Monday, December 30, 2013

The Case of the Decadent Detective

By M. P. Shiel.
Roberts Bros.
1895. $1.00
Story collection.
Available on Kindle.
Online HERE.
Allan Griffith recently wrote about Shiel's supremely decadent armchair detective on his VINTAGE POP FICTIONS weblog (December 24, 2013):
Prince Zaleski never leaves his vast, remote and crumbling old house. Consumed by elegant despair and cultured ennui, he smokes hashish and contemplates the beautiful objects with which he has surrounded himself. He shudders at the thought of reading a newspaper. The idea of taking an interest in the world horrifies. From time to time he is visited by his friend Shiel (who narrates the stories). Shiel is interested in crime and knows that from time to time a case arises that is so bizarre that it has the power to rouse Zaleski from his strange dream-world. Zaleski then applies his immense his intellectual gifts to the solving of the puzzle. He is invariably able to solve the crime without having to suffer the ordeal of having to leave his house, or even to stir himself from his divan.
The character dates back to the nineteenth century. Here's the full BOOKMAN review (May 1895):
Prince Zaleski was a glorified Sherlock Holmes. "The victim of a too importunate, too unfortunate love, which the fulgor of the throne could not abash," took to meditation on the past and future of mankind, and when some one brought him the chatter of the daily newspapers, which he scorned to read, he would deign to light up the mysteries of the present with his magnificent mind. If only he could have been wiled from his gloomy palace to watch the sordid wickedness of the world, not one crime would have gone undetected. But he was probably not much interested in the detection of crime; only in the philosophy of the motives, and in the illustration crime affords of the strange workings of the human soul.
We can imagine him saying, with a yawn, to an ordinary baffled Scotland Yard officer, "Oh, there is nothing in that. Show me something more difficult." Indeed, Mr. Sheil [sic] had to invent impossibly difficult puzzles for him, otherwise he would not have dared to approach so magnificent a creature at all.
"He lay back on his couch, volumed in a Turkish beneesh, and listened to me, a little wearily perhaps at first, with woven fingers, and the pale inverted eyes of old anchorites and astrologers, the moony greenish light falling on his always wan features." His mise en scene is magnificent; an open sarcophagus with the mummy of an ancient Memphian, palaeolithic implements, gnostic gems, fretted gold lamps, fumes of cannabis sativa make part of it. Plainly, only crimes of a poetic order could be brought for detection here.
And yet a terrible thing happened. Europe had been convulsed with an epidemic of suicide and murder. The murderers had left, as their mark, a scroll with hieroglyphics on it. These puzzle pictures would have driven any one else mad. Even Zaleski's great mind was severely taxed.
But surely his soul must have revolted when part of the interpretation resolved itself into a pun—a hideous pun, by which a male and a female figure are made to form the word Lacedaemon. We refuse to humiliate our readers by saying how.
The murderers were a high-minded band, whose motives he approved. Yet he did not join them, or endow them with any part of his vast wealth. He said they were "ill-advised," but we have a shrewd guess it was their vile pun that rankled in his solemn soul.
Mr. Shiel's mysteries are very good, if a trifle laboured, and he has put them into literary form. But as he has not quite got us under the mystic spell, we are not able to maintain a constant gravity before his gorgeous prince.
- A Wikipedia article ("M. P. Shiel").
- Another Wikipedia article ("Decadent Movement").

Category: Detective fiction

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