British Detective Fiction 1891-1901: The Successors to Sherlock Holmes (2020) by Clare Clarke

This is not the book you were all expecting to be reviewed next, but it is always good to keep you on your toes and since I have just finished this title, it made sense to record my thoughts on this first, before I forget them all!

Today’s read is another entry in the Palgrave Macmillan Crime File series, and it was one I was keen to try as whilst I was familiar with some of the authors and characters discussed, there were also some who were new to me.

The introduction commences with Holmes’ temporary departure from fiction at the Reichenbach Falls, before proceeding to discuss the literary context of the decade. In particular the rise and importance of the periodical is gone into, in some detail, which makes sense since most fictional detectives first found page space, life in print, through this channel. Clarke writes that: ‘By 1900 there were over 50,000 periodicals in circulation in Britain and the colonies…’ Moreover, detective fiction was an effective way of increasing sale figures as the author notes, for The Strand, that ‘following the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes short story in July 1891, the magazine’s already impressive sales figures soon boomed at well over 500,000 copies per issue.’ You can see why they were so keen to find replacements in 1893 and onwards, as well as other magazines hoping to fill the gap. Another interesting nugget of information shared, via John Sutherland, is that ‘by the mid-1890s, it has been estimated that of the 800 weekly papers in Britain, 240 were carrying some variety of detective story.’

Clare Clarke’s aim for the book is to examine how 6 authors ‘showcase the ways in which writers, the magazine market, and the detective genre responded to Sherlock’s death.’ she goes on to write that: ‘Each chapter details the publication history and contemporary reception of one or more collections of detective short stories, published in periodical or newspaper form, during the years that Holmes was dead.’ The author then asserts her intention to ‘demonstrate[…] that insight into generic variety and development can more often be found not in the canonical texts and authors of Victorian detection, but in those published in periodicals and provincial newspapers and hence since (mostly) relegated to the forgotten fringes of the genre.’ Many of the stories considered in this study ‘exist on the borderline of the genre [as] they overlap with the colonial adventure tale, the ghost story, gothic fiction, and the slum novel, among other things.’ This interested me as I am aware of how fluid the detective story could be at that stage.

The first writer looked at is L. T. Meade and her sleuths Doctor Clifford Halifax and Norman Head. Clarke points out Meade’s commercial success, noting that:

‘While the Strand had many regular contributors who stepped in to supply detective fiction after Holmes’s “death” (notably all men), Meade went on to become the magazine’s most published author of crime stories in the late-Victorian and early Edwardian period, with six series published between 1893 and 1903.’

Yet such success was not without its difficulties and one of the interesting aspects this chapter explores is Meade’s ‘position on feminism,’ which Clarke ably argues is ‘difficult to pin down and is fraught with problems and contradictions. What moments of feminist sentiment there are, seem to exist within a formal and ideological schema that is palatable for The Strand’s mainly male readership.’ The two series looked at in light of this are The Brotherhood of Seven Kings (1898) and Sorceress of the Strand (1901-02), which include ‘the creation and portrayal of two powerful female anti-heroes, Madame Koluchy and Madame Sara.’ Clarke suggests that these two women ‘illuminate especially well the ways in which [Meade’s] complicated position as a progressive Irish-born woman of business with feminist ideals, writing for a mostly male audience in a conservative English magazine, results in complicated and often contradictory portrayals of fraught issues such as gender relations, nationality, and women’s entry into traditionally male spheres, such as science, crime, and law enforcement.’ This complicated depiction of female agency reminds me of the work of Annie Haynes, who wrote in the 1920s. Clarke is careful not to examine this facet of Meade’s output with pre-conceived ideas. She does not try to make Meade out to be someone she was not, and her decision to at times be less overtly feminist in her stories, to ensure their marketability, is not censured nor judged. Meade did not have a rose-tinted view of writing as a career and Clarke’s use of primary sources brings this out, including Meade’s statement that: ‘I simply write to order.’ Moreover, Clarke includes an interview in which Meade talks about her ‘regimented schedule’:

‘I had to breakfast at half-past seven to be ready for my shorthand writer at eight; from eight to nine I would dictate some three thousand words. Then I attended to household duties until my second secretary came, and worked till half-past eleven, when I always went to town for my editorial duties, which occupied me until seven. Then home to dinner, and I spent every evening correcting proofs, & c.’

Doctor Clifford Halifax, is the sleuth of Meade’s Stories from the Diary of a Doctor (1893-95) series and it is asserted that with this series, which she cowrote with Edgar Beaumont, ‘Meade invented a new genre – the medical mystery.’ Edgar Beaumont was a Metropolitan Police Surgeon and Clarke writes that:

‘Meade seems to have recognised, as many modern scholars of the crime genre have since done, that late-Victorian crimefighters like Sherlock Holmes were not only detectives, but the healers of a broken social body, fixing people and things, thus effecting a restoration of order […] Meade makes this more literal than Doyle had done: with her doctor detective, the seemingly intractable medical problems Halifax solves always inevitably stem from his ability to detect yet uncovered criminal conspiracies from the examination of his patients.’

The second author under discussion in this title is C. L. Pirkis and her detective Loveday Brooke, whose cases were published first in the Ludgate Magazine between 1893 and 1894. Clarke evidences the popularity of this series with this contemporary opinion that found Pirkis’ stories on par with Doyle’s: ‘the lamented Sherlock Holmes has bequeathed us a number of successors, of the majority of whom it may be safely averred that they are unworthy to brush their great exemplar’s boots. But in that majority we shall certainly not include the beautiful and accomplished ‘Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective’”

In this chapter Clarke considers how the Ludgate Magazine ‘was a female-oriented version of The Strand magazine, examining Brooke’s female methodology and interactions with the male police force alongside the real late-Victorian trend for female private investigators many years before the appearance of the first Metropolitan Police female detective in 1922.’ In doing so the chapter also includes a survey of the literary landscape at the time and the awkward role of female detectives as characters within it. Additionally, the discussion of the magazine within which the stories were published is consistently relevant to the works and I enjoyed looking at the stories through this lens of the other written material they were published alongside. I was also surprised by how many real life female private investigators there were at the end of the 19th century, with some agencies using it as an advertising point. The professionalism of Loveday Brooke also comes under examination and it is interesting to see that she avoided the usual fate of such characters in that she does not get married off by the author.

Following on from Loveday Brooke is a chapter on detectives Martin Hewitt and Horace Dorrington, who were created by Arthur Morrison. The character who grabbed my attention the most was Horace Dorrington, who is Morrison’s less well-known character. Early on Clarke informs us that:

‘While Dorrington has left the East End behind socially, he draws upon his criminal upbringing while operating in both high and low areas of the city throughout a collection in which he lies to, steals from, and even attempts to murder clients. The series is an intriguing and gritty hybrid of detective and slum fiction, which undercuts assertions that Victorian detective fiction is “soothing, socially integrating literature despite its concern with crime, violence and murder … the realm of the happy ending” where “the criminal is always caught. Justice is always done. Crime never pays”.’

A detective who operates as an anti-hero is the type of character we picture being devised post WW2, or in the hardboiled vein in America, so it is interesting to see that the idea was adopted much earlier. Furthermore, Morrison very much built up the idea of the ‘mean streets’ before Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Clarke engagingly looks at the author’s own life and other writing, to see how it fed into his mystery writing. Morrison wrote novels portraying the poverty of London’s slums, pessimistic of the ability to change things. These stories do not have a socialist purpose surprisingly. It veers very much into spoiler territory, so all I will say is that I was fascinated by Morrison’s use of Watson figure in his first Dorrington story. His utilisation is masterfully devilish.

Our next detective under examination is Hagar Stanley, who was conceived by Fergus Hume, who today is remembered largely for his bestselling novel The Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886). Hagar of the Pawn-Shop (1898) was a ‘young female gypsy detective’ who features in 11 stories. Clarke describes them as:

‘revolv[ing] around Hagar’s investigation of objects brought into her pawnshop to be pawned, leading to wider explorations of the history and crimes involving the objects’ socially, racially, and nationally diverse group of owners.’

I have to admit that this description made me think of the children’s TV show Bagpuss, but moving on to slightly more relevant information, Hagar’s clients range from ‘English aristocrats and Irish labourers to African and Middle Eastern immigrants.’ Reading this chapter has made me think how good an idea it is to have a mystery series centred on a business which deals in second hand objects, as a key facet of detection at this time in fiction, was the uncovering of an object’s deeper or secret meanings. Moreover, mystery fiction at this time was more centred on crimes on property rather than on the body.

This focus on objects is developed more widely in the stories and I enjoyed Clarke’s exploration of this theme, looking at the objectification of humans through Hagar, whose work/personal life leaves her in a vulnerable and marginalised position at times. It is also interesting to see that Hagar’s sleuthing leads her to become a ‘defender of marginalised women’ and as someone who undermines lazy racist assumptions made by the police.

The penultimate detective examined is the Honourable Augustus Champnell, an aristocratic detective who came from the writer Richard Marsh. Marsh was certainly a prolific author publishing ‘over 80 volumes of fiction and more than 300 short stories.’ He was most well-known for his novel The Beetle (1887), which outsold Dracula that was also published in the same year. Champnell also features in this gothic imperialist novel near the denouement. Marsh’s sleuth, despite his title, turns to detective work due to poor finances, though it is not suggested that he frittered a fortune away previously. Champnell is considered to be the first aristocratic private detective and it is interesting to speculate whether Dorothy L. Sayers knew of Marsh’s stories. Given the time in history that they were written Clarke proposes that these mysteries ‘offer intriguing explorations of the class dynamics of Victorian police-work and criminality.’ Another good nugget of information was the fact that there is a gap in Marsh’s literary career, due to a spell in prison, getting 18 months hard labour for forging cheques. The cases Champnell is invited into are invariably ones in which the client does not want to go to the police, preferring “one of us” to investigate the matter. Consequently, Champnell has cases involving compromising documents, missing persons and confidential treaties and blackmail. The plots of the stories often have whiffs of Holmes in the types of cases taken on, as do the nature of some of the solutions. Clarke also brings up the idea of how these stories criticise or undermine a more indolent brand of aristocracy, in the way that Holmes treats the King of Bohemia in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia.’

The final detective looked at is Flaxman Low who was devised by mother and son writing team, Kate Prichard and Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Prichard, (a bit of a mouthful!). In 1900 the London Quarterly Review, described Low as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of the ghost world’ and Clarke’s describes Low as ‘a detective specialising in investigating criminal matters involving the occult or the supernatural.’ She goes on to elaborate about the hybrid nature of the stories: ‘The tales exist on the border between detective fiction and the ghost or gothic story and Low is clearly the offspring of the Holmesian materialist detective and a scientist of the occult, like Bram Stoker’s vampire-slayer Van Helsing or Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr Hesselius.’ Low was not the first  occultist detective, but Clarke points out that he was ‘the first such investigator whose work appears to accept or prove rather than disavow the existence of the ghostly and occult forces behind the crimes he investigates.’ This was different from other similar fictional detectives of the time, such as L. T. Meade’s John Bell, who in ‘the majority of his investigations of supernatural goings-on […] unmask[s them] as hoaxes.’

A significant part of Clarke’s analysis of these stories, engages with how the supernatural threats contained within express the cultural anxiety of the time about the state of the British empire and globalisation. Clarke also highlights how ‘the Flaxman Low tales produce yet disavow the late Victorian’s detective story’s focus on resolution and restoration of order […] They appear to offer solutions—ghosts, mummies, secret societies, killer plants, and diabolical master-criminals have been discovered and dispatched by each story’s close. Yet that resolution can only ever be partial and provisional: the serial nature of the form itself, as with all serial detective fiction, emphasizes that where one threat is closed off, another pops up to take its place.’ On reflection I felt this chapter had the strongest analytical focus. Clarke concludes this chapter with the assertion that: ‘If we are truly to understand the diversity of the detective story at the fin-de-siècle we cannot select, study, and canonize only those stories which shore up our own limited and prescriptive view of the genre at that time as material, restorative, rational.’

Clarke’s study finishes with a final chapter, which amongst other things considers the reasons why earlier critics overlooked so many other mystery writers who were writing at this time, as well as the importance of digitising newspapers in studying these obscurer authors.

So final thoughts. The chapters are a manageable length and are not overwhelming in their complexity. This is an asset of the study as it makes it more accessible to a wider audience who might be interested in the subject matter. Spoilers do abound so that is an important point to bear in mind, but I found the descriptions of the short stories concerned very useful, as I had not read many of them. This made the analysis of them much more user friendly and easier to engage with. There is perhaps too strong emphasis on describing the stories, in comparison to the amount of analysis in some chapters, but I appreciate that word count constraints may have contributed to this. Some secondary sources are possibly overused, I would have preferred a different source to have been used, rather than the same one used again. But this is a minor quibble. The publications the stories were published in are engagingly analysed and I felt this really added another interesting dimension to the stories under consideration. This is definitely a book I would recommend to crime fiction readers, who are interested in earlier detective stories and want to see the  bigger picture, beyond Sherlock Holmes, whose shadow has perhaps obscured other detective stories of the time.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Palgrave Macmillan)

5 comments

  1. The character who grabbed my attention the most was Horace Dorrington, who is Morrison’s less well-known character.

    The Dorrington stories are absolutely superb.

    A detective who operates as an anti-hero is the type of character we picture being devised post WW2, or in the hardboiled vein in America, so it is interesting to see that the idea was adopted much earlier.

    Dorrington wasn’t the only such figure in late Victorian/Edwardian crime fiction. There was also R. Austin Freeman’s Romney Pringle.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh yes, the Pringle name rung a bell when I read it, but I have not read any of those stories so I wasn’t aware of his anti-hero tendencies. Thank you for bringing it to my attention and it is good to know that Dorrington stories are also good reads.

      Like

    • The author readily admits at points that a certain writer’s output was uneven in quality, but I don’t think that invalidates the contribution they made to the genre. Clarke’s book is definitely an interesting read and I would recommend buying it or tracking it down at the library, as I appreciate that the Palgrave Macmillan titles can be expensive.

      Like

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