The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

I’ve been picking away at this book for months, and I finally finished it this week. (My motivation may have been so I could start a new book and take it with me on my little St. Louis adventure this long weekend.) It is a 700+ page collection of Victorian-era short stories about sleuths other than Mr. Holmes, compiled by Stefan Dziemianowicz.

This isn’t so much a review of the book as a personal reaction to it. I had to read it in small doses because I just couldn’t stomach so much of the mindset of the Victorian age. (I think it crept into the Edwardian era a little too.) Although a few of these stories are set in North America, the great bulk of them are set in England. I’ve said here before that I think England (and Europe) is the only place the detective story could have originated because of its rigidly stratified society at the time. Whether true or false, people could be categorized by their class, and conclusions could be drawn about them, which facilitated the logic and inference of the detective mind (as well as made characterization easier). I think this is why crime novels are more successful in the U.S.; we have a more free-wheeling social structure. (Also, more guns.)

Before they were “detective novels” they were known as “enigma novels”, and apparently they were much bemoaned by the literati of the age. I suspect this taint is still on them to a lesser degree today. They are a genre of fiction that is seen as less serious or meaningful than Literature, which is baloney, of course.

Nonetheless, many of the stories in this collection seemed less stories than constructions. They have some elaborate enigma about them that is designed to show off the skill of the sleuth, in some cases based on unfounded or unsupported leaps and insights (as well as the class hierarchy). But keep in mind, these writers were pioneering a new type of fiction, and what might seem “unacceptable” writing today was innovative at its time. Curiously, many of them involved the emerging technology of the age: the railroad. Timetables, the immense speeds of the machines, the individual compartments in the cars (which conveniently provided the setting for “locked-room” mysteries), even the noise they make (to cover the sound of the gunshot) were handy for contriving the puzzle that the detective had to solve. I imagine in a hundred years, much of our fiction dealing with, say, the internet, will look quaint and short sighted. (Maybe I’ll be around long enuf to find out.)

I have a half dozen of these rivals of Sherlock Holmes books on my shelf. Once the genre caught on, it seems, the stories were pumped out by the hundreds. A four-book series of these was curated compiled by Hugh Greene (brother of Graham Greene), and many of these were made into part of a television series. Should I ever stumble upon another collection of them, I will likely read it.

But what am I reading now? A book titled A Race Like No Other, which is about another little adventure I’ll be making in November in a place called New York City.

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3 Comments on “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

  1. I’m still stuck on marathons. Surely if you qualify for the NYC marathon, you can qualify for other northeastern marathons. But what do I know. The closest I’ve gotten to that marathon is crossing the street (gingerly, looking both ways) on my way to work just after the elite women came through.

  2. Paul Lamb Says:

    Nope, NYC was strictly luck when I submitted to the lottery and was chosen. It didn’t call for previous times or such. Boston does, and, darn it, they have to be good times too.

  3. Diane Says:

    Back on enigma novels, have you ever read Lady Audley’s Secret? It’s a personal favorite – you begin to expect the investigating character to wear a rumpled trench coat and say “Just one more thing, if you will, sir …” a’la Columbo. It’s got some humor and actually plays with those Victorian mores, and is an easy read.

    The novel itself was subject to that same scorn you mention regarding the enigmas. For a period, its main forms were “sensation novels” and enigmas and generally had a rep for being morally questionable. The word “novel” itself, referring to the form’s newness, was not intended to be complimentary, and young ladies were not expected to expose their minds to such literature.

    Louisa May Alcott put out some lulus in her day – drugs and sex and Shocking Developments galore!

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