Not Holmes: American Detective Stories from a Century Ago

American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Several years ago, at a wonderful, now gone bookstore called Outerlands, I found a collection called The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Hugh Greene (one-time Director-General of the BBC, journalist, and Graham Greene’s brother). The book is one of a series of “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” anthologies Greene edited in the 1970s. Most of the stories, as you would expect, are of the whodunit or puzzle variety.

What’s especially interesting is the difference in subject matter between typical stories in the Holmesian style and these contemporaneous American offerings. British mystery stories from this period tend to be about interpersonal crime: crimes of passion, crimes over money or jewels, or jealousy. There is the occasional case of international espionage, but the criminals are almost always individual actors. Many of the stories in this collection are American transpositions of these classic themes, but others go beyond the personal to corporate or political crime.

Here’s Greene:

Sometimes one realizes with a sense of shock how modern these differences make them appear. We find a brutal and corrupt police force, corrupt politicians, bugging, big and wealthy corporations using their power to cheat the Federal Government or to put small competitors out of business, methods used by political parties in elections which are extraordinarily reminiscent of Nixon’s CREEP.

Rereading these stories this past month, I found a particularly interesting theme running through several of these now century-old stories.

  1. Big business routinely engage in corrupt practices for the sake of the bottom line.
  2. When caught, only the little guys (those who implemented the crimes) get punished. The corporate officers, who instigated, or at least encouraged the crimes, get off lightly, or perhaps even completely.
  3. That the big guys get off is wrong. But there are members of the Government — Senators, Federal Agents, and others — who are intent on making the big guys pay.

The first two points still sound awfully familiar, and far too topical, a century later. The last point, I fear, we no longer believe. Do these stories mean that we once trusted more in the State to protect the public’s interest against big business? Or does it mean the opposite: were these stories escapist fantasy about the world we wished that we lived in?

It is the strong hope of the country that there is justice and fairness and sane commonsense at the American bottom of us, if you can only get at it.

— Francis Lynde, “The Cloud-Bursters” Continue reading

East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon

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I recently saw a reference to the wonderful illustrator Kay Nielsen. I didn’t remember his name, but I recognized his illustrations immediately. Gorgeous! And it helps that East o’the Sun, West o’the Moon is one of my favorite fairy tales. Nielsen is almost one of the reasons I love that tale so much.

Almost: Continue reading

The Mbyá-Guaraní Creation Myth

As a follow-up to the previous installment of my hummingbird folklore series, here is a version of the Mbyá-Guaraní creation myth, as rendered by Paraguayan anthropologist León Cadogan. He apparently got this story from an informant he names Cantalicio, the mburuvicha [chief] of Yvypytã (a site loated near Colonia Mauricio José Troche). This is my translation of his Spanish rendering.

In his text, Cadogan gives this myth in the context of his etymology of the term aju’y, the name still used by the people of Guairá for the black laurel (Cordia megalantha, I think). The chapter in his book is titled “La Columna de la Tierra”, which I’ll render “The Pillar of the Earth.”

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The Primitive Customs of the Hummingbird

The fifth installment of my hummingbird folklore series comes from the Mbyá, a Guaraní people who inhabit the southern part of Paraguay in Guairá, parts of Brazil, and the Misiones Province of Argentina. This piece is the first chapter of the Ayvu Rapyta (which means roughly “the foundation of the world”), a book in the Mbyá-Guaraní language that records their myths and religious traditions. The book — full title Ayvu Rapyta: Textos míticos de los Mbya-Guarani — was compiled by Paraguayan anthropologist León Cadogan and published in 1959. This version is my translation of Dr. Cadogan’s Spanish translation.

As in the Ohlone myths of California, Hummingbird (and Owl, apparently) are present at the creation of the world. Hummingbird feeds and refreshes Ñamandú, the “First Father,” as the First Father goes about the task of creation.

790px Anthracothorax nigricollis Piraju Sao Paulo Brasil 8 Continue reading

The Devil’s Mother-In-Law

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I’m still working on my hummingbird legends, but in the meantime I thought I’d share this charming tale with you. I found it in a fun 1921 collection called Devil’s Stories: An Anthology by Maximilian J. Rudwin. He intended this work to be the first volume in a series of collections of devil-related literature. Alas, the rest of the volumes never came to be.

The author of “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law” is one Fernán Caballero, the pseudonym of Swiss-born, Spanish-residing Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber, Marchioness de Arco-Hermoso. “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law” is originally from her 1859 Cuentos y poesias populares Andaluces (Popular Andalucian Stories and Poetry), translated into English as Spanish Fairy Tales in 1881. As Rudwin says, “in her stories we find perhaps the purest expression of mediaevalism in modern times.”

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Hummingbird and the Condor’s Wife: An Aymara Folktale

The fourth story in my hummingbird folklore series comes from the Aymara people, who live in the region around Lake Titicaca and the Andean Plateau (Altiplano); regions that are now part of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. In this story, Hummingbird helps foil Condor’s plans.


One day, as he flew down from the peaks where he lived, Condor saw a young woman tending her llamas in the field. She was so pretty that Condor wanted her for his wife. So he decided to talk to her.

The girl was the chief’s daughter. As she wandered through the field, keeping an eye on her llamas and picking berries, she saw a tall, handsome young man approaching.

“Hello,” he said to her. “Can I help you pick berries?”

“Okay,” the girl said, shyly.

Together the two of them picked berries, laughing and talking all the while. Soon she had two baskets overflowing with ripe, delicious fruit.

“We picked them so fast,” the girl said. “Now what will I do to pass the time?”

“Let’s play games,” said the boy. “What about ‘Carga, Cargitas’?”

“What’s that?” She asked.

“First I carry you, then you carry me,” he said.

And he picked her up on his back and ran through the fields, around the startled llamas, while the girl shrieked and laughed in delight. After some minutes of this, he put her down.

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“Now you carry me,” he said.

“But you’re too heavy,” she protested. The boy ran behind her and put his arms on her shoulders.

“You can do it,” he said. “Just try.”

So the girl tried to pick the boy up, and to her surprise, he wasn’t heavy at all. In fact, as she ran around the field with the boy on her back (I can imagine the llamas rolling their eyes in disdain as they watched) it seemed as if he got even lighter. So light that she felt as she were running without her feet touching the ground….

But wait! She wasn’t touching the ground! She looked down in confusion as the earth fell away from beneath her feet, and then noticed that the hands on her shoulders — were no longer hands. They were claws: the talons of a great bird. Her friend, the handsome boy, had turned back into the mighty Condor and was carrying her away to be his wife.

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Coyote and the Hummingbird Brothers: A Nez Percé Tale

The third entry in my hummingbird folklore series. Previously, we’ve read how Hummingbird got the best of Coyote in a pair of Ohlone folktales from the California coast. For this story, we go to the Pacific Northwest for a story from the Nez Percé (Nimíipuu) people. This time, Coyote turns the tables.


Coyote and Hummingbird – Nez Percé

As Coyote traveled along the valley, upstream, he heard a raspy, angry sound, like the sawing of wood. A voice called down to him:

“You there, coming up the valley — we challenge you to a fight!”

Looking around, Coyote saw Hummingbird and his brother atop a mountain peak. He shouted back at them, “A fight is just what I’ve been looking for!”

He ran up towards them and they rushed down to meet him, coming at him from both sides. They fought, and the Hummingbird brothers beat Coyote easily, killing him. Looking down at him, they said, “Oh, it’s Coyote. No wonder he was so arrogant, thinking he could beat us.”

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Coyote and Hummingbird: An Ohlone Folktale

The second folktale for my hummingbird folklore series, again from the Ohline people of California. This is also more a Coyote tale than a Hummingbird tale, but to me it exemplifies the feistiness of the Anna’s hummingbirds that are the most frequent visitors to our feeder.


Maccan ‘inn ‘Ummmun — Coyote and Hummingbird (Rumsen Ohlone)

Coyote thought he was wise, but (as we saw) Hummingbird was smarter. Coyote was jealous, and wanted to kill him. So Coyote snuck up on Hummingbird, caught him, and tore him to pieces. But after Coyote left, Hummingbird came back to life, crying out in a mocking voice, “I’m dying, I’m dying!”

Then Coyote grabbed Hummingbird again, and threw him in a fire. Then he left, thinking Hummingbird would burn to death. But Hummingbird flew out of the flames, crying out “I’m dying, I’m dying!”

“How am I going to kill him?” Coyote asked. They told him, “The only way to kill him is to eat him.” So Coyote snuck up on Hummingbird, and swallowed him. But Hummingbird scratched and pecked at Coyote’s stomach from the inside; the pain was too much for Coyote to bear.

“What will I do? It hurts so much! I’m going to die!” cried Coyote, in pain. The others told him that the only way to get rid of Hummingbird was to defecate him out. So Coyote did.

And once again, up flew Hummingbird, calling out in a mocking voice, “I’m dying, I’m dying!”

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Eagle, Hummingbird and Coyote: An Ohlone Creation Myth


My husband and I have been a bit obsessed with hummingbirds the past couple of years; we’re up to three feeders in the backyard, and we can sit in the afternoon and watch hummingbird skirmishes (Anna’s hummingbirds are notoriously territorial) with as much enthusiasm as other people bring to sports championships. What better then, than a series on hummingbird folklore?

Hummingbirds exist only in the Americas; a uniquely American bird, and so their folklore is also uniquely American. Hummingbird stories exist among many peoples of North, Central, and South America, and so it gives me a change to learn a little something about groups whose legends I know nothing about.

I’ll start this series with a couple of legends from the Ohlone people of the California Coast. The Ohlone lived in the regions around the San Francisco and Monterey bays, down to the Salinas Valley: regions where my husband and I, and my husband’s family grew up. I can’t claim to know a lot about the Ohlone, but the knowledge of their existence has been somewhere in my consciousness since childhood. So even though these first stories are really more Coyote stories than they are Hummingbird stories, they’ve given me a chance to delve a bit into the stories of the people who once lived where I live and where I grew up.

Let’s start with a creation myth, from the Rumsen Ohlone. Rumsen speakers lived in the area of Monterey and Carmel, into the Carmel Valley. Rumsen was the principle indigenous language spoken at Mission Carmel. Continue reading

The Italian’s Story

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I’ve been reading Catherine Crowe’s Ghosts and Family Legends (1859) over lunch break the last several days. Those of you who have read Tim Prasil’s Help for the Haunted, the chronicles of the ghost-hunting, turn-of-the-twentieth-century journalist Vera van Slyke, know that Ms. Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature was Vera’s trustiest reference tome. I believe she actually wore out her copy at some point in the book. Like The Night Side of Nature, Ghosts and Family Legends is a collection of “true” ghostly anecdotes, in this case told over the course of several evenings at a Christmas gathering.

Though it may surprise some of my readers, I’m not actually that interested in true ghost story anecdotes, at least not as reading material. Most true ghost anecdotes — most true anecdotes, period — lack narrative structure, and almost always have no closure. They may be great recreation when told to you by your grandmother, or by your friends on a dark winter’s night while drinking hot toddies, but fiction generally makes better reading. Most of the stories in the first half of Ghosts and Family Legends are no exception. Still, I’m always on the lookout for novel stories to share with you during the winter tales season, and a few of the anecdotes are well-structured enough (and fun enough) that I may feature them come December.

The second half of the collection is called “Legends of the Earthbound,” and (so far) these seem to be fully structured stories. It’s not clear if these are still stories told to Ms. Crowe by others, or whether they are fiction written by her (I assume the second). Either way, they are enjoyable reading, and I thought I’d share one with you today.

Our family claims to be of great antiquity, but we were not very wealthy till about the latter half of the 16th century, when Count Jacopo Ferraldi made very considerable additions to the property; not only by getting, but also by saving—he was in fact a miser. Before that period the Ferraldis had been warriors, and we could boast of many distinguished deeds of arms recorded in our annals; but Jacopo, although by the death of his brother, he ultimately inherited the title and the estates, had begun life as a younger son, and being dissatisfied with his portion, had resolved to increase it by commerce.

So begins the story of Count Francesco Ferraldi, about his ancestor Jacopo Ferraldi, a truly detestable man. This one is kind of two ghost stories (and two haunted houses) in one, but it isn’t the ghosts that are scary. It’s the man.

You can read “The Italian’s Story” here (a pdf download), or you can download the entire Ghosts and Family Legends from Project Gutenberg.


Image: The Letter of Introduction, David Wilkie (1813). Source: WikiArt. It may seem an odd choice of image, but it’s relevant to the story.