Monday, January 18, 2016

Detective Stories by JP Dunn 1908


Detective Stories by J.P. Dunn 1908

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Poe, Gaboriau, Green and Holmes stand in a class by themselves for merit, or at least for celebrity, in detective stories. Of the four, Holmes unquestionably stands first in popularity in this country. This is evident from the fact that we hear Sherlock Holmes mentioned ten times when we hear of Dupin, Lecoq and Gryce once, if not oftener. In fact, Sherlock Holmes has become the popular ideal of the great detective—the personification of detective skill—as Shylock is of greed or Uriah Heep of hypocrisy. If the newspapers speak of a police officer doing an unusual piece of detective work, they call him a Sherlock Holmes. Unquestionably the general reading public sings with Carolyn Wells

Sherlock, thy subtle powers I know,
Spirit of search, incarnate quest,
To thee the laurel wreath I throw—
I like detective stories best.
(Bookman, Vol. 15, p. 231.)

Next to Doyle, Anna Katherine Green is the most popular, especially with women readers. And yet this order does not hold good with competent judges of detective work. In fact, they incline to exclude her from the first class, and, as to the rest, to agree with their estimate of Arthur Bartlett Maurice:

"The name of Sherlock Holmes, with that of Dupin, will in the end be found very near the apex; but in the realm of material achievement, Lecoq must stand alone."—(Bookman, vol. 15, p. 236.)

There is reason for this. With possibly the exception of Poe, Gaboriau is the most plausible writer of them all. His stories have the Robinson Crusoe quality. When you read them you feel like you were reading true stories. I do not see how anyone can have that feeling in reading a story of Doyle or Green, and they do not bear calm reflection. There is too much of the accidental in them, too much of the weird and unnatural. Moreover, Gaboriau is the most logical, and in a science of which accurate logic is the very essence this quality is the highest test of literary art.

There are a number of writers not commonly thought of as writers of detective stories, who hare written very good ones. Dickens' "Bleak House" is a detective story, and Inspector Bucket is entitled to pretty high rank as a detective. Mark Twain's "Pudd'n Head Wilson" is a good detective story; and, of course, no list would be complete without his "Double-barreled detective story." Paul Leicester Ford's "Great K. & A. Train robbery" is another excellent sporadic detective story, but without a professional detective. Indeed, the tendency for some time has been to have the detective work done by the hero or heroine, or some other amateur. There are two good reasons for this. One is that they are more interesting characters to the average reader, and another is that not so much is expected from them. If an amateur makes a blunder the reader accepts it as a touch of nature, but if a professional detective does something stupid the reader takes it as poor work of the author. So in that wild but interesting yarn, "The kidnapped millionaires," by F. U. Adams, the detective work is done by a newspaper man. In "The Quincunx case," by W. D. Pitman, it is done by the hero. In that clever story "Long Arm," by Miss Wilkins, it is done by the sister of the victim. In this class may fairly be included such stories as Mr. Nicholson's "House of a thousand candles" and "The port of missing men," which are essentially stories of amateur detective work.. In Godfrey Benson's very excellent story, "Tracks in the snow," the detective work is done by a clergyman.

Several of Wilkie Collins' stories—notably "The moonstone" and "The woman in white"— may fairly be classed as detective stories. Thomas Bailey Aldricn contributes "The Stillwater tragedy" and The Duchess adds "Lady Valworth's diamonds." Several of Farjeon's best stories are detective stories, including "The betrayal of John Fordham" and "The great Porter Square mystery." Another novel that may be put in the detective class is "Anne," by Mrs. Woolson, and "Anne" is something that ought to be read in order to know about Mackinac, if for nothing else.

There are also a number of straight-toned detective stories of more or less merit. Among the French, Fortune De Bois Gobey has written "The Cruise of the Opera" and other fairly good stories. M. Goron presents some striking stories in "The truth about the case." In England we have Ernest W. Honung, whose work? are not classed as detective stories by some because the criminals are the heroes, but "Raffles" will interest any one who likes detective stories. In England we have also F. W. Hume's "Mystery of a hansom cab" and other volumes, and Arthur Morrison's "Chronicles of Martin Hewitt," "The green diamond," "The red triangle" and others. Some of the best of the recent American publications are decidedly English in tone, such as "Who killed Lady Poynder," by Richard Marsh, recently issued by P. Appleton & Co.; and "The revelations of Inspector Morgan," by Oswald Crawford, just issued by Dodd, Mead & Co. The latter is particularly interesting for its assault on the intuitive methods of Sherlock Holmes, and its theory that the most successful detective work is done through acquaintance with criminals and their methods. As a matter of fact the great bulk of all actual detective work is on the line of keeping track of criminals, both by common police agencies and by such agencies as the Pinkertons; and this is accomplished partly by maintaining allies among the criminal classes, and partly by maintaining relations with pawnbrokers, saloon-keepers and others on the borders who are commonly thrown in contact with criminals, and who are usually willing to "pipe them off' to secure the favor of the police. I feel confident that more criminals are caught through information from such sources than in any other way.

Closely allied to detective stories are cryptogram stories, and of these also Poe may be considered the pioneer writer. His story "The gold bug," published in 1848, in The Dollar Newspaper, has been largely a model for all that have been written since. A careful study of it will enable any intelligent person to decipher any cipher writing in which the words are separated, and each letter is represented by a different character. If you care for puzzle games you will find it a very interesting recreation for two or three people to make cryptograms and exchange them and try to detect one another's codes. De Mille's "Cryptogram" is an interesting story of this class. The best of the recent cryptogram stories is "The treasure of Peyre Gaillard," by John Bennett. It is practically an enlargement of the plot of "The gold bug," with a love story added, but it is well written and well worked out. No library will make a mistake in putting it on its shelves.

Personally, I regard detective stories as distinctly useful. Everybody takes more or less interest in crimes—especially in mysterious crimes, and cases where the accused claim to be innocent. Everybody finds some case in the newspapers now and then that calls forth speculation as to the solution of a mystery. But there are numbers of people who have to deal with these cases directly—officials, lawyers, newspapermen. Unquestionably a sort of education in detective work is valuable to them. I know that as a newspaper reporter Gaboriau's novels were of real value to me—that the one maxim, "Suspect what seems probable, investigate carefully what seems improbable or impossible," gave me many a good story. And if it be true that "the proper study of mankind is man," I do not see why a study of him in the criminal relations, with which anybody is liable to come in contact at some time, is not fairly valuable to anyone. Of course, one does not think of the educational value in reading an exciting story, but one who reads a really good detective story is apt to go back over it, and consider the probability and improbability of the various situations, to judge the reason or unreason of the various characters in the various circumstances, and in brief to get something of the education from it that he would get from experience in a real case. I believe it was old Mr. Horace who said: "Let me perform the office of a whetstone, which, while not itself of use for cutting, serves to sharpen others." When a detective story serves that function I think we may justly consider it not only entertaining, but practically beneficial.

J. P. DUNN, President Public Library Commission.

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