Of course, TH and other like-minded individuals are delighted with the appearance, at intervals, of serious, well-researched and well-argued books on the subject. For example all those who are interested in the genre must be looking forward to the publication of Martin Edwards's history of the Detection Club and its denizens, The Golden Age of Murder. But Martin, who is a friend, is not an academic but a writer, anthologist and historian of the genre who loves it and understands it. He is also the author of some excellent detective novels of his own and has been much involved both as consultant and as a writer of illuminating introductions in the production of the British Library reprints of early and Golden Age detective stories that have sunk into undeserved oblivion as far as the general reading public is concerned. (Incidentally, the general reading public has taken to the reprints in a big way and most of them have been selling very well, indeed, thus proving past experts on the subject wrong.)
There are many other serious and informative books, anthologies and collections of essays on the market though, alas, not always published in the UK (still, with Amazon that should not be too much of a problem). The work of Douglas G. Greene, the biographer of John Dickson Carr, anthologist and essayist is of enormous importance. As far as I know he is not related to Sir Hugh Greene who, back in the 1970s created interest in forgotten "rivals" of Sherlock Holmes through a highly successful TV series and several volumes of short stories, but it is an amusing coincidence.
Douglas Greene has been honoured by a festschrift edited by Curtis J. Evans, called Mysteries Unlocked, full of goodies about well known and not so well known authors. Curt Evans himself is an author of several books on the subject, including one that really ought to have been published in the UK a long time ago, as it is a study of three leading British Golden Age authors: John Rhode/Miles Burton (same man but two noms de plume), Freeman Wills Croft and J. J. Conington (another nom de plume).
There are many more examples of such works and, if required, Tory Historian can list a good selection.
TH was also very impressed by the splendid exhibition the Museum of London had about Sherlock Holmes and aspects of his career and various reincarnations. Of particular interest were the many photographs and paintings, oil and watercolour, of London of the period and the tracing of the journeys Holmes and Watson took across various parts of he city and out of it from one of the many railway stations. It is important to recall that Holmes and Watson carried out all those investigations at a time when London was growing and changing rapidly. Sometimes one sees that in the stories but the curators of the exhibition made a great effort to demonstrate it through maps, quotations and pictures. The world Holmes and Watson lived and worked in was not a cosy, dependable bourgeois one that is so often argued by those academic students of the genre; it was one of great and rapid upheavals.
Which finally brings Tory Historian to the whole issue of academic studies of crime and detective fiction. There are now courses in detective fiction, academic publications on the subject that manage to take all the joy out of it, even whole series of academic books.
Clive Bloom edits such a series for Palgrave Macmillan called Crime Files, which makes it sound like a TV series of almost any vintage but its purpose is far more serious:
Crime Files is a ground-breaking series offering scholars, students and discerning readers a comprehensive set of guides to the world of crime and detective fiction. Every aspect of crime writing, detective fiction, gangster movie, true-crime expose, police procedural and post-colonial investigation is explored through clear and informative texts offering comprehensive coverage and theoretical sophistication.Those are grand claims and hard to live up to. Whether the series does or not is something every reader of individual books has to decide but two things need to be said at once: there is nothing particularly ground-breaking in the serious study of crime fiction as it has been done for good many decades and it is unlikely that very many ordinary readers, discerning or otherwise, will bother with titles like Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature or its counterpart, Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature.
Some of the titles are of interest. The problem is that they are deceptive. These books are not for discerning readers or even for students except those who are about to take exams in the subject and, even more so, those who want to rise in the academic ladder.
There is some evidence that both early and Golden Age writers of crime fiction did not consider that work to be important or worthy of serious consideration. We all know that about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hating Sherlock Holmes because he displaced what he considered to be his serious literary work from the public's knowledge and affection. As a matter of fact, those historical novels are very good and the various non-Holmes short of adventure, medical life and ghostliness are excellent but we all know who holds our attention and affection and does so all over the world.
Detective fiction writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sometimes used pseudonyms or considered their output to be merely an unimportant part of their work. The same applied to some of the Golden Age writers like S. S. Van Dine, Henry Wade, J. J. Conington and others. Women continued to use male pseudonyms long beyond the time this was deemed to be necessary and it is only slowly that the writing of detective fiction became an acceptable and honoured profession. (There is no need to discuss J. K. Rowling's tricksy way of advertising her detective novels, supposedly written by one Robert Galbraith with the truth somehow becoming known to every journalist within days of the first book's publication.)
Of course, this is not true for everyone. Conan Doyle may not have liked Sherlock Holmes but he wrote the stories under his own name and eventually accepted his detective's importance; Agatha Christie used her real name for the detective fiction and a pseudonym, Mary Westmacott, for what might be termed her "serious" fiction. John Dickson Carr, who did use several names at various times, gloried in being a crime fiction writer, calling it the "grandest game on earth". Despite this and despite the great popularity of the genre in the years between the wars and immediately after the Second World War, some unease prevailed.
Nowadays the unease lies with those academics. The subject may exist but its students are uneasy: can it really be called a serious academic study, they ask themselves. The answer is no, not unless it is analyzed from many, reasonably fashionable point of view and certainly not unless rather spurious academic debates can be conducted.
Tory Historian realized this with complete clarity while reading one of the books in the Crime Files series, Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock by Clare Clarke, Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.
Professor Clarke's main intent is to show that there were other detective fiction writers contemporaneous with Conan Doyle (not precisely news to people who have been reading the various anthologies that have been published over the yeas) and that a number of these were somewhat more subversive of the self-satisfied Victorian view of the world than .... who, precisely?
The problem with those who are out to prove how self-satisfied the Victorians were but actually there were subversive writers even in that period is that they have to rely on those very Victorians to show the seamy side of that supposedly self-satisfied existence. Indeed, one reason why life was improving for so many people was the existence of crusading journalists and writers, like W. T. Stead who were not afraid to write about unpleasant facts, actually going to prison in his case.
Stead, a remarkable man, brave, emotional, hard-working, but often contradictory and infuriating, is much discussed by Professor Clarke because of his campaign against child prostitution that included his shocking and very well known series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette, The Maiden Tribute to Babylon and the equally shocking Eliza Armstrong case, which resulted in the journalist going to prison for purchasing a child from her mother in order to demonstrate how easy that was.
Stead's most recent biographer, W. Sydney Robinson suggests in Muckraker that the story of Eliza Armstrong was not quite as straightforward and Stead's behaviour not quite as honest as it has always been assumed.
However, the case and the articles had a shattering effect on many and the age of consent was hastily raised in law till sixteen. By no stretch of the imagination could it be said that any of it was unknown until Professor Clarke and other modern academics uncovered it.
What Professor Clarke has done is to link the Maiden Tribute to Babylon with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, arguing that child prostitution is at the heart of that story. As one of the only two crimes that Mr Hyde is known to have committed (the rest of his activity being shrouded in the mists of horror) is him trampling on a young girl, the argument is not unreasonable. When it is then extended to Dr Jekyll and his friends it becomes slightly less plausible. Yes, they might go wandering in the streets of Edinburgh at night in search of young girls or they might do so in search of young men who are willing to engage in sexual activity, or in search of opium dens or various other things.
As far as the theme of the book as a whole is concerned, Stevenson's novella is a problem. Professor Clarke argues for greater recognition of late Victorian writers who do not happen to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and of the complexity of both life and literature of that period. Nobody could possibly argue that Robert Louis Stevenson is not well known or that the complexity of his work, especially of his account of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is underestimated. I have no doubt that many have already written about the theory of it being linked to W. T. Stead's investigative journalism.
Apart from the chapter on Stevenson's novella the book has one chapter on Sherlock Holmes that illustrates the contradictions and difficulties of his character as a number of recent academics have apparently insisted that he is the epitome of Victorian bourgeois morality and the man who creates peace and contentment at the end of his adventures, solving the problems and restoring law and order.
It seems a little odd that there should be any academics who can argue that as the various difficulties and contradictions of Holmes's character are openly discussed by Dr Watson from his first meeting with the man in laboratory of Bart's Hospital and we can all list stories in which Holmes deals with something else but crime, does not manage to catch the criminal or decides not to punish him.
Indeed, there is one story in which the criminal is actually Holmes's client and an innocent person is hounded out of the country by the great detective. But before TH turns to that rather odd tale, a little more about Professor Clarke's book.
The other chapters are a call for greater interest in other contemporary writers who, unlike Conan Doyle, took a less acceptable attitude to crime, showing, in the case of Fergus Hume, that the so-called respectable society in Australia still rested on criminality (hardly an unknown idea), or the influence slum living can have on human beings as in Israel Zangwill's one crime story, The Big Bow Mystery, or looking at crime from another perspective, that of the criminal as in Arthur Morrison's The Dorrington Deed-Box and Guy Boothby's The Prince of Swindlers.
Actually, none of these writers are completely unknown and various stories from the two latter collections have been reprinted. Fergus Hume's The Mystery of the Hansom Cab and Zangwill's novella have also been reprinted from time to time and many of them are now available on line.
The sad truth is that Fergus Hume, Guy Boothby, Israel Zangwill and Arthur Morrison may be interesting and amusing writers but Conan Doyle and Stevenson are great writers who approach genius in some of their works. That is not a reason for not reading the first four but it is the reason why they are less well known. Furthermore, if we are looking for complex, ambiguous and subversive writing we are once again faced with the fact that Stevenson in The Strange Case and other works and Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes canon fulfil that task better than, say, Guy Boothby.
Conan Doyle's astonishing achievement was the creation of a character who was really rather unpleasant, anti-social to the point of rudeness, arrogant, self-centred, a drug addict and a probable manic depressive (though he did soften as time went on) who was nevertheless liked and admired in the books and has been liked, admired by readers all over the world and emulated by other writers ever since. Arthur Morrison could not have done so either with his honourable and upright Martin Hewitt (again, the stories are very well worth reading) or his smart, dishonourable, completely amoral Dorrington.
What is more the public loved the ambiguous character of Holmes. The first two long stories were reasonably well received but it was not till Strand Magazine started publishing the Adventures that real popularity emerged. The first of those was A Scandal in Bohemia. Professor Clarke's first reference to it is a little odd. In her introduction she says:
There are instances, for example, where Holmes does not catch the criminals ('A Scandal in Bohemia', 'The Five Orange Pips' and 'The Yellow Face'); is prepared to break the law in pursuit of a case ('A Scandal in Bohemia' and 'The Illustrious Client'); fails to save his client from being murdered ('The Five Orange Pips'); lets the guilty party go free ('The Boscombe Valley Mystery' and the 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle'); ....One wonders why there is no mention of Charles Augustus Milverton but one cannot list all the stories that have quirks in them. What is undoubtedly odd is that reference to not catching the criminals. There are no criminals in The Yellow Face and the criminal in A Scandal in Bohemia is not Irene Adler who does nothing except protect herself but the King, Holmes's client. Let us recall part of their first conversation:
We were both in the photograph.Well, well, just what are those five attempts but commissioning of serious crime which includes two attempts to terrify a lady? Yet the King becomes the client and Holmes behaves in a questionable manner, particularly when creating a false fire alarm, completing the case by driving the blameless Nortons from England as they are afraid of what the King and his "henchman" Holmes will do. Hardly the behaviour of an honourable man and yet the public loved it and saw nothing strange in the fact that the man who behaves in such a fashion in one story becomes the epitome of morality (he might esteem the intelligence of criminals but pace Professor Clarke he does not actually admire them) in the subsequent ones.
Oh, dear! That is very bad! Your Majesty has indeed committed an indiscretion.
I was mad—insane.
You have compromised yourself seriously.
I was only Crown Prince then. I was young. I am but thirty now.
It must be recovered.
We have tried and failed.
Your Majesty must pay. It must be bought.
She will not sell.
Five attempts have been made. Twice burglars in my pay ransacked her house. Once we diverted her luggage when she travelled. Twice she has been waylaid. There has been no result.
No sign of it?
As one starts discussing Sherlock Holmes and the complexities of the character and stories, one finds that there is enough material for a medium-sized book though the chances are most of those points have been made by someone else not in the academic world whose denizens seem to do nothing but invent theories of no importance and argue against other academic theories of equal interest. What a terrible waste of opportunity and effort.
In the meantime, here are a couple of questions about Holmes and the canon that TH might answer in another long blog:
In The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, another non-criminal case, Holmes expresses himself as a true lover of America or, as we would say nowadays, the Anglosphere.
It is always a joy to meet an American, Mr Moulton, for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children from being one day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.And yet, a good many of the stories are about crime and criminals that come over from the United States. The Study in Scarlet, The Valley of Fear, The Five Orange Pips, The Dancing Men, The Red Circle and The Three Garridebs spring to mind immediately. There may be others.
As against that, and this is TH's second point, there is no evidence of one of the latest academic theory and that is "fear of reverse colonization", that is fear expressed that men of the colonies, either native or white influenced by native ideas, return home and bring back criminal ideas. When there is a crime story, which is somehow rooted in colonial events, as in The Sign of Four or The Boscombe Valley Mystery, the criminals are white and have not been particularly influenced by anything but their own criminal nature. Little Tonga to whom Professor Clarke refers rather a lot, is a secondary character and is activated by complete, all-consuming loyalty to Jonathan Small who had saved his life.