Today I’m presenting another series detective debut: the first Madelyn Mack story, by author, journalist, and screenwriter Hugh C. Weir. This is Ms. Mack’s second appearance on this blog; I first mentioned her in a post about the 1976 anthology The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.
Though the character herself makes fun of Sherlock Holmes, Weir clearly modeled Ms. Mack on The Great Detective. She has a sidekick and chronicler, the newspaperwoman Nora Noraker. She is eccentric: only dressing in solid white or solid black, brusque, and somewhat imperious. She loves music. She has an annoying tendency to hide her thought processes and the details of her investigation from Nora; and she when she’s stressed, she falls back to her addiction — the stimulant kola nuts.
The first time I encountered Madelyn Mack, I was rather surprised by how polite, even deferential, the police were to a young woman detective in 1914. But now it makes more sense: Ms. Mack is already famous for any number of high-profile cases by the time we readers meet her. It helps when your Watson is a journalist.
In “The Man with Nine Lives,” millionaire scholar Wendell Marsh writes to Ms. Mack for help after a series of attempts on his life. Unfortunately, by the time Madelyn and Nora arrive at Marsh’s estate, it’s too late. His servants have already found him, quite dead but apparently unwounded, in his wrecked and ransacked library, which of course was locked from the inside. Who did it? How did it? And why? Ms. Mack is on the case.
The story drags at the beginning; the first section is a giant exposition dump. But persist, and you’ll be rewarded! Things pick up by section two. Madelyn and Nora have an amusing relationship, and the mystery has an inventive solution.
Madelyn Mack and Her Real-life Inspiration
In his dedication to the collection, Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective, Hugo Weir reveals the inspiration behind his heroine:
To Mary Holland
This is your book. It is you, woman detective of real life, who suggested Madelyn. It was the stories told me from your own note-book of men’s knavery that suggested these exploits of Miss Mack.
Mary Holland (1868-1915) was a private investigator who ran The Holland Detective Agency, and was an early advocate of fingerprinting as an identification technique. She and her husband published The Detective, a magazine for police professionals. In 1910, Ms. Holland taught fingerprint identification to U.S. Navy personnel, making her the first woman fingerprinting instructor, and that same year she was an expert witness in the murder trial of Thomas Jennings, the first case where fingerprint evidence helped convict a murderer.
In “The Man with Nine Lives,” Madelyn Mack uses fingerprints to help identify the killer. It’s also mentioned that she runs a detective agency of her own, though I don’t think we ever see it. Mary Holland must have been so proud!
Ms. Mack even featured in two short films (now lost); she was played by actress Alice Joyce. Hugh Weir wrote the screenplays. My blog Dark Tales Sleuth features an image of Ms. Joyce as Madelyn Mack that appeared, along with three other movie stills, in the 1914 edition of Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective. Given that the two films (The Riddle of the Tin Soldier and The Riddle of the Green Umbrella) appeared in 1913 and 1914 respectively, it’s not clear which Weir wrote first, the screenplays or the short stories.
If you like “The Man with Nine Lives” and would like to read more, Weir’s collection Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective is available free at the Internet Archive. It includes “Cinderella’s Slipper,” the story collected in The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, and another fun tale.
Part of the Classic Crime series.
Featured Image: Still from one of the Madelyn Mack movies, reproduced in Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective (1914). Source: Internet Archive.