ALMOST THERE | ISSUE NINE
The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1)
Holmes was by no means the only fictional detective operating in late Victorian London. So who were these other sleuths? And why aren’t they more well known?
It seems quite incredible now, given his status as one of the most recognisable figures in the history of detective fiction, that Sherlock Holmes’ first two outings, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890) enjoyed only a lukewarm reception. But once Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began serialising his hero’s adventures in the popular Strand Magazine he never looked back. The success of Holmes and Watson soon had the reading public hooked on tales of mystery and detection, creating a huge demand other writers were only too happy to satisfy. It wasn’t long before the gas-lit, fog-bound streets of London were teeming with fictional sleuths of all shapes and sizes, tracking down villains, thwarting dastardly conspiracies and solving crimes that had left the overstretched officers down at Scotland Yard completely baffled. Hugh Greene, in the introduction to his seminal anthology, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes,¹ sums up the period admirably:
The years between 1891, when the ‘Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ began to appear in the Strand Magazine, and 1914 were a great period for writers of detective short stories. All the necessary economic circumstances existed for the encouragement of talent: an eager readership and plenty of outlets. The Strand Magazine did not stand alone. There were also Pearson’s, Cassell’s, Harmsworth’s, the Windsor, and the Royal Magazine competing for stories.
The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes contains a baker’s dozen of such stories, along with a biographical sketch of each author- many of whom lived lives every bit as colourful and exciting as their literary creations. This excellent work does, however, leave one important question unanswered: why are such writers as Max Pemberton, Arthur Morrison and Guy Boothby, household names in their heyday, all but unknown to the modern reader?
In fact it does not require the greatest powers of deduction in order to get to the bottom of this particular mystery. The simple truth is that few of these stories are anywhere near as gripping as those penned by Sir Arthur. Or to put it another way, not many would pass my ‘one story test’ – in which the moment you finish a story by a given author you’re itching to start on another.
If these writers failed to match the high standards set by Conan Doyle, it certainly wasn’t for want of trying. Many, concluding that Holmes’ combination of brilliance and eccentricity was key to his popularity, tried to give their own heroes singular habits and mannerisms. The results were patchy at best. Jacques Futrelle’s creation Professor Augustus S. F. X. van Dusen, the so-called ‘Thinking Machine,’ has a colossal intellect and a silly name, but little else to commend him. Likewise the beautiful gypsy Hagar Stanley (who solves crimes from the comfort of her pawnshop) Canadian backwoodsman November Joe and hashish-smoking Russian Prince Zaleski² all leave me cold. And as for Baroness Orczy’s anonymous old man who spends all his time sitting in the corner of the ABC tea rooms fiddling with bits of string, he’s not so much a master of deduction as an irritating know-all.
Those who eschewed such attempts at sensationalism fared no better, producing work that was more realistic but
even less entertaining. A partial exception was Richard Austin Freeman, the creator of Dr. John Thorndyke. Like Conan Doyle, Freeman was a medical practitioner who took up writing to supplement his income. His first detective stories, featuring amateur sleuth Romney Pringle, were written in collaboration with a certain John James Pitcairn under the nom de plume Clifford Ashdown. However it was with the appearance of Dr Thorndyke in 1908 that Freeman really started to make a name for himself as a writer.
In his stories Freeman endeavoured to show that perplexing criminal cases were best solved not by the intervention of an eccentric genius, but by the application of sound reasoning backed up by forensic science. True, Thorndyke does on occasion seem blessed with an almost Holmesian omniscience: in one story he is able to infer, merely by examining a wisp of fluff, that his prime suspect is an elderly, clean-shaven man with white hair (which he dyes black) who regularly takes snuff and carries a lead comb in his pocket!³ However in this instance, as in all others, Thorndyke demonstrates how he reached these conclusions using standard chemical tests and other forms of forensic analysis. Interestingly, the author himself was known to have carried out every scientific experiment detailed in his stories.
Freeman also claimed to have invented the so-called ‘inverted’ detective story in his 1912 collection The Singing Bone. An inverted detective story is split into two distinct parts. The first part describes the commission of a crime and reveals the identity of the perpetrator. The second proceeds to show how those charged with investigating the crime manage to catch the person responsible. Clearly he had never read Crime and Punishment.
Unlike that of most of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Dr Thorndyke’s popularity continued long after the Edwardian period had drawn to a close. Indeed Freeman kept on producing new Thorndyke adventures almost every year until 1942, the year before his death. He never gave in to the temptation to resort to the outlandish, the supernatural or the bizarre in order to spice up his stories. However, as we shall see in the second part of this article, many of his contemporaries were to find that particular temptation simply too powerful to resist.
Next time: ghosts, vampires and giant green spiders...
¹ The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was first published in 1970, which I believe makes it the first collection of its kind. A good number of similar anthologies have been published since. Incidentally, Hugh Greene was the brother of the novelist Graham Greene.
² The creations of Fergus Hume, H. Hesketh Prichard and M. P. Shiel respectively.
³ The incident occurs in the story The Stranger’s Latchkey, (1909).