Thursday, April 28, 2016

Pioneer Detectives of Fiction by Carolyn Wells 1913

Pioneer Detectives of Fiction by Carolyn Wells 1913

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The status of the fiction detective is so well-defined that it is the habit of authors to scoff at it, and endeavor to convince us that their own detectives are true to life.

For instance, in a Detective Story of some merit, called "The House Opposite," by Elizabeth Kent, the detective says:

"I am aware that the detective of fiction is always supposed to be omniscient, but my profession, Doctor, is just like any other. There is no hocus-pocus about it. To succeed in it requires, in the first place, accurate and most minute powers of observation, unlimited patience, the capacity of putting two and two together. Add to this an unprejudiced mind, and last, but not least, respect, amounting to reverence, for any established fact."

Many authors of late think it argues themselves original to indulge in a fleer at the methods of Sherlock Holmes. A typical example of this often-used device is here quoted from "Midnight at Mears House," by Harrison J. Holt:

As I smoked, my gaze travelled idly about the room till it rested upon the big brass candlestick smeared with melted tallow which we had found that morning on the dining table.

"If I were only another Sherlock Holmes now," I thought, "I should be able to reconstruct the entire tragedy from that candlestick, supposing of course the murderer used it. An intelligent smell of the wick would tell me what particular brand of matches he used to light it, and it would only be necessary to visit the one dealer who kept them and get from him a photograph of the man, or a sufficiently accurate description of him, to make his arrest a matter of only a trifling difficulty." I chuckled at the absurdity of the notion. It seemed, however, hardly more far-fetched and ridiculous than some of the great detective's marvellous exploits, which millions of readers have found plausible enough, I daresay, though I was never one of them.

Yielding to a sudden whim, I took down the candlestick from the mantelpiece.

"I should at least be able to deduce a few simple facts from a really scientific examination of it," I argued, facetiously—"whether the criminal was right or left-handed, for instance, or wore ready-made clothes, or if he was suffering from rheumatism or the whooping cough. It must be all here somewhere."

I proceeded gravely to smell of the wick. It had a decidedly burnt odour, due very likely, I imagined, to its having been lighted. It humiliated me, however, to be unable to decide how it had been lighted. I could not for the life of me make out whether the murderer had used wax vestas, safety-matches, ordinary parlour matches, or those infernal things tipped with sulphur commonly known as "hell-sticks."

He might even have lighted it with one of those self-igniting platinum-wire and alcohol devices, or with flint and steel, or by rubbing two sticks together, for all I could tell.

I began to feel discouraged. Doubtless there were imprints of his fingers as thick as flies and as plain as billboards all over the candlestick itself, if I could only find them. He would at any rate have left the damning mark of his thumb somewhere upon its shining surface: they were always considerate enough to do that— in the detective stories. It was part of the game. But again I was doomed to disappointment. We must have blurred the impressions through our inconceivable stupidity in touching the thing at all. We should have known enough, I reflected, to have left it alone till we had a chance to study it through a high-powered telescope.

This is good-natured satire, and the very fact that it contains the kernel of truth makes it effective.

Though lacking the title, the Transcendant Detective doubtless makes his earliest appearance in the person of M. Dupin.

The first allusion to Dupin's peculiar talents is found in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue":

"At such times I could not help remarking and admiring (although from his rich ideality I had been prepared to expect it) a peculiar analytic ability in Dupin. He seemed, too, to take an eager delight in its exercise—if not exactly in its display—and did not hesitate to confess the pleasure thus derived. He boasted to me, with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms, and was wont to follow up such assertions by direct and very startling proofs of his intimate knowledge of my own. His manners at these moments were frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression; while his voice, usually a rich tenor, rose into a treble which would have sounded petulantly but for the deliberateness and entire distinctness of the enunciation. Observing him in these moods, I often dwelt meditatively upon the old philosophy of the Bi-Part Soul, and amused myself with the fancy of a double Dupin—the creative and the resolvent.

"Let it not be supposed, from what I have just said, that I am detailing any mystery, or penning any romance. What I have described in the Frenchman was merely the result of an excited, or perhaps of a diseased, intelligence."

Poe deliberately remarks on Dupin's diseased intelligence, thus providing a defence against any implication that the detective's powers were superhuman.

Analogous to this is Conan Doyle's characterization of Sherlock Holmes.

To quote from "A Study in Scarlet," where Holmes makes his first appearance:

"Well, I have a trade of my own. I suppose I am the only one in the world. I'm a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is. Here in London we have lots of government detectives and lots of private ones. When these fellows are at fault they come to me, and I manage to put them on the right scent. They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able, by the help of my knowledge of the history of crime, to set them straight. There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger-ends, it is odd if you can't unravel the thousand and first. Lestrade is a well known detective. He got himself into a fog recently over a forgery case, and that was what brought him here." "And these other people?"

"They are mostly sent out by private inquiry agencies. They are all people who are in trouble about something, and want a little enlightening. I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee."

"But do you mean to say," I said, "that without leaving your room you can unravel some knot which other men can make nothing of, although they have seen every detail for themselves?"

"Quite so. I have a kind of intuition that way. Now and again a case turns up which is a little more complex. Then I have to bustle about and see things with my own eyes. You see, I have a lot of special knowledge which I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully. Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me is second nature."

However, the later detective thus scorns the earlier one when Watson, thinking to flatter, compares Holmes to Dupin:

"No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."

"Have you read Gaboriau's works?" I asked. "Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?"

Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically.

"Lecoq was a miserable bungler," he said, in an angry voice; "he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid."

But Dupin himself speaks with equal contempt of his predecessor in the profession. He says:

"Vidocq, for example, was a good guesser, and a persevering man. But without educated thought, he erred continually by the very intensity of his investigations. He impaired his vision by holding the object too close. He might see, perhaps, one or two points with unusual clearness, but in so doing he necessarily lost sight of the matter as a whole."

However, as Conan Doyle himself declares:

"In a work which consists in the drawing of detectives," he once wrote, "there are only one or two qualities which one can use, and an author is forced to hark back upon them constantly, so that every detective must really resemble every other detective to a greater or less extent. There is no great originality required in devising or constructing such a man, and the only possible originality which one can get into a story about a detective is in giving him original plots and problems to solve, as in his equipment there must be an alert acuteness of mind to grasp facts and the relation which each of them bears to the other."

The detectives who follow in the straight path trodden by these pioneers are legion.

Among the best known is The Thinking Machine, hero of two series of stories by the late Jacques Futrelle.

The Thinking Machine whose name was Professor Van Dusen was remotely German. For generations his ancestors had been noted in the sciences; he was the logical result of the master mind. First and above all he was a logician. At least thirty-five years of the half-century or so of his existence had been devoted exclusively to proving that two and two always equal four, except in unusual cases, where they equal three or five, as the case may be. He stood broadly on the general proposition that all things that start must go somewhere, and was able to bring the concentrated mental force of his forefathers to bear on a given problem. Incidentally it may be remarked that Professor Van Dusen wore a No. 8 hat.

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