NEW STUFF: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair – Joel Dicker

 New Books, non-English language, publishing history, Pulp Writers, suspense  Comments Off on NEW STUFF: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair – Joel Dicker
May 272014

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
by Joël Dicker
translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-3122668-3
643 pp. $18.00
May 27, 2014

It may be unfair of me but all the while during the first 100+ pages of Joël Dicker’s mammoth The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair I kept hearing the strains of the Twin Peaks TV theme music.  And I pictured the beaming face of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer each time Nola Kellergan appears in the many flashback sequences.  Both Dicker’s novel and the cult TV show of the 90s tell the story of a missing girl, the discovery of her body, and the slow reveal of who killed her. But as the labyrinthine story unfolds the Twin Peaks similarities soon dissipate and give way to something more subtle and subversive and — dare I say it — impressive.

Unwittingly Joël Dicker, a young Swiss novelist, has unleashed a Frankenstein’s monster with the publication of this book. Part whodunit, part satire of the publishing industry, and part writer’s handbook it has essentially become a work of fiction come to life.  In Dicker’s novel a young writer Marcus Goldman becomes a sensation in the literary world when he publishes a book called The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  (Oh yes, this is a also a work of metafiction.)  The book is an instant sensation and he becomes the darling of the media. So too has Dicker whose novel first published in Europe has become a mega-hit resulting in interview after interview and travel all over the globe to talk about this unique example of reality mirroring fiction. So much travel, in fact, that he has temporarily made his home in London to make air travel simpler rather than remaining at home in Geneva where direct air flights are at a minimum. Already an international bestseller for the past year Dicker’s novel has at last been translated into English and is being simultaneously released in the UK and the US today, May 27.

Not only has Dicker become the flavor of the month in crime fiction, his book (only his sophomore effort no less) has won three European literary awards including the prestigious Grand Prix du Roman from the Academie Française. Has Dicker really written a mini masterpiece, whether it be mainstream or genre fiction? Well, not really. But it is an awful lot of fun trying to figure out both the mystery of the ridiculously complex plot as well as trying to understand the reason for all the hype attached to this new writer’s book.

At its core …Harry Quebert Affair is a literary detective novel. Quebert, a literary sensation himself in the world of the novel, was Goldman’s college writing instructor, mentor and eventually a good friend. While visiting Quebert for some inspiration during Goldman’s severe writer’s block crisis a horrible crime is literally unearthed and Quebert is thrust into the limelight as prime suspect. The body of Nola Kellergan, a teenage girl who went missing back in 1975, is unearthed in a hidden grave located on the grounds of Quebert’s New Hampshire retreat. Goldman is determined to clear the name of his beloved friend and writing mentor and for the next 600+ pages (!) we follow his dogged investigation into the past of Somerset, New Hampshire, a typical New England village with more than its fair share of dirty secrets.

Joël Dicker ©Jeremy Spierer

But Dicker is not satisfied only with telling a crime story with as many twists as the Kumba roller coaster in Busch Gardens. He has cast the novel in the framework of a handbook for writers complete with boxing metaphors that might cause Philip Roth to smirk in its obvious homage. Oddly, the book chapters are also numbered in reverse numerical order (a gimmick that utterly eludes me) with each chapter preceded by sage advice from Harry to Marcus as to how a rookie should proceed in writing the Great American Novel. Problem is the advice is thoroughly hackneyed. The obvious advice and words of so-called wisdom have been given to novice writers for centuries. Why do we need to read all this? Well, Dicker has a clever and subversive reason for couching this novel as a sort of handbook for writers. It turns out to be only one aspect of a multitude of ironies culminating in the true meaning of the title itself.

I could use this review to write about the tangled plotlines, the shifts in viewpoint, the dizzying twists that keep changing how Nola is perceived or how the relationship between Marcus and Harry undergoes rifts and changes more harmful than good. But that’s what all the other reviewers are writing about. What really ought to be marvelled at is what Dicker does with the genre itself. The novel is an consummate example of the ultimate challenge between reader and mystery writer, a sure temptation for readers who loved to devour the old-fashioned puzzlers of the Golden Age. Once upon a time we read mysteries to be baffled, to be fooled and to have a clever storyteller pull the rug out from under us and leave us gasping for breath or laughing in admiration for having been outsmarted. Dicker mixes both hoary old clichés (anonymous messages, secret diaries) with contemporary thriller standbys (grisly crimes, psychosexual abnormalities, a hint of tawdriness) and comes up with a crackerjack tale that both entertains and manipulates the reader.

The world Dicker creates is wholly artificial as in the best of Golden Age detective novels. We are in an entirely fanciful world where writers are superstar celebrities instantly recognizable from their DJ photos. Everyone knows Marcus Goldman, everyone has read his book. Even Harry and his mega bestseller The Origin of Evil (ironically a love story) receives the same hyperbolic attention. This is a wholly mythologized world of the novelist, something that was barely a reality when celebrity authors regularly appeared on 1970s talk shows. Like the world of John Dickson Carr where ancient estates are haunted by ghosts and criminals commit elaborate crimes in baroquely sealed rooms meant to bamboozle and confound the police so too has Dicker created an entirely artificial world where novelists are hero worshiped as demigods and treated with both awe and sycophancy usually reserved for rock stars or professional athletes. It’s a wish fulfillment kind of writing to be sure and yet it is done so with the primary purpose of misleading the reader just as the great Golden Age writers did.

There are faults and irritations as well. The simplistic Confucian-like writer’s advice Quebert gives his student, the not so clever boxing metaphors, redundancies in the narrative when Dicker feels it necessary to recap the plot, a crucial character whose poorly reconstructed face after a horrific beating leaves him with a speech impediment that the translator renders in cutesy but more often offensive phonetics all began to wear down the reader’s patience. Also Dicker has an obsession with characters vomiting that began to really annoy me. Everyone in the book seemed to have a weak stomach and would throw up at the slightest sign of stress not just when they saw a dead body.

However, when Dicker lays off his nausea motif, discards the gimmick of the novel within the novel (which is often ham-handed), and decides to focus on Nola’s perplexing and contradictory life and her mysterious death the novel is utterly engaging. His plot pyrotechnics are his strength. They are audacious and preposterous and yet perfectly suited for his ultimate aim. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is one of the best examples of a retro style crime novel whose only goal is to fool the reader with a gasp inducing finale. Joël Dicker succeeds in pulling off one of the best literary deceptions in years and ought to be applauded for the sheer chutzpah of his 600+ page magic trick.

 Posted by at 4:36 am

FOUND BOUND: Ex-Private Eye Turns Writer

 book collecting, Found Bound, publishing history  Comments Off on FOUND BOUND: Ex-Private Eye Turns Writer
Mar 092014

For me it’s always interesting to see how very well known books were first marketed before they reached their legendary status. Take this book (advertised in the Feb 15, 1930 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature) now a permanent part of American pop culture, for example:

(Click to enlarge and read the fine print)
I think only the most diehard fan knows that Hammett was once an operative with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Sam Spade was also billed a “shyster detective” and a “Don Juan”, apparently traits that Knopf thought would sell the book. I won’t comment further on the last portion of Spade’s description.
 Posted by at 3:50 pm
Feb 022014

Periodically I find myself stuck in the pages of magazines (there’s a punny sentence for you!). Usually I’m perusing old reviews of forgotten and obscure murder mysteries and adventure novels. Every now and then along the sidebar margins I find an advertisement or two that catches my eye. This is how I learned of the existence of Aunt Beardie, a fantastic example of the historical mystery done well with a whopper of an ending.

Now that my collection of ephemera has been completely exhausted, and the usual Sunday feature “Left Inside” is a very rare occurrence (the last one was in the summer of 2013), I am substituting it with a new feature called “Found Bound”. Every other Sunday I’ll be posting ads, cartoons and other interesting tidbits I find in magazines of the past.

Today we look at an advertising gimmick created by the clever gang at Simon & Schuster, one of the oldest existing publishing houses in the United States. S&S was very innovative when marketing their mysteries. They invented Pocket Books in the late 1920s, the very first mass market paperback imprint in the United States. Additionally, they were one of the first publishers to create a hardcover imprint solely for detective fiction (“Inner Sanctum Mysteries”) and were rather clever in getting their message out to their audience. Below are two ads found in two early 1940s issues of The Saturday Review done along the lines of a newsletter they called “The Gory Gazette.”

I’ve read the Woolrich novel The Black Curtain (1941) advertised in the second set of illustrations and highly recommend it. I’ve not yet found a copy of Gypsy Rose Lee’s second mystery novel Mother Finds a Body (1942), but I’m still looking. BTW — Lee did in fact write her own books. They were not ghost written by Craig Rice no matter what numerous websites and reference books are trying to convince you otherwise.

Click to enlarge all scans in order to read the ads.

 Posted by at 5:58 pm
Jan 292014
Lilly Library (photo by “Vmenkov”)

While researching Victor L. Whitechurch, whose books I am currently reading, I came across a fascinating post at the website for Indiana University’s Lilly Library which has one of the most remarkable collections of detective and crime fiction in the United States. Back in 1973 the library celebrated the 130th anniversary of the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” with an exhibit entitled “The First Hundred Years of Detective Fiction, 1841-1941.”

Among the books are some other ephemera including the drawing reproduced below.  I’ve long known of G. K. Chesterton’s ability as a sketch artist and cartoonist but never knew that he was commissioned to illustrate an edition of Sherlock Holmes stories. Below is his rendering of the near fatal struggle on the cliffs of the Reichenbach Falls.

The note in the exhibit catalog accompanying this drawing says:

G. K. Chesterton was once commissioned to illustrate the Doyle stories (imagine Father Brown on Sherlock Holmes)! The volume was never published, but Lilly has his sketches, among them the Reichenbach scene, done in blue crayon.

The entire contents of the exhibit along with program notes are posted at the Lilly Library website here.  It’s an excellent resource for any devotee of the history of detective fiction. I’ve already made note of three writers who until I read the catalog I had never heard of. Unfortunately, the exhibit’s catalog notes for one of those writers ruined a book for me by revealing the ending.

 Posted by at 3:09 pm

LEFT INSIDE: Book of the Month Club Advert, 1929.

 Australian writers, ephemera, Left Inside, publishing history  Comments Off on LEFT INSIDE: Book of the Month Club Advert, 1929.
Jun 232013

This was found inside one of the many copies of The Omnibus of Crime I have purchased over the years.  The Omnibus of Crime was the Book of the Month Club selection for August 1929. Inside the copy I bought was the ad seen below for the September BOMC selection, Ultima Thule by Henry Handel Richardson, a book and author I knew nothing about until I did my research for this post.

The Book of the Month Club was only three years old in 1929.  Weren’t they polite in their requests? And that deadline date in giant red letters is very helpful.  I remember being a member of one of their offshoots, Quality Paperback Book Club, in the 1980s and the reminders were not anything like the one above. I usually lost the dumb postcard or forgot to mail it back by the deadline and ended up with books I had no desire to read let alone own.

“Henry Handel Richardson” turns out to be the pseudonym for Australian writer Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson who you can read about at the website for the Henry Handel Richardson Society.  (Is there a society for every forgotten author of the past?). Ultima Thule is the final novel in a trilogy about an Australian physician named Richard Mahony and is based in part of Richardson’s own father and her upbringing. The three novels that make up the trilogy are Australia Felix (1917), The Way Home (1925) and Ultima Thule (1929). All three were later published in an omnibus edition and titled The Fortunes of Richard Mahony in 1930.  For a synopsis of Ultima Thule click here. Interestingly, it was only with the publication of the final volume that the entire trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, was suddenly recognized as a great work of fiction.

 Posted by at 4:53 pm

Wheatley Resurrected!

 Dennis Wheatley, New Books, publishing history  Comments Off on Wheatley Resurrected!
Apr 112013

Last week I learned that I’m not the only one who thinks Dennis Wheatley deserves another life in print.  In an article published in the The Bookseller it was announced that Wheatley’s first 20 titles will be released as ebooks in October 2013. The rights to 56 titles in Dennis Wheatley’s long writing career have been purchased. So far only three of the more popular books — The Devil Rides Out, The Forbidden Territory and To the Devil – A Daughter — have been slated for paperback releases.

Hoping The Haunting of Toby Jugg will be one of those receiving a paperback edition. Get the Wheatley lowdown  here.

Thanks to Shotsmag for this news.

 Posted by at 12:51 pm
Mar 032013

I was going to bend the rules this week for “Left Inside” and include something Joe and I found in a parking lot while on our weekend vacation in San Jose/Santa Cruz and the surrounding redwood forest state parks.  But when I came home and discovered I had seven packages of books waiting for me to be opened that plan changed.

In the very last package was a beautiful copy of a very scarce book — The Mystery at Stowe by Vernon Loder — soon to be reviewed here. Check out the condition of the dust wrapper seen at right. It’s nearly flawless! Only one crease on the spine and tiny chip on the rear panel (not pictured). When I flipped through the stunningly white unstained pages I found the assurance offer card — or insurance as we call it in North America — pictured below. One of the few times I’ve found something inside a book I purchased via the internet. And so direct from a Toronto bookseller and Vernon Loder’s debut mystery novel comes today’s legitimate “Left Inside” object.

That’s only nine pennies a day, by the way. I don’t think they use pennies as a form of currency in the U.K. anymore. I don’t even know why d. is used as an abbreviation for pennies. But my curiosity had to be satisfied so I went a-Googling. Here is the arcane reason taken from a website on the history of British currency.

A penny was expressed as the letter ‘d’ – an abbreviation for denarius which was a silver Roman coin.

Who knew? Probably some astute numismatist.

It appears the previous owner may have taken advantage of the offer since the attached coupon is no longer attached and the perforated edge (not easily seen in the photo) proves the coupon was torn off.

When I flipped over the card I learned that advertisement was intended as a bookmark!  Also, the owner of this book — or the owner of the card — had a shared interest of mine. He or she was very interested in old crime fiction. The list revealed titles that were originally published long before 1936 when this reprint of Loder’s book was reissued. With a little bit of verifying the titles, authors and dates of publication I learned something about the reading tastes of the previous owner.

I am sure that The Secret is not that new age rip-off of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking that was all the rage about three or four years ago thanks mostly due to Oprah Winfrey’s cultish book club. Instead, it is most likely a thriller by E. Phillips Oppenheim published in 1907 (known as The Great Secret in the US) but still available in reprint editions in the 1930s. The Secret Cargo (1913) is by the ridiculously prolific and inexplicably popular J. S. Fletcher, a writer whose work I find exceptionally formulaic and mediocre. The last title, after looking up possibilities in Hubin, turns out to be yet another Oppenheim book called The World’s Great Snare (1896).

As for that third title: Sweet Life is not a crime novel nor thriller. The title does not appear in my most recent update of Hubin’s Crime Fiction: A Comprehensive Bibliography.  I did however find Sweet Poison, Sweet Death, Sweet and Low, and of course Sweet Revenge, multiple times among many other sweet and deadly titles. Turns out the only book published between 1900 and 1936 with that title is by Kathlyn Rhodes. It was her debut novel according to some publicity by her publisher Hutchinson & Company:

Vivid descriptions of the entrancing scenery of the East, incident crowding upon incident, romantic situations, exciting intrigues, unexpected dénouements hold and absorb the interest from start to finish.

is the assured success of 1918,
as GERTRUDE PAGE was the success of 1916

Fired with enthusiasm to win fame as a novelist, Kathlyn Rhodes began her career before her school days were ended. Sweet Life followed shortly afterwards; and the appreciation which this won encouraged the authoress to follow quickly with other stories. Choice of subject she holds to be of primary importance. With the war depressing us all around, she believes that many readers prefer stories that permit them for the time to forget it; and this she achieves by her delightful flights of fancy through the realms of many lands.

Interestingly, Rhodes is listed in Hubin as having written two crime novels in the 1930s and four other books with marginal crime content. I think, however, based on the title and the publicity above that Sweet Life is the only romance “Previous Owner” was looking forward to reading.

 Posted by at 5:11 pm

JACKET REQUIRED: A Few Scarlet Threads

 book collecting, Jacket Required, publishing history  Comments Off on JACKET REQUIRED: A Few Scarlet Threads
Feb 172013

Something a little different for this month’s Jacket Required feature is the “Scarlet Thread” mystery imprint published by Robert M. McBride & Company from 1930 to 1931. The books did not have dust jackets per se, but rather what is called paste-on plates. In effect what would’ve been the DJ was attached directly to the book. Due to the nature of paste-on plates if they are not protected by a clear vinyl plastic the constant pulling on and off shelves and rubbing up against other books will eventually do its damage.  Most of the plates are heavily rubbed, chipped or damaged in other ways. I keep upgrading the Scarlet Thread books I manage to find hoping one day for the best collection of these unique mystery novels.

A few booksellers out there when they come across a title from this imprint think that the DJ was dismembered and glued to the book. Not true. If you ever come across a description like that in a bookseller catalog the price will likely be very cheap. The bookseller thinks the book was damaged and altered thus making it depreciate in value. Jump on that book and buy it immediately! The Scarlet Thread books are scarce in any condition and cheap prices are just as rare as the books themselves.

I have been trying for years to complete my collection and so far have acquired only five of the titles. There may be more, but I have only confirmed seven books in this imprint. Besides those pictured here I know of The Diary of Death by Wilson Collison and The Woman in Purple Pajamas by “Willis Kent”, a pseudonym of Collison’s.

In addition to the paste-on plates (one each on the front board, rear board and backstrip) there is the unique fore-edge decoration that give the imprint its name. Running down the outer edges of the pages is the illusion of an unspooling red thread. Over time the red color fades and begins to look more purple than red. In some instances the decoration has completely faded and can no longer be seen. Below is the best example of the decoration on the pages of my copy of Murder from the Grave.

Click on photos to enlarge. Enjoy!

 Posted by at 4:52 pm
Dec 022012

Yesterday, I wrote a review about Murder Yet To Come.  I mentioned in passing that the novel won a whopping $7500 prize in a mystery writing contest. If you have a copy of the CAPT 1995 reprint you will find this as part of their introduction to the book:

This will lead you to believe that Ellery Queen was beaten by Myers. Not true. Both writers won the contest – but only Myers won the $7500. Here’s the lowdown.

New McClure’s Magazine, the original sponsor, of the contest was a reformed, restructured version of the venerable McClure’s magazine. Exactly why New McClure’s thought they could sponsor an astonishing $7500 writing contest prize baffles me. The magazine was in dire financial straits after its reorganization from the old McClure’s. The tail end of the disaster is described in this paragraph taken from a fascinating article I found about the demise of McClure’s.

McClure’s was never the same after the insurgent staff departed to continue their journalistic crusade elsewhere. To satisfy the terms of the purchase agreement negotiated by Phillips, McClure was forced to place his stock under the control of a board of trustees to whom he was held accountable. The cost of the new Long Island publishing facility, originally estimated at $105,000, increased three-fold, while McClure’s Book Company, a subsidiary of the magazine, went heavily into debt. With the arrival of a depression in 1907, McClure’s advertising revenues plummeted as manufacturers tightened their belts. From 1906 onward, the magazine never again declared stock dividends. $800,000 in debt, McClure was continuously at the mercy of a string of creditors, to whom the periodical was finally surrendered in the autumn of 1911. Under the management of financiers unsympathetic to muckraking, the magazine’s journalistic crusades were squelched. In reality, however, McClure’s was the victim of idealistic “explosions” begun more than five years earlier, when the high moral standards of a staff bent upon reforming society were shattered by the man who had created the medium for their expression.

Despite the fact the New McClure’s was on shaky financial ground the contest continued with a co-sponsorship from book publisher Frederick A. Stokes. When the winner was declared it wasn’t Isabel Briggs Myers. It was a novice writing duo calling themselves Ellery Queen and the novel was The Roman Hat Mystery. Before the prize was fully awarded New McClure’s Magazine went bankrupt and folded in March 1929. The magazine was absorbed by Smart Set and they also took over the contest. The new magazine editors decided to re-judge the contest because the original rules stated that the winning manuscript would appear first in serial format in the magazine. Taking into account their mostly female readership they decided to choose a woman writer and awarded the full prize to Myers — serial magazine rights for $5000, and $2500 for book publication.

Here is more background on the contest taken from Columbia Pictures Movie Series, 1926-1955: The Harry Cohn Years (McFarland, 2011) by Gene Blottner:

But the Queen writing duo had their revenge of sorts when Frederick A. Stokes stepped in and saved the day, so to speak, by publishing the winning book. And thanks to some clever work on the author’s part The Roman Hat Mystery was released a full year before Murder Yet to Come.

My big clue that led me to digging up the real truth of the writing contest was the copyright info in my copy of Myer’s book seen below. I knew something was up.

The clincher is that “Second printing before publication” statement.  This tells us that the publisher’s marketing department did a superior job of selling the book. Due to the book’s anticipated popularity there were a larger than anticipated number of pre-orders from bookstores and the publisher printed more copies of the book before the actual planned publication date and after the initial run of their first edition.  I am inferring here that it was Stokes’ marketing of Murder Yet to Come as a prize-winning novel that led to the larger number of books being printed.

The people at CAPT have no business stating that Myers bested Queen. The contest was judged twice by two different magazine staffs. Essentially, the two authors both won. And while Myers got the money, Dannay and Lee as Ellery Queen got the fame.

 Posted by at 5:12 am
Oct 262012

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester
foreword by Alexander McCall Smith
introduction by Mike Ashley
British Library   $15.00
ISBN:  9780712358781
(distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press)

The British Library who earlier this year gave us a handsomely designed facsimile reprint of The Notting Hill Mystery have matched their efforts with a second forgotten cornerstone in the history of detective fiction. An informative introductory essay by Mike Ashley traces the authorship of The Female Detective, credited to the pseudonym “Andrew Forrester,” to James Redding Ware (1832 – c.1909) and puts this fascinating series of short stories and novellas into the context of the policeman’s casebook style of fiction popular in the early 1860s that would later develop into stories and novels about consulting and amateur detectives. Ware’s stories dare to cast in the lead role a woman undercover police officer (yes, such a person existed in the mid 19th century) who shows she is made of tougher and smarter stuff than the buffoons and doltish coppers she encounters in her line of work.

Not all of the stories feature the anonymous G___ , who often goes by the nom de guerre Miss Gladden. She at times steps aside to relate a second hand account of a mystery solved by the physician Y___, one of her colleagues in crime fighting, or Hardal “the most eccentric barrister who ever donned a stuff gown and a wig” who resembles in many ways the kind of genius consulting detectives that would soon flood the pages of The Strand in the tales of Conan Doyle, L.T. Mead, Arthur Morrison and others. When she is on her own, however, in the longest of the two stories Ware’s skills as a detective story writer as at their best. Who knew that as early as 1864 there were fictional writers detailing 19th century scientific investigative techniques that would foreshadow the high tech forensic police work that has become standard in any work of crime fiction? Miss Gladden (as I will refer to our anonymous lead) not only makes use of her wily feminine interviewing talents, but is well versed in such varied fields as anatomy, criminal psychology, and Victorian law all of which she makes use of in ferreting out the culprits and their unusual reasons for committing their crimes.

“Tenant for Life” is the first story — really closer to a novella at more than 90 pages — in the volume.  A chance remark from a cabman and his wife leads Miss Gladden to the family at Shirley House.  They may have gone to great lengths to preserve an inherited fortune. But was the stunt involving the switching of children really entirely criminal? Catherine Shedleigh and her brother turn out to be good and decent people though they have perpetuated what amounts to legal fraud in the eyes of the law and Miss Gladden. She is torn between feeling sympathy for the brother and sister and doing her duty as a policewoman. In fact, doing one’s duty is at the heart of this particular story. Miss Gladden is constantly referring to the necessity of the detective in society. She believes they exist to bring about justice. This need for justice guides Miss Gladden first and foremost and leads her to inform on the Shedleighs despite their decency and goodness to which she is greatly attracted. Only later when the truth behind the Shedleighs’ fraud is revealed will she subvert the law in order to protect them and punish someone else she sees to be more guilty, both legally and morally.

In “The Unraveled Mystery” we see a more scientific approach to crime solving. Miss Gladden recounts a past crime involving a dismembered body left in a carpet bag beneath a bridge. It turns out to be Miss Gladden’s cold case having left the police baffled who filed it as unsolved. She displays a virtuoso performance in tandem with her physician cohort Y___.  Together the two combine their talents and devise an entirely plausible solution to how and why the crime was done, what specific weapon was used, who the victim was, and most astonishing of all where he most likely lived.  She derides the routine police methods that often trap and hinder genuine police work. The point driven home in this exercise of detection is “that more intellect should be infused into the operation of the police system.” She would rather have imaginative thinkers on the police force than the brutish, nearly illiterate dullards she almost always must deal with.

Less a tale of detection than a morality lesson is “The Judgment of Conscience.” Here is another example of Miss Gladden’s observations of how crime is done for “noble” reason as as was first hinted at in “Tenant for Life.” In this tale a man intent on murder confesses to a crime committed by another and nearly ends up hanged for it. Miss Gladden’s insistence that ballistics evidence be examined saves him from the executioner’s rope.

There is also “A Child Found Dead – Murder or No Murder?” inspired by the Road Hill Tragedy better known to students of true crime history as the Constance Kent case.  An imaginative but unconvincing argument for a sleepwalking killer being responsible is presented in a second hand account. The solution is founded upon Victorian law and the legal definition of murder. Hardal, the detective in the story is also a lawyer, and he is more concerned with fitting the circumstances of the crime to the legal reasons that constitute murder. Too rigid regarding legalities Hardal dismisses or overlooks the complex human emotions at the root of the murder of the boy which turned out to be a sort of juvenile version of a crime of passion as we know now.

The best story in the volume — one that had been previously collected in an anthology of Victorian detective novels by E.F. Bleiler for Dover Books — is “The Unknown Weapon.”  Closer to a short novel (it runs to just under 100 pages) it is a rich and fascinating story of the mysterious murder of a squire’s son told from the point of the discovery of the body to the involved coroner’s inquest and ending in Miss Gladden’s personal investigation and solution of the crime.

In this tale more than any other we get Ware’s satiric side and his sense of humor. There is a parade of gossipy country servants, a nervous Nellie of a maid who can barely speak the language and is prone to “conniption fits”, and one of the stupidest police officers in all of Victorian fiction. An abundant use of country and lower class dialects is on display in the numerous interrogation scenes Miss Gladden conducts; her interpretative skills are taxed to their limit. Numerous parenthetical translations of the simplest words — Yoa is yes, Whoa is what, for example — are peppered throughout the story in a wry manner.

The Female Detective is a very welcome addition to the ever continuing evolution of the detective novel as we know it.  As more and more of these early texts are uncovered it is becoming clear to me that some of the most modern works of crime fiction came to us from overlooked writers in the earliest part of the 19th century. Ware’s book proves that it can hold its own against modern technical forensic thrillers, psychological suspense, and the intense legal and police procedurals that make up the bulk of contemporary crime fiction. In many cases the subtleties of the characters’ motives and the uncharacteristic and surprising vagaries of criminal behavior explored at the hands of a woman detective in the Victorian era are much more interesting to me than similar themes that have practically become commonplace in contemporary crime fiction.

 Posted by at 2:29 pm