Tuesday, March 3, 2015


The Smart Set endured a sometimes chequered career, undergoing numerous editorial changes over its thirty-year lifetime. The magazine's founder, says Wikipedia, "wanted to provide sophisticated content that would reinforce the social values of New York’s social elite and gave it the subtitle 'The Magazine of Cleverness'." Judge for yourself just how clever the following criminously related pieces are.
"The Unconscious Detective."
By Caroline Duer (1865-1956).
The Smart Set (May 1902), pages 151-157.
Online HERE.

As Miss Marple demonstrated, little old ladies can make good detectives—even unconscious ones:
. . . "I suppose you heard of the burglary," I observed; "and I almost think it served those silly young women right, for wanting to deck themselves out so inappropriately. The idea of bringing their jewels down to the country!"  . . .
"The Great Security Bank Mystery."
By Isaac Anderson (1868-1961).
The Smart Set (December 1902), page 96.
Online HERE.

Did he say "great detective"?
. . . "The burglar," he announced, confidently, "was a man of less than medium height." 
"But how—?" began the president. 
"Very simple, indeed," interrupted the detective.  . . .
"Cause for Suspicion."
By Tom P. Morgan.
The Smart Set (April 1905), page 61.
Online HERE.

What could possibly move the thief to commit burglary? You'd be surprised—then, again, maybe you wouldn't:
. . . "Pshaw! why, Lester Pinney is as honest as the day is long!"  . . .
"More Adventures of Oilock Combs: The Succored Beauty."
By William B. Kahn.
The Smart Set (October 1905), pages 93-95.
Online HERE and on Bill Peschel's blog with his comments HERE.
. . . The manner in which she made this statement as well as the declaration itself seemed to make a deep impression upon Combs. Without uttering one word he sat there for fully four minutes. The way in which he puffed nervously at the pipe showed me that he was thinking. Suddenly, with an exclamation of delight, he dashed out of the room and down the stairs, leaving the amazed duchess and myself in his apartments. But not for long. In forty-three seconds he was again in the room and, dropping into his chair thoroughly exhausted, he triumphantly cried: "I have it!"  . . .

Categories: Humorous detective stories, Sherlock Holmes parodies

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ONTOS's Most Wanted

Once in a while we like to check back and see which postings have attracted the most attention; here are the top 50 or so in chronological order:

- "First Post" HERE.
- "Detective Fiction — Private Detective vs. Private Eye" HERE.
- "Julian Symons Reviews Robert Barnard's A TALENT TO DECEIVE" HERE.
- "Random Internet Comments By and About Poe" HERE.
- "A Collection of Edgar Wallace Thrillers" HERE.
- "A Shilling Shocker" HERE.
- "The Correspondence School Detective" HERE.
- "A Brilliant Storyteller" HERE.
- "The Voice of Experience: Valentine Williams on 'Shockers' " HERE.
- "The Dilettante Sleuth Par Excellence" HERE.
- " 'A Strange Medley of Stage Realism, Fantasy, Farce, and Tragedy' " HERE.
- " 'A Deliciously Complex Mystery' " HERE.
- " 'Measuring the Shudder' " HERE.
- "Hoch's Locked Room Winner" HERE.
- " 'Try to Look Harmless' " HERE.
- " 'Lynx-eyed Science' and the Talking Dead Men" HERE.
- "Van Dine's Detective Novel Lecture" HERE.
- "Two Ragtime Era Mysteries by Women" HERE.
- "Sherlock's First Theatrical Outing" HERE.
- "Who's the Better Detective, the Professional or the Amateur?" HERE.
- " 'A Book Remarkable for Completeness, Accuracy, and Infallible Soundness of Judgment' " HERE. This one has been the most popular of all.
- "Not Quite So Idiosyncratic" HERE.
- " 'A Suspension of Disbelief Is Required' " HERE.
- "A Defense of the 'Puzzle Novel' " HERE.
- "Surely You've Heard of Bernard Capes" HERE.
- "Brief Notes on Gaboriau" HERE.
- " 'A Chastened and Far More Palatable Character' " HERE.
- " 'It Is a Better Novel Than THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD' " HERE.
- " 'The Interest of a Detective Story Is Therefore Intellectual and Not Emotional' " HERE.
- " 'The Author's Ingenuity Is Great, but . . .' " HERE.
- " 'Puzzle Plots Are Nearly Completely Absent' " HERE.
- " 'From Thrilling Scene to More Thrilling Scene, We Hurry' " HERE.
- " 'The Author Outdoes Himself in the Number of People Upon Whom He Brings Suspicion' " HERE.
- " 'It Shows Just How Bad a Detective Story Can Be' " HERE.
- " 'The Whole Sherlock Holmes Saga Is a Triumphant Illustration of Art's Supremacy Over Life' " HERE.
- " 'A Well-paced Story That's Loaded with Action, Suspense, a Great Puzzle, and a Lot of Humor' " HERE.
- " 'Scenery Is Delightful, Writing Good, Sleuth Clever, and Criminal Elusive' " HERE.
- " 'The Hero Is Attractive, the Action Sufficiently Brisk, and the Surprise at the End Quite Satisfactory' " HERE.
- " 'As a Detective Story This One Is Almost Clever Enough To Be Called Brilliant' " HERE.
- " 'Simply One More Instance of an Author Who Shirks a Technical Difficulty' " HERE.
- " 'It Is a Negligible Affair, a Chip in Porridge, an Eloquent Sermon on the Old Text' " HERE.
- " 'These Stories Are, Altogether, More Amusing Than Intriguing' " HERE.
- " 'Although This Is an Eccentric Book, It Has Plenty of Plus Points' " HERE.
- " 'A Thoroughly First Rate Detective Story, Rapid, Absorbing, and Credible' " HERE.
- " 'Pages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Criminals' " HERE.
- " 'Witty, Decorously Exciting, and Brilliantly Written' " HERE.
- " 'What Good Is a Mystery Yarn If in Retrospect It Is Illogical and Silly?' " HERE.
- " 'There Is Even a Twist at the End, As If There Were Anything Left to Twist' " HERE.
- "Often by and Sometimes about Vincent Starrett" HERE.
- "Murder on the Final Frontier" HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"A Few of the Recent Changes in the Police Novel, Which Do Roughly Correspond to Changes in the Social History of Our Time"

"About Shockers."
By G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936).
First published in As I Was Saying (1936), chapter XXXIII.
Online HERE.
Chesterton's compositions could be breath-taking, baffling, delightful, and annoying all at the same time, but no one could accuse him of being insensible to what was happening in the world around him, and that goes for detective fiction, too. Excerpts:
IT IS WELL that students sternly devoted to that science should issue bulletins, from time to time, upon the state of the Detective Story; the stage it has recently reached in its present alleged progress or decline. Some hold that the possibilities of the detective story will soon be exhausted. They take the view that there are only a limited number of ways of murdering a man, or only a limited number of men who might plausibly and reasonably be murdered. But surely this is to take too gloomy and pessimistic a view of the case. Some hold that the detective story will, indeed, progress and evolve, but it will evolve into something else; and I always think that sort of evolution is a form of extinction. They seem to think that it will become so good that it will cease to exist; will die of sheer goodness, like the little choir-boy. What used to be called the police novel will expand into the novel where the problems are too subtle to be solved by calling in the police. For my part, as a matter of taste, I can do very well without the police; but I cannot do without the criminals. And if modern writers are going to ignore the existence of crime, as so many of them already ignore the existence of sin, then modern writing will get duller than ever.
Here, however, my only duty, as a dry recorder of scientific facts, is to note a few of the recent changes in the police novel, which do roughly correspond to changes in the social history of our time. I shall also venture, in my capacity of earnest ethical adviser to the young student of blood and thunder, to point out some dangers and disadvantages in these new forms and fashions in crime. . . 
Here is Chesterton's advice for detective fiction writers when they create characters:
. . . I would therefore lay down this canon first of all: that the people in a really gory murder mystery should be good people. Even the man who is really gory should be good, or should have a convincing appearance of being good.  . . .
Instead, writers insist on populating their stories with
. . . suspects [who] are so very suspect that we might safely call them guilty; not necessarily of the crime under discussion, but only of about half a hundred others.
But there is an obvious snag in this convenient way of spreading suspicion over a number of characters. It can be put in a word: such cases may cause suspicion, but they cannot cause surprise. It is the business of a shocker to produce a shock. But these modern characters are much too shocking ever to produce a shock.  . . .
Too many suspects of dubious character can vitiate the suspense:
. . . It is true that, in some of the very best recent romans policiers, this rout of rather bestial revellers is often introduced, not in order to convict any of them, but to distract attention from some seemingly conventional person who is ultimately convicted. But the method is wrong, even at the best; a hint of guilt should be thrilling; but there is nothing particularly thrilling about the safe bet that some of these social ornaments are capable of being thieves or thugs.  . . .
One technical error shocker authors make:
. . . I think there is another weak point, which is the worst thing even in the best shockers. This also is connected with some recent social changes; as with the scientific fashion of Psychoanalysis, which is generally more of a fashion than a science. It is also connected with a certain mechanical or materialistic interpretation of human interests, which often goes along with it. I mean the expedient of distracting attention from the real criminal by suspecting him at the beginning and not merely at the end.  . . .
. . . This method, again, has every quality of ingenuity, and pursues the highly legitimate aim of shifting the spot light from the guilty to the innocent. And yet I think that it fails, and that there is a reason for its failure. The error is the materialistic error; the mistake of supposing that our interest in the plot is mechanical, when it is really moral. But art is never unmoral, though it is sometimes immoral; that is, moral with the wrong morality. The only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will; it involves finding out that men are worse or better than they seem, and that by their own choice.  . . .
Too much of the real world, says Chesterton, has crept into the detective story:
. . . I notice a curiously modern and sullen realism beginning to settle on some of the recognized tales of murder, once so gay, innocent, and refreshing. Once our detective art really was almost an unmoral art; and therefore the one which managed to remain almost a moral art. But shades of the prison-house—or, worse still, of the humane reformatory and the psychological clinic—begin to close upon the growing boy and the hopeful butcher of his kind.  . . .
As an example of how this "sullen realism" can infect a character's behavior Chesterton offers Lady Macbeth:
. . . Unfortunately, like such a very large number of people living in dark, barbarous, ignorant, and ferocious times, she was full of modern ideas. She intended especially to maintain the two brightest and most philosophical of modern ideas; first, that it is often extremely convenient to do what is wrong; and second, that whenever it is convenient to do what is wrong, it immediately becomes what is right. Illuminated by these two scientific search-lights of the twentieth century in her groping among the stark trees and stone pillars of the Dark Ages, Lady Macbeth thought it quite simple and business-like to kill an old gentleman of very little survival value, and offer her own talents to the world in the capacity of Queen.  . . .
Most worrisome for Chesterton is the idea which modern shockers seem to support that murder and the murderer can be excused on materialistic, or non-moral, grounds:
. . . Sinister minds may be clouded by dark and unworthy suspicions that the views here discussed are not wholly serious; but some of the modern moralists favouring murder and other simple solutions of social difficulties are serious with a dry-throated earnestness that no satire could simulate. And even my own lighted prejudices on the negative side are not without spasms of sincerity.  . . .
- We last touched base with G.K.C. HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Chase Is On the Case

"The Harvey Chase Documents."
By Arthur Bartlett Maurice (1873-1946).
The Smart Set (November 1905), pages 103-115.
Short story.
Online HERE.
"I now hold in my hands all the threads of one of the most extraordinary cases in the history of London crime."
The first, and as far as we know, the only recorded Harvey Chase adventure—understandable, really, because while author Maurice shoots for that Sherlock Holmes vibe, he misses. Excerpts:
. . . "It is just a little everyday murder—at least, that is what the London police state . . ."
. . . "It suggests many things. Not that the handwriting is anything out of the ordinary, although it offers clues in the way of nationality and rank. But surely the places and the corresponding dates must convince you that this is not the itinerary of an ordinary person." . . .
". . . in this case there are complications with which the most complete chain of circumstantial evidence is unable to cope."
. . . The man whom he designated last was seated at his right, and had been watching us closely out of cruel, blinking, bloodshot eyes. His lips were curled into a leer. His was a countenance seamed with the lines of an evil and dissipated life.  . . .
. . . "These are only two of seven distinct clues which the examination of the room furnished me."  . . .

Category: Detective fiction (sort of)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"His Methods Would Be Useful If Detectives Were Only Mindreaders"

"Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsène Lupin."
By Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).
The American Mercury (January 1936), pages 86-93.
Online HERE.
In the mid-thirties, with Hercule Poirot's little grey cells and Miss Marple's village parallels positively scintillating in detective fiction, an American chose to compare the real-life methodologies of British and French detectives. His conclusions might surprise the average Anglophonic mystery reader. A few excerpts:
. . . despite the statistics of solved crimes released proudly each year, Scotland Yard remains very much as Sherlock Holmes knew it—a slow-minded, dull, almost stupid organization, plodding methodically along the trail of petty crooks. Meanwhile, the French service [the Sûreté] has advanced from strength to strength, to become today the most intelligent and efficient body of detectives in history.  . . .
. . . Now Scotland Yard's lack of intelligence and scientific method is not altogether its own fault. Most detective forces reflect the character of the criminals with which they grapple, and the average English crook has no more originality than a robot, and very little more intelligence.  . . .
. . . England claims that crime statistics prove her detective service to be the best in the world. But this is not true; the figures merely show that the English criminals are a stupid lot.  . . .
When it comes to murder in Dear Old Blighty
. . . the British police obtain really brilliant results, yet here again they are greatly helped by the characteristics of the British criminal. Murder is an amateur crime in England; there are no gangster killings as in America and no rapid-fire knife wielders as in France.  . . .
As for the Sûreté, Pratt notes an
. . . emphasis on cleverness, on ingenuity [which] gives the French service both its romantic, almost fictional character, and its predilection for the use of scientific methods.  . . .
. . . Naturally the French police, like the British, reflect the national criminal characteristics. If the British crook is a simple-minded slugger who almost never thinks, the Frenchman is an active, fluid fellow who often gets into trouble because of intricacies of his own devices.  . . .
. . . It is this search for the new, the ingenious, and the sensational that eventually led the French police into the business of scientific detection.  . . .
For instance, it was a Frenchman, Edmond Locard, who
. . . developed a new and deadly addition to the scientific detective's armory—the study, through microphotography, of the pore-pattern within the fingerprints, the pore-pattern being as individual as the print itself and having the advantage of requiring far less surface to yield a readable and specific record.  . . .
In one case in particular:
. . . The finding of that bit of wax was not a fortuitous piece of luck for the French detectives, any more than is the discovery of numerous witnesses for the British [England being a tight little island with a homogeneous population suspicious of anyone out of the ordinary]. The Sûreté agents are trained to gather every particle of material evidence, no matter how insignificant . . . .
For that reason
. . . Faced with a burglary, the French detective does not collect the evidence of witnesses or keep watch on pawnshops as does his English colleague.  . . .
In Britain, on the other hand
. . . The English police, in their preoccupation with witnesses, tend to neglect [useful clues].  . . . [Good lab technicians] are seldom called in unless for an obvious laboratory case, such as a poisoning, or a case where the solution hinges on ballistic examination. The witness is master of the field.  . . .
French detective trainees
. . . are put through a course of training which begins in a refresing and rather startling manner with the reading of Gaboriau's works and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Edgar Allan Poe, by the way, is not rated very high. "His methods would be useful if detectives were only mindreaders," comments a French writer acidly. But the aphorisms of the great Sherlock have become proverbs in the French service . . . And the Sûreté has imitated Holmes' methods in more than one particular. You remember he once told Dr. Watson he had written a monograph on identifying tobacco by its ashes? Well, there is such a monograph now, produced by one of the French laboratory detectives . . . .
So in the final analysis is the French system superior? Because of cultural differences, it's really a case of apples and oranges:
. . . This does not mean, of course, that the French service is perfect. The British system of dependence on witnesses is at its best in ferreting out just the type of crimes the French find most difficult to handle—those affairs in which material clues are entirely wanting.  . . .
- Fletcher Pratt wrote in many areas, history and science fiction among them; see the Wikipedia article HERE.
- Wikipedia also has articles about Sherlock HERE, Lupin HERE, and Locard HERE.
- ONTOS dealt with Gaboriau previously HERE.

Category: Detective fiction vs. real life

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Never in the Long History of Fiction Has There Been a Figure Comparable to Sherlock Holmes"

"Forty Years of Sherlock."
By Arthur Bartlett Maurice (1873-1946).
The Bookman (October 1927), pages 160-162.
Online HERE.

Conan Doyle's announcement three years before he passed away that there would be no more Sherlock Holmes adventures prompted this short piece from someone who was both a literary critic and avid Sherlockian fan. A few excerpts:
IN a villa upon the southern slope of the Sussex Downs, commanding a great view of the Channel, there lives an elderly gentleman engaged in bee farming.  . . . Despite his physical vigor and his still unclouded mind, age is descending upon him just as it inevitably descends upon all our favorite heroes who belong in the Valhalla of fiction.  . . .
. . . [The "birth" of Sherlock Holmes as a fictional character] was not only unheralded; for a time it was threatened by grave complications. It was a hard case for Dr. Doyle. The newly born literally fought its way into existence against the opposition of hostile hands. In other words, the manuscript went the rounds of the publishers only to meet repeated rejection. Finally the copyright was purchased outright for twenty-five pounds. As an added complication the baby came near to being christened "Sherringford" Holmes.  . . .
. . . [The Case-Book is supposed to be Sherlock's swan song, but] Perhaps we are inclined to take the announcement lightly and with mental reservation. In the course of the stories published there have been allusions to some sixty or seventy other cases that are yet unrecorded.  . . . But perhaps the time has come to accept the verdict of finality.  . . .
"You brute," she wrote.
Maurice's next assessment is still true today:
. . . In the matter of world-wide popularity never in the long history of fiction has there been a figure comparable to Sherlock Holmes.  . . .

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Life Can Never Be Staid or Humdrum In a Community Where a Detective May Turn Out to Be a Murderer Or a Corpse Or, Stranger Still, a Detective"

"Oh, England! Full of Sin."
By Robert J. Casey (1890-1962).
Scribner's (April 1937), pages 33-37.
Online HERE.
When one comes in out of the wet and claims the hospitality of a host with a knife sticking out of his back, one knows what to expect and how to act. That is part of one's heritage as an Englishman.
Very, very funny—and so witty that we won't steal Casey's thunder by quoting any further from this classic. Just go there and enjoy.
Artwork by Tom Richmond
- Other attempts at spoofing a certain fictional British detective can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.