Monday, March 3, 2014

Two by Brebner

Two by who? Percy James Brebner's detective fiction reputation seems to rest on his two volumes featuring Christopher Quarles, whose method of detection defiantly stands that of Sherlock Holmes on its head. Some 21st-century readers find the stories a snooze fest, but others disagree.

About Brebner's first collection, Tony Posante at Librivox writes:
Christopher Quarles is a professor of philosophy and a private consulting detective. Quarles, along with his granddaughter Zena, assists Police Detective Murray Wigan in solving various crimes and mysteries in Victorian England. Whereas the police look for facts and then form a theory of a case, Quarles first forms a theory, often seemingly absurd and based on little more than intuition, then seeks facts in support of it. Of course, to the astonishment of all concerned, Quarles' theories usually prove to be quite right! Christopher Quarles: College Professor and Master Detective was written by Percy James Brebner (1864-1922) and first published in 1914, a time when motor cars and electric lights were new marvels of the industrial age.
By Percy James Brebner (1864-1922).
E. P. Dutton & Company.
1914. 299 pages. $1.25
Collection: 16 stories.
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
1. "The Affair of the Ivory Boxes"
2. "The Identity of the Final Victim"
3. "The Riddle of the Circular Counters"
4. "The Strange Case of Michael Hall"
5. "The Evidence of the Cigarette-End"
6. "The Mystery of 'Old Mrs. Jardine' "
7. "The Death-trap in the Tudor Room"
8. "The Mystery of Cross Roads Farm"
9. "The Conundrum of the Golf Links"
10. "The Diamond Necklace Scandal"
11. "The Disappearance of Dr. Smith"
12. "The Affair of the Stolen Gold"
13. "The Will of the Eccentric Mr. Frisby"
14. "The Case of the Murdered Financier"
15. "The Strange Affair of the Florentine Chest"
16. "The Search for the Missing Fortune"

Meanwhile, back in the early 20th century this first reviewer rather liked the book:
The fascination about a detective story, which makes it the favourite light literature of men of large affairs. . . .according to their own frequent confessions, casts its spell also over writers who have made themselves felt in other fields. Mr. Brebner, whose work hitherto has shown no leanings in this respect, comes into the arena with a new detective. As the aim of each new detective—or of his creator—is to be as unlike the conventional idea of a detective as possible, Christopher Quarles may easily be said to distance those already in the field by several lengths. And before we go further here, it would be interesting to have some one tell us what the conventional idea of a detective really is, since every new writer tells us his man is something quite different!
But certainly Professor Quarles is the most lovable, the most learned, the most unpoliceman-like detective we have yet met. As a matter of fact he is not a detective at all, but a scholar, specialising in philosophy and keenly interested in the human motives behind every act. Criminal cases interest him only when it is necessary to find this motive. He confesses that he does not make his theory from facts. He finds his theory of motives first and makes the facts fit it. It is an interesting method, and as after all human nature, even if warped and twisted out of humanity by circumstances, is at the back of every crime, the professor is not so far wrong when he insists that philosophy and imagination are good guides for detective work. As he tells the bright young detective who has won his interest, and who eventually wins the heart and hand of Professor Quarles's granddaughter:
You are very clever, but you lack imagination to step out as far as you ought to do. Cultivate imagination and don't be too bound up by common-sense. Common-sense is merely the knowledge with which fools on the dead level are content. Imagination carries one to the hills and shows something of the truth which lies behind what we call truth.
Equipped with his imagination and love for psychic motivation, and aided by Murray Wigan's natural cleverness and practical knowledge of his work, the Professor unravels many mysteries, some of which can rank well up in the front of similar plots.
Such rich store of good things is offered that it is hard to select any special ones particularly worthy of mention. Yet, as a guide for hurried readers, in the matter of gruesomeness the cases scheduled as "The Identity of the Final Victim," and "The Case of the Murdered Financier" will easily bear off the palm. For ingenuity of solution the "Riddle of the Circular Counters" and "The Disappearance of Dr. Smith" should be commended.
The completeness of each story in itself, connected by the personalities of Quarles, his granddaughter Zena, and the young detective, Murray Wigan, make the book a particularly handy one for the busy man or woman who like the solution of an imaginary mystery but have seldom more than a short half hour or so to indulge their inclination. It is safe to prophesy that they will enjoy having Christopher Quarles close at hand when this lazy half-hour comes. — Cornelia Van Pelt, "Nine Books of the Month," THE BOOKMAN (November 1914)
The next reviewer seems to have trouble with counting:
The professor of philosophy who gives his name to "Christopher Quarles," by Percy James Brebner, belongs to the new class of amateur scientific detectives of crime. This interesting pursuit is the occupation of his leisure hours; and he takes only cases that interest him. He combines, therefore, the fresh spirit of the amateur with the scientific and artistic methods of the expert. Of the thirty-six [?] stories which make up this volume, some are good and some are commonplace.
It cannot be said that at any point Professor Quarles reaches the level of his great English and French models. He is, however, an interesting person whose indifference to monetary considerations in the pursuit of the calling of a detective gives him a right to be dictatorial and irritating. It is the special joy of the amateur detective to treat the professionals with more or less ironical contempt. — "Out of Many Novels," THE OUTLOOK (November 11, 1914; scroll to page 604)
This reviewer detects "a certain monotony":
MORE than a quarter-century has slipped by since Sherlock Holmes usurped the scene in detective fiction. New writers still have to be careful, above all not to offend us with pseudo-Sherlocks. We demand something "distinctively different" in make-up and method. Young girls, beautiful society women, lusty athletes, doddering ancients—from any source sufficiently unsherlockian our fresh masters of detection may arise.
One ingenious contriver (in "The Lost Naval Papers" of Bennet Copplestone) has gone so far as to wrench a genius out of Scotland Yard itself! Now, "Christopher Quarles, College Professor and Master Detective," bears evidence of novelty on its very title-page.
It is true that old gentleman's professorial status is left rather vague; from beginning to end, indeed, we lack data as to what or where he professes. Luckily for us, at all events, he has plenty of leisure for our business. His Doctor Watson (alas! these analogies seem inevitable) is a professional detective who works somewhat according to the Holmes formula. Not so Quarles; his method rests, to put it vulgarly, on "the hunch."
Wigan, the chronicler, a professional detective, follows the sacred rules of induction—or was it deduction? Quarles depends frankly on intuition. "My methods are not those of a detective," he admits. "You argue from facts; I am more inclined to form a theory, and then look for facts to fit it." And in forming his theory he is moved by hints often hardly tangible.
He does, to be sure, make suspicious use now and then of Baker Street ways—the worship of cigarette ends and the stowing away in envelopes of bits of fluff and refuse gathered on "the premises."
But these are secondary matters. His genius lies in jumping at conclusions—commonly from the take-off of some apparently casual question of his granddaughter Zena, whose middle name (in the current idiom) is Hunch.
There is a certain monotony in the working out of these tales, each of which really ends at the point when Quarles has perfected his theory; after that we merely follow the facts for verification. Their machinery apart, the stories have more novelty and ingenuity than we can often look for in this much-worked field. — "Substance and Mechanism," THE NATION (July 20, 1918)
By Percy James Brebner (1864-1922).
E. P. Dutton & Company.
1916. 308 pages.
Collection: 15 stories.
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
1. "The Strange Case of Sir Grenville Rusholm"
2. "The Kidnaping of Eva Wilkinson"
3. "The Delverton Affair"
4. "The Mysterious House in Manleigh Road"
5. "The Difficulty of Brother Pythagoras"
6. "The Tragedy in Duke's Mansions"
7. "The Stolen Aeroplane Model"
8. "The Affair of the Contessa's Pearls"
9. "The Disappearance of Madame Vatrotski"
10. "The Mystery of the Man at Warburton's"
11. "The Strange Case of Daniel Hardiman"
12. "The Crime in the Yellow Taxi"
13. "The Affair of the Jeweled Chalice"
14. "The Adventure of the Forty-Ton Yawl"
15. "The Solution of the Grange Park Mystery"

A reviewer pegs Quarles as one of a host of "degenerate Sherlocks":
Pretty well all the detectives of recent fiction, and certainly the best of them, are no more than degenerate Sherlocks in disguise. Christopher Quarles, in the two volumes of stories by Percy James Brebner, is as good as any. He produces an occasional effect of reasoning, and the stories themselves are well thought of.
. . . Probably fame and fortune await the creator of the next really original and striking specialist in crime. But he will not be found easily, because original ideas do not come by prayer and fasting, nor always to those who can use them to good advantage. Meanwhile, we may be content with such as are good stories, though lacking an important hero. And indeed that is enough to ask. There is nothing easier to write than a detective story, if the mere writing were all: it does not need to be well written; and the trick of suspense upon which its structure depends is simply the most facile tool in every author's workshop. But to invent a good detective plot is very difficult indeed, and calls for more combined brains and honesty and willing labor than many authors can compass. — Brian Hooker, "Concerning Yarns," THE BOOKMAN (May 1919; scroll to page 312)

Category: Detective fiction

No comments:

Post a Comment