Victorian detective stories

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, May 05, 2009 , , ,

Although it is the twenties and thirties that are considered to be the golden age of detective story writing, Tory Historian, on the whole, prefers their Victorian and Edwardian predecessors. One reason is the more leisurely and better written style (with some exceptions on both sides).

Then there is the fact that many of the Victorian stories, of whatever length, are about other crimes, not just murder, which is unthinkable either with the golden age writers or the considerably more prolix and slapdash modern ones.

Murder is, after all, a relatively unusual crime while theft, robbery, fraud and other suchlike activities are far more common. Reading about them and the detectives who solve them give an impression of real life disintegrating and being reconstituted. Of course, there are writers like the great Emma Lathen who follow the Victorian pattern and start with some kind of financial shenanigans, which degenerate into an often reluctant murder.

It is also fair to say that the villains of Victorian detective stories are considerably more satisfying than those of subsequent periods. Admittedly, they are not real dyed-in-the-wool villains and there are various occasions when unfortunate or noble-but-walked-into-a-nasty-situation criminals are released by detectives on condition that they go off to the colonies and redeem themselves. Sherlock Holmes was particularly apt to exercise such stern compassion.

These thoughts have been floating in Tory Historian’s head as a result of reading a volume, acquired for £2 in a charity shop, gradually the only remaining second-hand bookshops in London, entitled “Three Victorian Detective Novels” one of the numerous excellent reprints by Dover Publications.

The three novellas are “The Unknown Weapon” by Andrew Forrester, “My Lady’s Money” by Wilkie Collins and “The Big Bow Mystery” by Israel Zangwill. The first of these is one of the earliest modern English detective stories, part of a collection of tales about the exploits of a woman police officer, known only as Mrs G--- (though Katherine Gregory Klein seems to think that she is Mrs Gladden). The whole collection, published in 1846 was called “The Female Detective” (a very hard to find volume).

Wilkie Collins’s relatively late novella, published in 1879, is a disappointment, largely because Collins was a near-genius in his best works. “My Lady’s Money” is beautifully written with highly entertaining characters – an excellent villain and a rather annoying detective who shuffles around doing no detecting but being a character as well as very good female personalities. But the plot is ridiculous. Every reader knows what is going to happen a page or two before it does and once the theft takes place it ought to be clear to the meanest intellect who the criminal is. There is only person with the necessary opportunity, motive and personality, yet that person’s guilt is dismissed as being out of the question.

Undoubtedly the best is the last tale, a classic of its genre, that being the locked room mystery. Israel Zangwill was a writer, journalist and Zionist activist, most of whose novels and plays concerned various social issues, often but exclusively to do with Jewish immigrants to London’s East End and New York’s Lower East Side. “The Big Bow Mystery” is a delightful exception, a tale of crime and detection written to order in the space of a fortnight and published in the same space of time in the daily newspaper Star in 1891.

Locked room mysteries are rather tiresome, in Tory Historian’s opinion, because of the need either to cheat or to produce an extraordinary number of coincidences for the solution. One by Edmund Crispin presupposes the firing of a bullet through several open windows in order to hit the required target with the loud and engrossing music making it impossible for the people in the first room to realize what is going on. Too ridiculous for words.

The "Big Bow Mystery" is just about credible, largely because, as Julian Symons points out in his seminal history of the genre “Bloody Murder” it is really a parody; it is not, on the other hand, parodic enough to make it dull – the story is still there. There is something else there: a thrilling and highly amusing account of the East End at the end of the nineteenth century, seething with meetings, organizations, debates, disputes and manifold ambitions. It is, in a way, a microcosm of the whole Victorian era and, perhaps, that is why those years produced some of the greatest detective stories.


Powered by Blogger.




Blog Archive