to the estate’s executor rather than the heir…

Freeman thus provides the reader with two points of interest to hook them. Of these I found Dr. Jervis’ experience to be the more intriguing and atmospheric, helped by the thick mist and the candlelit visit, while Thorndyke’s problem appealed more as a puzzle. This is not a reflection on the complexity of the case but rather the curious details and contradictions present in its setup with the two very similar wills.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn is not intended to be an inverted mystery but I will say that the villain’s identity will be pretty obvious to the reader from the start, even if it is surprising to those involved in the case. Part of that is structural – there are some assumptions that the reader is likely to make because they are familiar with the genre and its tricks. It is also a matter of logic – once some facts are established the reader can pretty quickly reach some further conclusions through application of reasoning. This is not, as I suggested in my introduction, a bad thing but it does increase the likelihood that the reader will spend much of the novel ahead of the detectives. The question therefore is whether the story can hold the reader’s attention in spite of many of its secrets seeming quite apparent.

The joy in this work is not in any moment of surprise but in the quality of the construction. Even if the reader can identify the villain of the piece from near the novel’s start, there are still plenty of aspects of the puzzle left to resolve and that process can be quite satisfying.

One of my favorite clues is introduced in the novel’s seventh chapter and it offers a great example of the way Freeman handles his clues. He begins by introducing the clue – in fact in some editions, though sadly not the one pictured above, providing an illustration of it alongside the text (these are present in the Project Gutenberg copy). Thorndyke acknowledges the significance of the clue but does not explain it at first, giving Dr. Jervis and the reader time to consider its meaning. Then some possible implications are given and it will later be considered in conjunction with other clues Thorndyke has gathered. It can be a rather slow process but it’s a meticulous one and it does mean that the reader who values fair play is truly catered for.

Similarly I was impressed by Freeman’s attention to detail in the way he describes how some aspects of detection work. There is one process Thorndyke employs (the one referenced in the author’s note at the start of the book) that is particularly interesting and where there was some potential for confusion. Freeman does an excellent job however of carefully walking the reader through each step of the process to the point where I think the attentive reader could probably reproduce it for themselves – a pretty impressive feat!

As informative as it is, I must admit that Freeman’s prose is sometimes a little stiff and functional. This is good from the point of view of clarity but it also contributes to the sense that this reads like a late Victorian novel. Ultimately that didn’t bother me too much but I would suggest that if you come away from this wanting to read more Freeman it won’t be because of his narrative flair.

Still, the solution to the story is very tidy and Freeman does a good job of having Thorndyke walk the reader through the chain of reasoning they should have followed, carefully laying out the connections between each fact to build a complete picture of what had happened and the reasons for it. While there are few surprises, I enjoyed both the careful explanation of the crucial points of the case and also the reactions of the people he is explaining those facts to. My only disappointment there is that the aftermath of the reveal feels rather rushed and perhaps a little unsatisfying given it is recounted to the reader after it has happened.

As underwhelming as the coda to the investigation may be, I have to stress that I enjoyed the bulk of the book up to that point. While The Mystery of 31 New Inn may not be one of the toughest or most colorful cases to solve that you will ever read, it is told in an engaging way, encouraging the reader to figure out all of the connections between the various clues. More than anything it has reminded me that I want to seek out more Freeman in the future so expect further posts on his works to follow in the next few months!

The Verdict: A very solid, logical case hinges on a couple of excellent clues and one quite magnificent one. While Freeman’s writing style can be a little bland and functional, his plot construction was strong and those skills are in clear evidence here. Expect me to return to Freeman repeatedly over the next few months…

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event was also a fan of the journey that Freeman takes us on here, noting that “the journey with all its rigour and care is sheer manna from heaven for those of us with the taste for such undertakings.”

The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

Originally published in 1911
Collects short stories published in 1910 and 1911
Father Brown #1
Followed by The Wisdom of Father Brown

[…]In thrilling tales such as “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” and “The Hammer of God,” G. K. Chesterton’s immortal priest-detective applies his extraordinary intuition to the most intricate of mysteries. No corner of the human soul is too dark for Father Brown, no villain too ingenious. The Innocence of Father Brown is a testament to the power of faith and the pleasure of a story well told.

A few weeks ago I shared an outline of my challenge to myself to read a work by each member of the Detection Club. The reason for this challenge was that I realized when reading The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards’ excellent history of the Detection Club and the roles the members played in developing the detective fiction genre, that while I knew many of the names involved there were many whose work I had little to no knowledge of.

The most instrumental figures in the club’s founding seem to have been Berkeley and Sayers but being very familiar with their works already I thought it more fitting to start with the first President of the Detection Club, G. K. Chesterton. While I had read a couple of his short stories before they were in the context of a broader, thematic collection and so I felt like I had only a very basic impression of his work.

I asked followers on Twitter and readers of this blog for suggestions about what I should read and you returned a clear verdict that I ought to start with his Father Brown stories rather than his novels. Jonathan O had advised that the earlier volumes are stronger than some of the later ones so I opted to start at the very beginning with the first collection, The Innocence of Father Brown.

While there were Father Brown stories written during the Golden Age of Detection, the character was created several years before that era is commonly regarded as starting. While there are certainly detection elements to be found within a number of the stories in the collection, the style feels more reminiscent of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales in which the clues and deductions drawn from them are often delivered simultaneously. The reader is supposed to marvel at Father Brown’s unexpected ability to perceive the truth rather than beat him to it.

It is interesting to consider the contrast between Chesterton’s hero and the likes of Holmes and Dupin. Where those two men were brilliant to the point of exuding arrogance, Father Brown does not set himself up as an investigator and his manner is mild and unassuming. Indeed when we first encounter him in The Blue Cross the reader would have little sense he was to be the protagonist in a series of short stories – that role appears to be destined for the brilliant French investigator, Valentin.

Valentin feels like an amalgam of those two great detectives, complete with the added authority that comes from his position as the head of the Paris police. In this story he is shown to be highly competent and interestingly rather than diminishing his abilities to make Father Brown seem more intelligent (as I might argue sometimes happens with Holmes in his interactions with the Scotland Yard men), we see him live up to his reputation. What we see is that Valentin is smart but Brown, perhaps unexpectedly, is smarter.

The story is a fun one involving the hunt for a thief who has made his way to England. During the pursuit he comes across Father Brown who is transporting a valuable jeweled cross. Valentin suspects that a tall priest keeping company with Brown may be the criminal in disguise and follows the pair across the city but he cannot understand some of the curious things the pair do on their travels.

It’s an entertaining introduction to the character of Father Brown. The reader should not expect to be dazzled by any brilliant deductions though it is fun to learn the explanations for some of the things that happen.

The second story, The Secret Garden, also involves Valentin as a decapitated body is found in his garden during a social gathering. This one is more of a detective story than its predecessor and it has some clever ideas but I was unhappy with some elements of the solution. In particular, I felt that the motive here was really unconvincing.

The next tale, The Queer Feet, was much more to my taste as Father Brown finds himself in a very exclusive restaurant at the same time that a society of twelve – The Twelve True Fishermen – have their annual dinner. He hears a commotion and intervenes to prevent a crime from taking place.

As with The Blue Cross, this is once again more adventure than detective story. Brown is not acting in response to the observation of a crime scene but rather acts instinctively, based on his reading of people and his knowledge of criminals. It does do a good job of demonstrating his quick wits and of playing with the notion that appearances can be deceptive. It also features the most convincing example of an idea that I have seen used in a number of detective stories, including several times by Agatha Christie.

Perhaps what I like best of all though is Chesterton’s writing which is often very witty. The descriptions of the exclusivity of the setting are very amusing but what I liked most of all was the final statement delivered by Father Brown.

The Flying Stars are a set of jewels that are stolen during a social gathering while the attendees are watching a clown act. There is a nice callback in this story to the first as the thief is, once again, Flambeau (this is not spoiling anything – the story begins with Flambeau reflecting on the incident) and I liked that once again this is a story that showcases the personality of Father Brown. In particular, I appreciate the way he advocates for one suspect and then chooses to resolve this problem.

It is a shame given how much I enjoy some aspects of the resolution to this story that it contains some elements that I would describe as outdated and offensive. Nothing here is exceptional to the period in which it was written but there were several things that just didn’t set well with me: not least the merriment of the party at the idea of a performer blackening their skin with soot and Father Brown’s own statement that he had done so to amuse a group of children in the past.

The Invisible Man concerns the problem of how a man is murdered when the entrances to his house are under observation by the police. The best part of the story is the background to it as we learn the tale of the young woman and the two suitors who wanted to win her hand and, rejected, went off to make their fortunes. I am a little less convinced by the solution to this one and I feel that it may have benefited from a greater gap from a previous story in this collection. Still, it’s quite readable and while I think that solution is found quite quickly, it is at least clued.

The Honour of Israel Gow sees Father Brown and Flambeau, now an amateur detective, head to Scotland to investigate the death of an aristocrat and the strange condition of his family home. It’s a strange story, in part because the crime here is less clearly defined than in the previous stories but the explanation is clever and demonstrates an interesting sort of logical reasoning.

The next story, The Wrong Shape, is an example of a dying message story in which a man is found dead having written a message that appears to contradict himself claiming that he has committed suicide but also that he was murdered. It’s a well-told story, albeit one with a very simple solution that I have seen replicated. Perhaps not the best challenge in the collection but a good read regardless.

The Sins of Prince Saradine (which very nearly became The Sins of Prince Sardine courtesy of autocorrect) is a very entertaining tale in which Flambeau receives an invitation to meet with a prince of poor repute who is keen to learn about his past criminal exploits only for things to take an unexpected turn. There are some very amusing moments of which my favorite is easily the list of the things Flambeau had packed for his journey, and I think that this is a very cleverly structured tale.

I had actually read The Hammer of God some time ago as part of an anthology I never got around to reviewing. I wasn’t expecting great things in revisiting it so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a much more interesting story than I remembered. It concerns the death of a man who had been struck on the head with incredible force using a hammer.

What I liked most about this story was the logical way Father Brown points out the contradictions in some elements of the crime and reaches his conclusions. This is one of the best examples of a logical puzzle in the collection and while I don’t feel that an aspect of the ending is entirely deserved, I liked it a lot overall.

The Eye of Apollo concerns the bizarre death of an heiress who seems to have been part-way through writing her will before leaping to her doom. As a puzzle this story is quite nicely constructed, hingeing on a simple but clever idea. That solution is clued very neatly, making this one of the more rewarding cases in the collection.

The next story, The Sign of the Broken Sword, marks quite a departure in style from the other stories in this collection. It begins with Father Brown taking Flambeau to see the tomb of a fallen military hero and after making some cryptic remarks he starts to explain the man’s history, particularly the circumstances of his death during a conflict with Brazil.

Structurally this story is unusual because Brown begins the story possessing all of the information about the scenario – it’s the reader who is left to learn exactly what the mystery is that we must unravel and what the implications of that are. It’s a really interesting story – one that shows great insight into human nature and warfare – and the way it concludes is, for me, the most interesting character moment Father Brown has in the entire collection.

The final story, The Three Tools of Death, is also preoccupied with matters of psychology but I felt that it was less successful – even though the solution is much more surprising. The story concerns the death of a philanthropist known for his jolly demeanor.

Suspicion immediately falls upon one figure but we soon learn that the situation is not so simple as it appears. The explanation Chesterton comes up with is certainly imaginative but I found it too far-fetched as a sequence of events to be entirely credible and I would be shocked if anyone reached the solution. Still, I did appreciate the explanations for the actions of the various suspects and I found it entertaining in its ambition.

Reflecting on the collection overall, I was impressed by the diversity of story types on offer. Some are quirky or feature lower stakes, such as the theft of some jewel, while others feature much grander and more serious crimes. This keeps the collection from feeling repetitive and while I think Chesterton sometimes struggles to come up with a convincing rationale for his priest-sleuth to be involved (I am thinking most of The Queer Feet), the character’s actions and behavior often helps smooth over those doubts.

One of the preconceptions I had of Chesterton’s work based on my few previous experiences was that they were quite serious stories, in part because of the heavy moral and philosophical themes he includes. Instead I was surprised to find that he could be quite a light and witty writer and while those elements never dominate the stories, they often provide some relief to the often quite serious stories.

The other thing that surprised me was that in several of these stories Father Brown makes a very late appearance in the proceedings. This does tie in quite nicely to the book’s broader themes though and his interjections are typically interesting.

Finally, another request for your assistance with my project: while I have titles for the next few authors picked out I will need to plan ahead for some. Does anyone have any suggestions for what I should try to seek out by Lord Gorell? Money is very much an object so preferably something I have a hope of tracking down for a reasonable price (ie. less than $40).

The Verdict: An interesting, if uneven, collection of stories.

The Final Days of Abbot Montrose by Sven Elvestad

Originally published in 1917 as Montrose.
English translation published in 2018.

It is an evening in early May when the quiet of Montrose Abbey is shattered by the sounds of shouting and broken glass. When the police arrive, they find the abbey library ransacked and bloodstained. Broken furniture and a burning carpet bear witness to a violent struggle. And the abbot himself, the scholarly Abbot Montrose, is missing. Only a torn fragment of his cassock remains, caught in the wrought-iron fence surrounding the abbey.

The police, the press, and citizens of this northern city fear the worst. What could have befallen the missing abbot? Has he been murdered? Abducted?

As world-renowned Detective Asbjørn Krag and his partner, Detective Sirius Keller, begin to unravel the tangled knot of clues left behind, they find themselves in the city’s infamous Krydder District, “where the dark doorways are as close together as rat holes in an old warehouse.” The more answers they find, the more questions seem to pop up.

One of the pages I have on this blog is a listing of all of the crime and mystery novels I have in my TBR pile. I created this mostly as an aide mémoire though it didn’t stop me accidentally buying two copies of So Pretty a Problem so it’s not infallible. I do note on that page that if readers have requests for me to read a title I have listed on that page to get in touch (I just spotted that Ken asked me some time ago to read Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss so I will try to get to that soon). As it happens I received an email last week asking if I could share my opinion of this work by Sven Elvestad and I was happy to oblige, particularly as it had been recommended by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime – that review is linked at the end of this post.

The novel concerns the disappearance of Abbot Montrose, a scholarly priest, from the abbey’s library. The room is found to be in disarray with broken furniture and blood stains suggesting violence or perhaps murder. There is no sign of a body however and the lack of a ransom seems to indicate that he was kidnapped either. With a handful of physical clues, Detective Krag is tasked with discovering what happened to the Abbot and why.

One of the things that I couldn’t get out of my head as I read this is how much this resembles a Holmes story (albeit one with a stronger focus on fair play detection). It is not just that the detective has moments where they make deductions from seemingly innocuous details of a person’s appearance or behavior but the style in which this story is told with our heroes dashing from place to place and, at one point, even experiencing some moments of light peril.

Perhaps the strongest parallels though lie in the type of case that Krag and Keller are called upon to solve. This case presents exactly the sort of slightly odd situation that would have fascinated Holmes as the victim seems so unlikely. The lack of a body even means that we cannot be sure for much of the novel what type of crime has taken place, adding an unusual complication to the proceedings.

While the story is generally handled quite seriously, the novel does contain some flashes of humor. My favorite section of the novel takes place around a rather seedy hotel, The Gilded Peacock, in which our two sleuths find it necessary to adopt disguises to enter and remain inconspicuous. The nature of those disguises is quite amusing and sets an appropriately odd tone to match the environment they are to enter.

I should probably note at this point that there is a part of this section of the novel that I think could be described as presenting an impossibility. I did consider categorizing this post as such but ended up deciding against it, in large part because of the simplicity of the setup and the resolution, but it was a nice surprise to suddenly encounter that as an incidental feature of the book. It involves the vanishing of a suspect and one of the detectives from a hotel room that was locked from the inside by the detective who we can safely assume is honest. This could easily have been worked up into something a little more substantial and fairly clued – as it is, it is just used to provide a shock of excitement mid-way in the book between questioning sessions.

The solution to the crime could also come straight out of a Doyle tale though I would stress that I think the ending is one that the reader can reach by considering the evidence. I have just one issue with the conclusion that is hard to describe well without spoiling it. All I can say is that there is one aspect of the case that confuses matters. This is fine enough as it makes the case more interesting but I did feel that the explanation of why that was the case was a little unconvincing and I do wish that there had been a better reason for it happening.

That being said, I found my overall experience with Sven Elvestad to be a largely enjoyable one. I particularly appreciated that the novel presents a rather unusual type of crime, trusting that the reader will be attracted enough with the strangeness of a situation to forgo a corpse.

The Verdict: A well-clued puzzle mystery with some adventure elements.

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked this a lot, complimenting the puzzle plot.

Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary by James Krasner

Audiobook Details

Originally published in 2021
This work is exclusively available through Audible to its members

The Blurb

Every hero works to soothe the fears of the people during their period in history. Heroes are not only brave, but they’re also able to navigate the convoluted corridors of society, and to see through the respectable pretense of others to detect the evil that lies within.

So, who better to take on the foggy, crime-ridden streets and strict social mores of Victorian London than the iconic literary detective Sherlock Holmes?

In Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary, you’ll investigate the history behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s whip-smart, charismatic detective. James Krasner, a scholar of British Victorian literature, will play the role of “Watson” as he offers a clearer picture of the imaginative influence Sherlock Holmes has maintained over readers from the 19th century through today. While you examine the secrets of novels like A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles and stories like “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem,” you’ll deepen your appreciation of these enduring works. You’ll also gain insights into Holmes’s continued relevance to the social problems we face in our own world.

What does the relationship between Holmes and Watson tell us about friendship? Is Sherlock Holmes just a “thinking machine”? How do these adventures lay bare gender dynamics in surprising ways?

The answers are far from elementary.

The Verdict

An interesting and well-paced exploration of Holmes and the themes found in the canon. Ideally designed for those who have read all the stories and want to dig a little deeper.

In this series we’ll talk about the history behind Sherlock Holmes and we’ll talk about how his adventures take us right into the heart, and sometimes the seedy underbelly, of Victorian England.

My Thoughts

Several years ago I blogged about The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, a lecture series from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses range that discussed the history and breadth of the mystery and suspense genres. I credited that series for encouraging me to explore the genre more widely and bringing a number of authors and sub-genres of crime fiction to my attention.

In recent years in addition to their broader video and audio courses, The Teaching Company have partnered with Audible to create shorter lecture series specifically designed for the audio format. These are often on more tightly defined topics (such as the life of Prince Albert or the history of holiday celebrations) and recently became part of the Audible Plus library that are available to subscribers (edit: this may only be true of the US Audible service – see comments below) without using up any credits. This new short course is one of those Audible Originals, discussing the Sherlock Holmes stories in depth.

The first thing to emphasize is that Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary is not designed for newcomers to the Holmes stories. Krasner discusses key plot developments of a number of stories including often identifying the villains or the manner in which they are caught. Instead it is designed for those who have read the stories and are keen to dig a little deeper with each installment teasing out and discussing certain themes that run throughout the stories.

For example, the first lecture discusses the importance of the city of London and the way it is depicted within the stories. Krasner discusses this in terms of the growth of the city in the nineteenth century and the anxiety about aspects of city life that is reflected in a number of stories. This was one of the most interesting installments for me as it focuses on how these stories were being received specifically in the period in which they were first published.

Other topics include the characters of Watson and Holmes, the construction of mystery stories, the role of women and the supernatural in the stories. There are also lectures on the relationship between Doyle and his creation and how the character has been depicted on stage and screen. The material is well-structured and varied enough that there is not much repetition between the various sections. I include a full list of the lecture titles at the end of this post.

I found Krasner’s material most engaging when he goes beyond the Doyle stories to discuss how they align with themes being developed in other stories written during the period. This places the material in a slightly different context to the way I have usually encountered it in terms of the development of the mystery genre and I enjoyed getting to consider it from that slightly different perspective.

Krasner is clearly a fan of the character, something he establishes in his introduction where he talks about dressing up as Holmes on several occasions during his childhood, but he discusses the Holmes phenomenon with enough distance to be able to make some occasionally surprising comparisons such as with Twilight, Star Trek and the Harry Potter series, particularly in relation to the development of its fan culture.

One difference between these Audible Originals and the original Great Courses releases is that the lack of visuals allows the presenter to speak directly from a script. This means that there are no hesitations or stumbles but it can also mean that in spite of the lecture label, that it feels more like a reading than a spontaneous performance. I feel that is the case with this release, though Krasner speaks clearly and I found him easy to listen to.

One slight disappointment for me was that the lectures focus pretty exclusively on the books’ and the character’s reception in the anglophone world. This is unfortunate as I believe that one of the things which most defines Holmes is his global fanbase. It is a shame that this means there is no discussion of the appeal of these stories to that global audience or of adaptations like Miss Sherlock. I do appreciate though that obviously with a limited running time a line has to be drawn somewhere and obviously these have more limited audiences than the likes of Downey Jr’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s takes on Sherlock.

Overall I found this an enjoyable and engaging listen and if you have an Audible subscription I certainly think that it is worth the listen if you are someone who has read all the stories and wants to start to dig a little deeper. And if someone from The Teaching Company or Audible happens to read this, I’d be very interested to see a similar series developed on the works of Agatha Christie.

Lecture Titles Listing

Lecture 1: The Victorian City
Lecture 2: My Dear Watson
Lecture 3: Sherlock Holmes: Man or Machine?
Lecture 4: How to Write a Mystery Story
Lecture 5: Doctors and Detectives
Lecture 6: Nice Work If You Can Get It
Lecture 7: Women and Sherlock Holmes
Lecture 8: The Supernatural and Sherlock Holmes
Lecture 9: The Final Problem: Sherlock Holmes and Popular Culture
Lecture 10: Adaptations of Sherlock Holmes

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Originally published in 1913.
Expanded from a short story published in 1911.

One damp November evening on the Marylebone Road, a couple sits in silence. Though their thoughts are the same—money and the lack thereof—the time has long since passed when Mr. and Mrs. Bunting could find comfort in sharing their anxieties with each other. Now every word is a reproach—a reminder of luxuries forsaken and keepsakes pawned. Retired servants, the Buntings sunk every last shilling into their London lodging house. Now they are trapped. The rooms are empty, the rent is due, and ruin awaits. When the paper boys’ cry of “Horrible Murder! Murder at St. Pancras!” rings out in the street, Mr. Bunting risks his wife’s ire to buy the Evening Standard. The latest exploits of the killer known as the Avenger will give him something to think about besides his own misery.

Just when he is settling in with the paper, there is a knock at the door. Mr. Sleuth enters, seeking “quiet rooms” to rent. He bears no luggage, save one nearly empty leather bag, and his demeanor is odd, to say least. The beautiful sitting room on the second floor interests him not at all, but the obsolete gas stove on the underfurnished third floor is exactly what he has been looking for. Best of all, he wants to pay a month’s rent in advance. Mr. and Mrs. Bunting believe that the new lodger is a godsend until a dark fear grips their hearts. Could the strange Mr. Sleuth be the Avenger in disguise? And if he is, can they afford to know?

After suffering several unfortunate misfortunes, the respectable Buntings have found themselves on the brink of destitution. Following years in service the couple had attempted to open a lodging-house but have difficulty letting their rooms. This forces them to pawn almost everything of value including Mr. Bunting’s suit, leaves him unable to find occasional work.

Their prayers seem to be answered when a man turns up asking to see their rooms. After a brief examination he declares the rooms on the top floor to be satisfactory as a place to conduct his experiments but tells Mrs. Bunting that as he does not wish to be disturbed he will rent the rooms below as well, paying a full month in advance. He also insists that he should not be waited on and plans to make minimal demands of them, saying he will call for them if needed.

The new lodger, who calls himself Mr. Sleuth, is a strange fellow but they are certain that he must be a gentleman. His habit of creeping out in the middle of the night is odd but they are too happy at their return to financial security to question his behavior too much. It is only as they learn more about a spate of murders committed by a mysterious figure calling himself The Avenger that they separately start to wonder about the true nature of their lodger…

The Lodger was apparently conceived following a dinner when Lowndes spoke with a man who shared the story of how a pair of his father’s former servants believed a murderer had stayed at their lodging house before committing one of his crimes. Lowndes took inspiration from this to write a short story which was published in 1911 before being expanded into a novel two years later.

The story is a psychological one and I think you can make an argument that it is an inverted story, though it should be said that Lowndes spends much of the novel dealing in suspicion rather than statements of fact. The reader will likely assume that those suspicions are right, if only because if they’re not it wouldn’t be much of a tale, but it is inverted by inference rather than design. What is more important though is that Lowndes chooses to focus not on the details of the crimes but the responses of two bystanders who come to suspect the killer’s identity.

Why is that important? Lowndes is far more interested in the way her characters respond to a crime, particularly of the gory and sensational type that is shown here, than in exploring what happened. This is reflected in the text which avoids going into much detail about exactly what the Avenger does. We get a sense of what that may be through Mrs. Bunting’s distaste for the news reports and the tone of the newspaper headlines, but often we are shown their reaction to information rather than being told exactly what was said. As a technique I think this is rather effective as it allows the reader to project their own ideas onto the situation.

Some of those ideas the readers may well have drawn on would have had parallels in two then-recent cases: the Ripper murders in London and the crimes of Dr. Cream, the Lambeth Poisoner. Lowndes seems to have combined elements from both their crimes, depicting some of the press fervour of the Ripper crimes as well as the killer’s exclusive targeting of women while physically describing Cream and using ideas like his having committed crimes in multiple countries. From this basic framework, Lowndes then further develops her killer, giving him traits like a religious mania, extreme discomfort around women and a furtive and spiky personality, creating a pretty richly drawn character who is a striking and disconcerting presence whenever he is near.

While Sleuth is a strong presence, our empathy and focus falls on the Buntings. The early chapters do an excellent job of describing how they came to be in their situation and helping to connect the reader to their sense of desperation. This is teeing things up for later in the novel where we will need to accept their silence while retaining our sympathy for them – a tough ask but one I think Lowndes mostly achieves. Certainly I had no doubt that the couple really did face ruin without his money and I think she is very effective at conveying the gradual realization on the part of them that he could pose a danger to them.

What this means is that the book is structured to focus on a point of conflict where they will have to confront the nature of what they believe their lodger to be and decide what to do about it. This ought to be a really impactful moment and certainly we get a lot of buildup that really elevates the tension, creating a sense that we are headed for something explosive – an idea that seems to be confirmed by the choice of the location of that climactic sequence.

Unfortunately though I think Lowndes whiffs the ending. For all the dread generated in the lead up to these final chapters, the actual resolution struck me as highly frustrating and unsatisfying. I think the problem is that while she sets up the notion that the Buntings will have to make a choice, the resolution is quite different and done in such a way that we never have to see them make that hard choice.

In the short story that ending doesn’t bother me at all – it not only seems appropriate to the length of the piece, it also reflects that we have spent significantly less time exploring whether the Buntings will do something to act on their suspicions. That story felt really sharp and compact – two things that I do not think could be said of the novel. For that reason alone I would suggest that the short story is the more essential read.

Still, while the pacing can feel a little too slow and deliberate at points and the ending seemed to diminish the roles of our two protagonists, I do think this is an interesting and highly worthwhile read. It is a study in the creation of dread and I am happy to say it succeeds in keeping that up til the very end.

The Verdict: Though I prefer the tighter, punchier original short story, the book’s creation of dread is quite masterful.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Originally Published in 1902
Sherlock Holmes #5
Preceded by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The country doctor had come to 221B Baker Street, the famous lodgings of Sherlock Holmes, with an eerie tale—the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, the devil-beast that haunted the lonely moors around the Baskervilles’ ancestral home. The tale warned the descendants of that ancient family never to venture out on the moor. But Sir Charles Baskerville was now dead—and the footprints of a giant hound have been found near his body. Would the new heir of the Baskervilles meet the same dreadful fate?

Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend, Dr. Watson, are faced with their most terrifying case in this wonderful classic of masterful detection and bone-chilling suspense.

The Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes receiving a visit from Dr. James Mortimer. He has come to consult him on the strange circumstances surrounding the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville who had been found dead on the grounds surrounding his home on Dartmoor.

The direct cause of death was a heart attack but Mortimer notes that his friend’s face seemed to be frozen in an expression of terror. Near the body the enormous footprint of a hound was found, leading some to speculate that he may have been killed by the demonic beast said to have been responsible for the premature death of many of Sir Charles’ ancestors.

Sir Charles’ heir has recently arrived in London and intends to take up the property but has received a warning urging him not to visit the moors. Holmes agrees to meet with him and, upon learning of some strange occurrences surrounding him, he decides he will send Watson with Sir Henry to Dartmoor to protect him and to try and uncover the truth of what is going on.

If Sherlock Holmes is, for many people, The Detective then The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be The Detective Novel. It is a work that has enjoyed a tremendous reach thanks to countless adaptations and the clear influence it has had over many subsequent works in the genre. The only comparable titles I can think of in the genre would be Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.

I have previously shared my opinion that Holmes is a character that really doesn’t suit long form fiction as well as the short story. Both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four have points of interest but I feel each has a structural problem. For those unfamiliar with those books, at the midpoint of each Holmes identifies a crucial figure and the remainder of the books becomes a historical tale explaining the background to the events we have witnessed.

What this means in practice is that only the first half of each book is a mystery – the remainder is explanation. The case, it seems, concludes long before the novel does. Given how energetic and driven the Holmes chapters are, the sudden switch to a slower historical storytelling feels very jarring and only emphasizes how little tension or sense of discovery there is in the second half of each book.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has quite a different structure and it is all the better for it. Rather than try to sustain Holmes’ bursts of energy throughout an entire novel, Doyle opts to keep him in the background for much of the more routine parts of the investigation and has Watson take the lead.

The decision to split up Holmes and Watson is to the benefit of both characters. Watson, able to act with more freedom and less scrutiny than usual in these stories, is given a chance to interview each of the characters involved at a more leisurely pace, share his own ideas about the case, and even have a memorable late night adventure of his own on the moors.

Holmes is then able to swoop back into the story at a critical point close to the end of the book and take over the investigation. At that point we have been so eagerly anticipating his direct involvement in the case that it makes that moment feel even more important and exciting. As he reenters the story very late in the proceedings, Doyle is able to naturally sustain Holmes’ incredible energy to build a pacy, action-driven and pretty satisfying conclusion.

The Hound of the Baskervilles not only fixes the principal problems with its two predecessors, it also retains one of the elements that was most successful in them. Each of the preceding novels contained horrific elements whether that was the gory message written on a wall in blood in A Study in Scarlet or Sholto’s terrible sense of fear in The Sign of Four. This novel also evokes a sense of fear but incorporates a stronger sense of the supernatural, particularly in those passages that describe the hound itself. Where previous stories have seen Holmes explain the inexplicable, here he has to rationalize what appears diabolical.

The most obvious horror element is the hound itself. Doyle does a lot well, including giving an intriguing origin for the beast and tying it to the victim’s own family history. Throw in the desolate landscape of the moors and you have something that I think really strikes the imagination. While part of the reason that this story gets adapted so often is the plotting, this story also features some really strong visual storytelling and plenty of elements that evoke a sense of atmosphere.

While I think this is a significant improvement on the two novels that went before it, I do have to point to some elements that I do not find entirely successful. The first of these is a crucial issue with the villain’s plans. Doyle himself clearly recognizes this – he actually has Holmes point it out and describe the problem – but then he flubs the opportunity to actually answer this, simply dismissing it as something they would have addressed later.

Is it unrealistic that someone may enact a plan without having every element thought through? Perhaps not. But I find it difficult to accept that someone would accept the degree of risk their plan entails with no certainty of the benefit. While I am no fan of the detective not having all the answers, surely someone could have provided one after the fact. It just feels very untidy.

Similarly there is an issue that Watson identifies at the end that Holmes tries to answer through conjecture. While the explanation Holmes posits would fit the facts, I feel it is a bit of a stretch to fit in with the other things we know about the villain’s personality.

My final issue with the book is that there is a moment where everyone seems to show a pretty breathtaking lack of humanity (ROT13: Gur qvfpbirel gung n qrnq obql vf abg Onfxreivyyr ohg gur pbaivpg). While this would certainly fit with the character of Holmes himself, I was surprised that others did not seem to be affected in any way by what has happened – particularly Watson.

Now others may suggest that this, like many of the Holmes stories, is more adventure than detective story. There is at least a grain of truth to this, particularly in the middle section of the book. In these chapters we do learn a few important points that seem to point to the guilty party but there are quite a few red herrings too.

I feel however that this is one of those cases where many of Holmes’ observations are grounded in solid, logical thought. Sure, the villain’s identity feels obvious from the start but Holmes’ reasons for dismissing the supernatural explanation and for forming his ideas about what was happening could be easily replicated by the reader being based on the application of some simple ideas and logic.

Though not perfect, The Hound of the Baskervilles feels like a much more cohesive story than either of the two previous novels. When I reviewed each of them I counselled that those new to Holmes would be best served to skip over those novels and return to them after reading the short stories. Clearly I am not advising the same here.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is not only one of the most famous Holmes stories, it is one of his more entertaining ones too.

The Verdict: While I have issues with some loose plotting, this atmospheric story has some wonderful imagery.

Sherlock Holmes Magazine

The cover for the first issue.

This week has been a frustrating one as I have been stuck at home waiting for the results of a COVID test (I feel fine – it’s a contact tracing thing). Thankfully the much-awaited first issue of Sherlock Holmes Magazine showed up when I needed it most, serving as an excellent form of diversion.

I first saw news of the publication on Twitter and had been intrigued enough to add myself to the preorders list. While I admit to not being as devoted a Sherlockian as my father (who had files full of various fanzines and publications in his office when I was growing up), I have enough interest in the Great Detective that I thought it could be interesting. That interest only grew when I saw that the magazine would not only cover the canon but the many derivative works and adaptations that have been done over the years.

For those who are curious, the magazine is glossy and heavily illustrated. It is larger than the typical US magazine, clocking in at about 12 inches by 8.25. It feels like it could sit very comfortably on any newsagents’ shelf, although being self-published and having a very limited print run, it unfortunately lacks that store shelf visibility.

The magazine contains some short snippets of news at the front but the bulk of the pages are devoted to feature articles. Some focus on the various adaptations such as the feature on the tenth anniversary of Sherlock or the fun article defending Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Watson. I found most of these to be interesting, particularly the piece discussing the history of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I hope that future issues may see similar features for some more obscure adapted or inspired works.

There are also several articles that focus on Doyle’s texts themselves such as an article about Moriarty or the fascinating one discussing how the stories came to be banned in Switzerland. I found these to be just as engaging and felt I learned something from each of them, particularly the latter. I suspect that the biggest challenge for the magazine will be creating new book-focused material that hits that sweet spot between being accessible to a wider audience and providing something of interest to devoted Sherlockians but based on this first issue I have confidence that they are up to the task.

Finally there are a couple of pieces that are quirkier and harder to categorize. The one that stands out most is the article about the Holmes tartan. This is beautifully illustrated but was probably the least interesting of the articles to me. Others may feel differently though and while the content was not particularly tailored to my own interests, I did appreciate it as a change of pace. I prefered the Holmes in Lockdown piece, discussing the Don’t Go Into The Cellar plays performed on the web during lockdown. These were completely new to me and felt surprisingly timely (I had assumed that much of the content would have been written prior to the COVID breakout).

Overall, given that this was a first issue I was very impressed. A few sections – particularly the Letters to the Editor pages – feel like works in progress (they probably would benefit from comments in response) but my overall impression has been very positive. This is a far more polished product than I had expected I would receive and as a result I feel very happy and keen to get subsequent issues. This publication seems have a lot of promise.

I think there are only two issues I have with the publication. The first is that I would love to see a reviews section focusing on new Sherlockian material or, failing that, at least an article specifically laying out what new things are on the horizon. Perhaps that will come with future issues.

The other is that there is a whole page advert at the end of this issue advertising how to subscribe but following the link takes you to a page that says subscriptions are still not available. I hope that gets updated soon: I would love to be able to sign up and support the venture going forwards.

While the first issue’s limited print run sold out very quickly, the producers have recently announced they have done a second printing and stock is available once again. If you are interested in finding out more and maybe reading a copy for yourself, check out their website for further details.

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Originally published 1844
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Auguste Dupin #3
Preceded by The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

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 and makes this my favorite story in the trio.

The Verdict: A really clever mystery with an unconventional plot and my favorite of the three Dupin stories.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt by Edgar Allan Poe

Originally Published in 1842
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Auguste Dupin #2
Preceded by The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Followed by The Purloined Letter

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.

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.

The Verdict: As important to the development of the detective story as the previous Dupin mystery but nowhere near as engaging.

The Leavenworth Case by Anna K. Green

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.

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 in A 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.

The Verdict: A reminder that being important doesn’t always equate to being entertaining.

Further Reading

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’.