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”

The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, is no longer in print, as far as I can tell, though I still see copies for sale on Amazon (in the U.S.). Most of the stories are probably in the public domain; after a century, really, all of them should be, but that’s a topic for another post. Here are some of the stories that exemplify the uniquely American themes best.

“Cinderella’s Slipper,” Hugh C. Weir (From Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective, 1914)

The motive for the murder involves a Senator’s investigations into “a certain great Trust,” and evidence against it that would mean “annihilation of the monopoly, imprisonment for the chief officers….” Yes! Of course, The Trust will do anything to get that evidence.

This story is also notable for its female Holmes and Watson, a private detective and journalist, respectively. Other than being female, Madelyn Mack is a classic detective of the Holmes variety; her bluntness and disregard for social niceties reminds me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Holmes. She is treated with great respect, even deference. No one in the story raises an eyebrow at woman journalists and almost-rude woman detectives ordering people around and detecting, and except for one little plot point (a sort of experiment that Mack does), the detective isn’t written much different from a man. This gender-neutrality is of course to be desired, in a perfect world, but feels surprising in a story from 1914. Weir’s book Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective was dedicated to Mary Holland, apparently a real-life detective.

“Found Guilty,” Josiah Flynt and Francis Walton (From Powers that Prey, 1900)

Not one of the better stories, and it’s told in what Greene terms an “agonisingly facetious” voice that was supposedly popular in American writing at the time. It presents a grim picture of police brutality and corruption. The police in this story want to get their man — any man, and actual guilt or innocence is a technicality.

“The Man Higher Up,” William MacHarg and Edwin Balmer (From The Adventures of Luther Trant, 1910)

An investigator from the Customs Department and psychologist Luther Trant team up to bust a large import company that’s cheating the government of import duties — and willing to murder to protect their scam. As the title suggests, our heroes won’t be content with just busting the company employees who commit the import fraud; they want to take down the president of the company himself.

To-day the enemies are the big, corrupting, thieving corporations like this company; and appreciating that, I am not ashamed to be a spy in their ranks, commissioned by the Government to catch and condemn President Welter, and any other officers involved with him, for systematically stealing from the Government for the past ten years [and possible murder to hide their crimes].

Features the “plethysmograph” and the “pneumograph,” instruments that measure and record physiological/emotional reactions to various physical stimuli — in other words, guilt detectors. One doubts that the evidence would be admissible in court, but it’s a cool gimmick.

“The Cloud-Bursters,” Francis Lynde (From Scientific Sprague, 1912)

A large New York railway concern is trying to undermine the Nevada Short Line, a small local railway, in order to take over the region. Again, the big guys have sent in a fixer to do their dirty work.

‘Still, I can’t believe that these New York stock pirates would authorise any such murderous thing as this!’

‘Authorise murder or violence? Of course not; big business never does that. What it does is to put a man into the field, telling him in general terms the end that is to be accomplished. The head pushers would turn blue under their finger-nails if you’d charge them with murder.’

The New York consortium’s latest scheme is to wash the Short Line’s tracks out in an induced flash flood. To the rescue comes Calvin Sprague, AKA Scientific Sprague, a Department of Agriculture chemist and soil expert. What his official function is in the region isn’t specified; he seems to be taking up Nevada Short Line’s cause mostly as a matter of his sense of justice, and his friendship with Nevada Short Line’s president.

Lynde must have really believed in the goodness “at the American bottom of us.” The officers of the local companies are scrupulously ethical; his journalists seek the truth but won’t fall into “yellow journalism;” even his bad guy goes out of his way not to harm innocent lives. But the theme here is the same as that of “The Man Higher Up”: corporations will look the other way from all kinds of skullduggery for the bottom line.

“The Campaign Grafter,” Arthur B. Reeve (From The Poisoned Pen, 1913)

Someone tries to blackmail Wesley Travis, an idealistic reform candidate for statewide office, with photos allegedly showing him on friendly terms with the corrupt heads of the current party in power — the party that Travis is running against. If Travis doesn’t pay, the blackmailer will release the photos to the press the Monday before the election. But if Travis does pay, it looks like he’s admitting guilt. What to do?

Features doctored photos, campaign finance issues, probable voter fraud, and an early version of modern data-driven, media-centered campaign management. The head of Travis’s press bureau could be a prototype for Gloria Steinem: a wealthy society girl turned journalist and suffragette (the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote nationwide, wasn’t ratified until 1920). On the detective side: forensic photography and some strategic bugging. Fun stuff.

“The Frame-up,” Richard Harding Davis (From Somewhere in France, 1915)

Another story about entrapment and corrupt politics; on the one side Tammany Hall and on the other side an ambitious District Attorney and his wealthy, also politically powerful brother-in-law. What will the District Attorney do to protect his brother-in-law from a sex scandal? Also features bugging. I liked the ending of this one.

In addition to these, the more “classic” detective stories were mostly amusing, too. There are of course other (later) American variations on this genre, from Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr on the more “Britishy” end, to Rex Stout and the TV show Columbo on the more American end. It’s still a treat to see these earlier, Sherlock Holmes-era variations as well.

From a literary point of view, many of these stories feel more “pulpy” than what you would expect in a British detective story of the era. They’re still enjoyable, and if you’re interested in exploring the difference between the classic English detective story and its American counterparts, I recommend you pick up a copy, or try to hunt down some of the source volumes I mention above.

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