Harriet Prescott Spofford | Herman Melville | Rebecca Harding Davis | W. H. Hudson | Thomas Bailey Aldrich | Edward Everett Hale | Frank R. Stockton

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

The American Renaissance

Herman Melville

Collected Stories

Abraham Lincoln

"The Trailor Murder Mystery" (1843)

Harriet Prescott Spofford

The Amber Gods

Uncollected Mr. Furbush stories

Rebecca Harding Davis

"Life in the Iron Mills" (1861)

Riddle Stories

Edward Everett Hale

"The Man Without a Country" (1863)

"Hands Off!"

Thomas Bailey Aldrich

"Marjorie Daw" (collected 1873)

Frank R. Stockton

"The Lady or the Tiger?" (1882)

"A Tale of Negative Gravity" (1884)

"Our Story"

"Our Archery Club"

Anatole France

Cranquebille (collected 1904)


The American Renaissance

The stories of Poe, Hawthorne and Melville are some of the most important in American Literature. Together with such contemporaries as the poets Longfellow and Whitman, and essayists Emerson and Thoreau, these brilliant writers are known as the American Renaissance. They form a key phase in American culture.

Their stories tend to be heavily plotted, and often are directly ancestral to such modern genres as the mystery story and science fiction, both of which tend to feature complex plots. The stories tend to be highly imaginative, but not especially realistic. They are written in a rich, complex prose style, which seems derived from poetry, especially the works of Shakespeare, and such Romantic poets as Coleridge. Oftentimes there is considerable direct discussion in the tales of matters of philosophy, culture, human thought, and life. There are also often symbolic meanings contained in the stories.

Poe, Hawthorne and Melville were not the only writers whose fiction shared the traits listed above. Some of their American contemporaries, such as Edward Everett Hale and Fitz-James O'Brien also showed some or all of these features in their work. And while many of the writers of the next generation, such as Mark Twain, wrote in more realistic styles, there were a few, such as Harriet Prescott Spofford, who carried on their tradition.

Harriet Prescott Spofford

Spofford (1835-1921) was a mainstream writer who occasionally produced detective stories. Long neglected, some of her best pieces have been revived in an omnibus edited by Alfred Bendixen, The Amber Gods and Other Stories (1989). Two of Spofford's stories seem to me to be masterpieces: "The Amber Gods" and "Circumstance" have a Shakespearean richness of language. "Circumstance" seems also a remarkable expression of personal values, religious and emotional. Her late story, "The Godmothers", also is rich in imagery. The other works seem much more limited. Some other Spofford works are worth reading. "In the Maguerriwock" is a detective story with an interesting Maine setting and some good descriptive writing; and the sf tale "The Moonstone Mass" shows an elaborate prose style, although not as good somehow as Spofford's two classics.

In a Cellar

"The Amber Gods" is a mainstream story, with a few supernatural overtones; "Circumstance" might be regarded as a thriller or suspense tale. Much more purely a detective story is "In a Cellar" (1859), Spofford's first main magazine sale. This is a well written tale of a diamond theft, with a diplomat in Paris taking on the role of a detective to track it down and recover it. The story is a full detective tale, and sure seems (on the basis of internal evidence) to be drawing on a cultural tradition of detective stories by other writers. What these detective stories are is unclear to me. The 1850's saw the birth of casebook fiction, and Spofford's tale has some similarity to their works, in that it is a short story narrated by the detective hero, concentrating on his detective work in solving the crime. And like their fiction, monetary considerations play an important role in the plot. Another point of resemblance: the importance given to realistic portraits of servants in both Spofford and the casebook stories. But there are important differences, as well. Spofford's detective is an amateur, who takes on just this one single case, unlike the professional policemen of the casebooks, although amateurs occasionally show up in casebook fiction, too.

Spofford's style is self consciously literary, with a (successful) attempt at fine writing throughout; it appeared in a high toned literary magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. Spofford's story deals with the highest reaches of Parisian Society, with its narrator distinctly snobbish, and there is a great deal about politics in the tale. Spofford's story also includes thriller elements, including the sort of political conspiracies popular later in Harry Blyth's Sexton Blake tales in the 1890's, and which spread from him to such later writers as Chesterton, Christie and Sayers. It is a very early example of such thriller fiction, too, and I do not know of what sources, if any, Spofford could have drawn on for such elements.

Spofford's storytelling technique in "In a Cellar" alternates between two modes. Some passages are dialogue oriented. In these two speakers try to top each other with clever repartee, ingenious thrusts, and complex challenges to each other's ideas. The dialogue sections alternate between descriptive passages, in which the narrator describes events and settings, and introduces his ideas on life, morality, politics, romance, and culture, all written in a very elaborate literary style. These sections seem to draw on the American Renaissance tradition of such writers as Melville and Hawthorne.

Spofford's detective work is uneven by modern standards. At least three times in the tale her hero stumbles on evidence purely by chance. This is pushing coincidence way too far. However, when he does get clues, he is good at following them up. There is an attempt to suggest that his approach to cornering bad guys is more "sophisticated" than other detectives. It is full of irony and attempts at clever twists. One gets the impression that Spofford is trying to produce a "Literary" version of a conventional detective story, one with better writing, and one in which the plot shows signs of sophisticated, clever variations on standard approaches. 1859 is awfully darned early for someone to be producing a literary variation on detective fiction; one associates this approach with Sayers and S.S. Van Dine in the 1920's. Still, this is the impression I got from her tale.

The Furbush Stories

Spofford's "Mr. Furbush" (1865) shows her complex literary style. It is an early story using photography as a clue, and the passages dealing with photographs are especially rich. Spofford shows a Melville like appreciation for the whole process of making a photograph: the role of the sun and its light, the way photography offers an exact duplicate of an object. These are described with philosophical depth, and a wealth of supporting imagery. Spofford also vividly describes the process of enlarging a photograph's detail. The story anticipates some 1960's films about photographic enlargement: Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965), and a related work concentraing on the zoom: Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1966).

"Mr. Furbush" has some characteristics of other early mysteries. One of the suspects has an alibi, something treated as a routine part of the world of detection. There are references to newspaper accounts of the crime, just as in Poe. One suspects that newspapers published a great deal of true crime material, and that fictional mystery stories echoed this in a great many ways. We also have what was later to be a cliché in mysteries, the police detective who becomes so enamored of a murder case that he investigates it himself in his spare time.

The Other Stories

One wonders what other outstanding Spofford works are lurking within her vast canon. Certainly her two great stories are lost classics of American literature, worthy of a rank beside our other great writer of Shakespeare-influenced fiction, Herman Melville.

Herman Melville

Typee and W. H. Hudson

Herman Melville's first novel Typee seems to me to be model, in both style and content, for W. H. Hudson's fiction, especially The Purple Land and "El Ombu". (Green Mansions seems to be written in a slightly different style, one that evolved out of Hudson's early style, but distinct none the less.)

The Purple Land shares with Typee the subject of a first person narrative by a European in an exotic foreign country. Both Typee and the Hudson books share an apparently simple, straightforward style of narration and description. And both share an ability to have simply described details evoke beautiful images of the countries in which they are set. This style is the most miraculous part of Hudson's writing. It is also the part of his work that is most personal and individualistic. Before I read Melville's work I knew nothing like it in literature. Now I think of Typee as an ancestor to Hudson. Melville's own later works, such as his short stories or Moby-Dick, are written with much more "complex" prose. I put "complex" in quotes because there is nothing artistically simple about the Typee - Hudson style. It is merely much more straightforward in surface syntax and description.

Benito Cereno and The Mystery

Melville's own greatest short stories are the classic mystery tale, "Benito Cereno", and his last work, "Billy Budd". There is no detective or detection in "Benito", but there is a mystery. "Benito" is remarkable for its early date for having the whole mechanism of the mystery story, and in such artistically brilliant format. The final explanation of the mystery gives a whole new interpretation to dozens of events in the original story. So we see the whole story twice, once as it appeared on the surface, and later revelations of what was really going on. This is an advanced and complex plot structure that seems closer to the modern classics of John Dickson Carr than any stereotyped image of the early 19th Century detective story. (In fact Carr set forth the theory and practice of such a "doubly told tale" in his essay on mystery fiction, "The Greatest Game in the World", included in the paperback version of his collection, The Door to Doom. Also, in her autobiography My Story Mary Roberts Rinehart discusses the care she put in the dual plotting of a surface and a hidden story in her classic mystery play "The Bat". Such a dual architecture is an important part of the mechanism of the modern mystery genre.) The article on Conan Doyle describes how "Benito Cereno" influenced his work.

English writers of this period often wrote "sensation novels", thrillers with some elements of mystery. Sometimes the mystery elements were fairly thin, and subjugated to the suspense elements of the plot. It is often suggested in histories of the mystery that the modern puzzle form of the mystery story gradually evolved out of these works, that Wilkie Collins and Mrs. Braddon's tales gave rise to the mystery in its modern form in the works of Anna Katherine Green and Conan Doyle. This seems doubtful to me. Poe's tales are great, mature mysteries. And Melville's work, though lacking a detective, is a full blown mystery of plot in the modern sense.

It would be interesting to know where Melville found his genre in "Benito Cereno". Did he make it up? Are there earlier works of this format I have not read? Is it lurking in tales of popular fiction, or did the mystery originate in works of "serious fiction"? One clue: most of the important early examples of mystery are non-British, being either French, German or American.

One problem with trying to answer questions like these is that most historians of mystery fiction equate the field with "crime fiction", not with "stories where a mysterious event is solved". So we get endless references to tales of theft and murder, and very little account of tales like "Benito", which in terms of plot technique are much closer to the modern mystery. I would love to read a history of mystery fiction that points out innovations in mystery technique, not simply catalogues books about crime.

"Benito Cereno" is also outstanding for its rich analogies, metaphors and cultural allusions, used by Melville in his descriptive passages. This style of writing is found throughout Melville's later work, and finds its apogee in "Billy Budd". "Billy Budd" contains no mystery elements, but it does contain some crime, so we are citing this great story here.

Other Melville Fiction

I liked most of Melville's stories very much, especially some he included himself in the Piazza Tales: "The Bell-Tower" (1855) and "The Lightning-Rod Man" (1854). The three two part stories (1854-1855), "I and My Chimney" (1856) and "The Apple-Tree Table" (1856) also are good. (Melville loved hyphens, and often included them in his titles.)

"The Encantadas" (1854) is not my favorite, but it does have my favorite Melville line (in Sketch Seventh), about a bunch of mutinous seamen: "who in the name of liberty, did just what they pleased". I think this is just hilarious, and also a good satirical rebuke at people who believe in "freedom" in the abstract, but who are always trying to run other people's lives, and who regard other people's free behavior as "vices" that must be regulated. We get plenty of this from the right in this country today.

Melville in Moby-Dick (1851) shows us a whole new world, or rather a largely unfamiliar part of the real world. This look at an unfamiliar but magnificent part of nature, the world of whales, shows us something utterly new and beautiful. This revelation of the glory and originality of nature is the message of the long middle section of the book. It gives readers a new experience, one they have never had before. Interwoven with this in Moby-Dick is a second theme, a look at meditation, the process of the mind engaged in almost mystical contemplation of the Sea, Life, Time, Religious thought. Almost as interesting is the look at the Unconscious that dominates the first (and best) third of Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). The inner world of "hidden drives" comes alive in Pierre, in a way it almost never does in other fiction. One of the best parts of Henry James' study of Hawthorne is his description of Hawthorne's subject matter as the interior of the mind. It is this that the symbolic romance is so good at doing.

Oddly enough, today's readers are in a much better position to understand and appreciate Moby-Dick than were the scholars who led the Melville revival in the 1920's through 1940's. People today have seen whales up close many times on television, and know and are familiar with them, to a degree.


Rebecca Harding Davis

Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron Mills" (1861) stands at the confluence of several traditions. It is often cited as the start of naturalism in literature, before Zola and other French writers. But the statue in the story seems like a symbol worthy of the symbolic romances of Hawthorne and Melville. So does the interest in human creativity and the interior of the mind, one of the main subjects in "Life". This is much closer to Melville than to later naturalistic writers. "Life in the Iron Mills" has elements of crime, but it is not a mystery tale. It is therefore fairly marginal to the concerns of this "History of mystery" document, but too interesting a story to ignore. Davis was the mother of adventure writer Richard Harding Davis.

Riddle Stories

Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Aldrich's most famous work is the short story "Marjorie Daw". Not a detective story in any strict sense, (it has a peaceful middle class setting without either crime or detectives), this ingeniously plotted work stands in some relationship to the classical mystery. It is a most remarkable piece of fiction, combining good construction with emotional depth, and at one time was a story that "everybody" had read. Carolyn Wells classified this sort of fiction as a "riddle" story. Riddle Fiction seems to be a largely Nineteenth Century form, written mainly by mainstream authors such as Kipling, Twain, Stockton and Aldrich, that is less practiced today. I think Anatole France's ingenious "Putois" might also fit into this category. Wells' classification of tales as "riddle stories" differs from Ellery Queen's. She uses the term to describe ingenious tales whose complex plots employ startling surprises, and creative twists. This is a somewhat vague definition, but it seems to encompass a genuine tradition among pre-W.W.I authors. This tradition seems to have started in the United States, as an outgrowth of the American Renaissance writers, and then spread to Europe. By contrast Ellery Queen uses the term "riddle story" to describe pieces that culminate in unanswered and unanswerable questions asked the reader, e.g., Stockton's "Was it the lady, or the tiger?". Queen's definition is far more precise, but also describes a far more limited brand of fiction.

Edward Everett Hale

Hale's "The Man Without a Country" shows plenty of ingenuity; it certainly falls within the traditions of the riddle story. This tale's combination of ingenious plot and patriotism made it famous in the 19th Century. Although the tale is not science fictional it has some odd relationships with Hale's fantasy, "Hands Off!". Anthony Boucher thought "Hands Off!" was the first "Worlds of If" tale, in which alternate universes are invented on the basis of what would have happened had events in history been different. "Man" deals not with a universe, but with one man who is punished by being kept isolated on a ship, and essentially made to believe that he is experiencing differing historical realities. It is a sort of one man version of a parallel world of if. This sort of plot shows up in modern times; the film 36 Hours (1963) worked a well done version of this.

Frank R. Stockton

In addition to Stockton's riddle story, "The Lady or the Tiger?", I have included a science fiction story by Stockton, "A Tale of Negative Gravity". This story unfolds with comedy and logic exactly what might happen if a small antigravity device were invented. It is quite surprising to read sf this good from the 19th Century.

Stockton wrote fiction in a huge variety of genres, most of it not riddle stories by any definition, let alone mystery fiction. His love tales include "Our Archery Club" and "Our Story". These are pleasant romances, genteel in the extreme, and filled with comedy and small, gentle observations on human nature. The characters in them are together engaged in some interesting activity - archery in "Club", and an attempt at fiction writing in "Our Story". This activity, pleasant in itself, serves as an excuse for the couple to get together and get to know one another. Stockton did not need the obstacles in the face of romance favored by other writers in this genre. There are no third party rivals, no hopeless barriers. Instead, just the sheer difficulty of speaking up and reaching out to another person forms the bulk of the story. They are unusually warm tales, and most readers can identify with the gentle, proper characters in them. The same pattern of nice people engaged in some wholesome, unusual activity forms the basis of "Negative Gravity". Only here it is the activity itself which takes center stage, not a love story between the characters.

Stockton's "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" is a "new fairy tale", an attempt by a contemporary author to write a fairy tale that would match the folk tales collected by Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. Hans Christian Andersen wrote numerous classics of this type, but many other authors have also made the attempt, notably Oscar Wilde in "The Selfish Giant". "The Griffin" is notable for the unusual relation that develops between the central characters. This relationship and its symbolic and emotional complexity recalls not so much fairy tales, but the fantastic stories to come of E.M. Forster, such as "The Story of the Siren" (my favorite) or "The Story of a Panic". Stockton's linking of love and carnivory in "The Lady or the Tiger" returns in "Griffin". It seems to refer to a fear that the beloved one will eat one alive. However, it is not this simple message, but the wit and vivid imagery with which it is delivered, that makes Stockton's work interesting.

By the way, Stockton's disappointing sequel to "Tiger", "The Discourager of Hesitancy", is second rate. So is the long novella, "The Stories of the Three Burglars", which is a crime story, but not a mystery. It is a partly humorous, partly realistic story about a family that traps three burglars. The best part of this pretty weak tale are some humorous jabs at the "realistic" school of writing which was gaining ascendancy in the American literature of Stockton's day.