One might take issue with the statement that Poe “invented” the detective story: E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1819 Mademoiselle de Scuderi certainly counts as a detective story, in my mind; and you can trace demonstrations of Holmesian-style ratiocination all the way back to at least the 1557 story cycle Peregrinaggio (you can find my retelling of the specific tale I’m thinking of here). But it is true that Poe’s Auguste Dupin and the adoring narrator-friend of Dupin’s cases defined the framework that gave us Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the entire genre of ratiocination-style tales as we know it today.
Today: the second Lizzie Borden-inspired crime tale, and of the earliest (possibly the first) published mysteries by a black author. “Talma Gordon” appeared in the October 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine, an early literary and cultural journal for African-American readers. The author of “Talma Gordon,” Pauline Hopkins, was also the magazine’s editor, and one of its most profilic contributors.
I wrote about Pauline Hopkins for my Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic series, so I’ll quote what I said about “Talma Gordon” there:
Lovely golden-haired Talma Gordon is accused of the grisly murder of her wealthy father Jonathan Gordon, her stepmother, and her infant half-brother. During the investigation it comes out that Talma did not get along with her stepmother, that her father had forbidden Talma’s marriage to struggling artist Edward Turner — and that Gordon had been planning to leave the bulk of his wealth to his son, with only a small annuity to each of the two daughters of his first wife. Talma is acquitted legally, but not necessarily in the court of public opinion. What really happened?
If you’ve read Hopkins’ fiction before, you’ll recognize the themes in “Talma Gordon.” On the plus side, it’s a crisp and engaging crime tale, and if there had been an American equivalent of The Strand Magazine at the time, “Talma Gordon” would have been right at home. On the other hand, I do have to give it a point off for a Deux ex machina ending, and some aspects of the story haven’t aged well—because some of the cultural attitudes of the time are, thankfully, no longer acceptable.
All in all, if you’re looking for a unique take on the Lizzie Borden story, as well as an interesting piece of literary and African-American history, do check out “Talma Gordon.” I hope you enjoy it!
Today’s Classic Crime is one I’ve shared before, but it’s a story I really like, by an author I admire. “The Long Arm,” by Mary Wilkins Freeman, is the first of two women-authored murder mysteries I plan to present that were probably inspired by the infamous Lizzie Borden case.
Sarah Fairbanks is an unmarried schoolteacher who’s been engaged to her beau for five years. But for some reason, her father disapproves of the relationship. Sarah argues loudly with him about her fiancé one night when she is home for summer vacation. The next morning, she finds her father in his bed — murdered. Suspicion falls quickly on Sarah, and soon she’s arrested.
At the trial, Sarah is acquitted (like Lizzie Borden was), but she is shunned by the community, which still suspects her guilt. So to clear her own name, Sarah decides to investigate the murder herself. Can she find the murderer and prove her innocence?
Today’s Classic Crime tale is by Wilbur Daniel Steele, a once highly regarded, but now sadly forgotten American author. It’s a lovely, atmospheric tale of death and sibling rivalry, called “Blue Murder.”
The Bluedge brothers all live and work within the valley called Mill Crossing. The oldest, Jim, runs the farm; Frank runs the store, and Camden is a blacksmith. The three were once rivals for the woman who is now Jim’s wife, Blossom. As the story begins, Frank, Blossom, and Camden are waiting for Jim to come home with his latest purchase: a stud horse from Wyoming, with the ominous name of Blue Murder. The horse, apparently, came suspiciously cheap. Rumor says the horse lives up to his name. Could it be that the rumors are true?
“Blue Murder” was one of Tony Hillerman’s selections for his Best American Mystery Stories of the Century anthology, and it’s a great tale. I like how the complete solution doesn’t come until the very last line of the story.
Today’s Classic Crime is a striking, disturbing story by Guy de Maupassant, one of the great masters of the short story form.
In “Little Louise Roque,” the body of a young village girl is found in the woods, violated and murdered. With a cool and disinterested eye, Maupassant describes the reactions, actions, and thought processes of the people affected: the girl’s mother, the postman who discovered the body, the mayor, the magistrate — and the murderer. It’s a dark and unsettling story, but also quite powerful. And memorable, too.
I first encountered this novelette in the Boris Karloff-edited collection, And the Darkness Falls, and it’s stayed with me since that reading. I’m sharing the same translation, from a collection of Maupassant translations credited to “Albert M.C. McMaster, A.E. Henderson, Mme. Quesada, and Others.” The story was first published in December 1885, and later became the title story of Maupassant’s eleventh collection, La petite Roque (1886).
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.
Today’s classic crime story comes from journalist, Golden Age mystery author, and historical novelist Henry Christopher Bailey. Bailey is probably best remembered today for his long-running series of Reggie Fortune stories, featuring a surgeon with a talent for solving crime. In this post, I’m sharing Reggie Fortune’s debut case!
“The Archduke’s Tea” opens with Reggie’s parents going on holiday, leaving Reggie to mind his father’s thriving medical practice. Almost immediately, Reggie is summoned to attend the Archduke Maurice, heir to the throne of Bohemia, who currently lives in the wealthy suburb where Dr. Fortune practices. The Archduke was stuck by a hit-and-run driver while on one of his habitual countryside rambles. While hurrying to his patient, Reggie comes across another hit-and-run victim lying by the side of the road–very dead. And this victim bears a striking bodily resemblance to the Archduke.
Suspicious. Also suspicious: Maurice’s brother Leopold–next in line for the throne–is visiting his brother. And it seems the Archduchess, who hates life in the royal Court, is a speed-demon who loves to race up and down the roads in her own “ferocious vehicle”…
Who struck the Archduke? Can Reggie catch the attacker before they strike again?
If you enjoyed my previous classic crime tale “The Murder Hole,” then here’s another sinister inn story for you! This one comes from the ultra prolific Scottish historical novelist and travel writer Charles Macfarlane.
Among the many, many tomes that Macfarlane produced, one of the more fun ones is The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World, which first appeared in two volumes in 1833. This particular tale tells the adventure of a Hungarian horse dealer, returning home from a successful and profitable business trip to Vienna. Just past the Hungarian border, he stops off for the night at a respectable-looking inn.
The host then inquired what business had carried him to Vienna. He told them he had been there to sell some of the best horses that were ever taken to that market. When he heard this, the host cast a glance at one of the men of the family who seemed to be his son, which the dealer scarcely observed then, but which he had reason to recall afterwards.
A lonely road runs through a desolate stretch of Scottish moor. This part of the country has a bad reputation for murder and highway robbery; almost everyone who used to live here has fled. There’s only one family left, an old lady and her two sons. When night falls, travelers caught on the moor take shelter at their cottage, because it’s much safer there than to sleep out in the open, all things considered. Right?
The Murder Hole is a gruesome little tale of the “scary stories around the campfire” variety: somewhat predictable, but fun to read or to hear. You can find it various places around the web, usually unattributed and subtitled something like “A Scottish Legend.”
The tale itself may well be a local legend, but this specific version has an author, and she should be credited: Catherine Sinclair (1800-1864), a philanthropist and author of children’s literature. She also wrote a few volumes of legends and folktales, and apparently was the first to identify Sir Walter Scott as the author of the previously anonymous Waverly novels.
“The Murder Hole” first appeared in the February 1829 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine. Sinclair later republished it as part of her 1853 collection London Homes.
Over the past year and half, I’ve found my reading habits changing a bit. I still read the ghost stories and weird tales that I love, but lately, I’ve been turning more to short stories of the mystery and macabre — my genre of choice before discovering classic supernatural fiction.
So many times I’ve come across a story that I would love to share, either as a Winter Tale or otherwise, but didn’t, because it had no supernatural component. Now I’ve decided, “why not?” — and so I’m starting a new series, Classic Crime, to share public domain, non-supernatural, crime and mystery short stories that I really like. But don’t worry, I’ll still be reading and sharing ghost stories, too!