Richard Harding Davis | Charles Felton Pidgin and J. M. Taylor | Harvey J. O'Higgins | Christopher Morley | Bliss Austin

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Recommended Works:

Richard Harding Davis

Gallegher, and Other Stories (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5956) In the Fog (1901) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/7884)

Somewhere in France (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11144)

Charles Felton Pidgin and J. M. Taylor

The Chronicles of Quincy Adams Sawyer, Detective (collected 1912) (available on-line at http://archive.org/details/chroniclesofquin00pidgiala)

Harvey J. O'Higgins

The Adventures of Detective Barney (collected 1915) (available on-line at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/brnymenu.htm)

Christopher Morley

The Haunted Bookshop (1919) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/172)

Dove Dulcet stories

Bliss Austin

"The Final Problem" (1946)

Precursors to Pulp Fiction

The authors included here in no sense form a school, but they do have many features in common. All were mainstream writers in pre-1920 America. All wrote some tales that are best described as "adventure" stories, with elements of crime, thrills, and sometimes mystery. Pidgin and Taylor are closest to the pure, traditional mystery; the others are further off. All had certain elements of literary prestige; none were considered ordinary entertainers. Their works stand at the intersection of popular literature, literary prestige, and early private investigator fiction in the Nick Carter tradition. Their works show elements that would later coalesce into the pulp detective tradition founded by Black Mask magazine. Other authors whose works anticipated later pulp fiction were E. Phillips Oppenheim and Frank L. Packard; they are discussed not here, but in the article on Rogue fiction.

These writers are not closely associated with each other. Instead they are popular writers of their day who drew on adventure fiction traditions to create their works. There are probably many other writers of this kind, lurking in the literary archives. They are grouped together here because they form a window into the adventure fiction of an earlier day.


Richard Harding Davis

Richard Harding Davis was a famous war correspondent and author of adventure fiction. The son of the distinguished writer Rebecca Harding Davis ("Life In The Iron Mills"), Davis was one of the most famous and idolized men of his time. Most of Davis' fiction is not mysterious, but deals with spies, intrigue in foreign countries, mining engineers on big projects, and other manly men in distant places. One might note that while Richard Harding Davis only wrote a few pieces that are on the borderline of the mystery story proper, yet he is still remembered and widely reprinted when other turn of the century authors languish in obscurity. Davis is included here for two reasons: a few of his stories do have mystery elements in them; and his writing was clearly a precursor to the pulp fiction that appeared in Black Mask and other magazines.

The Frame-Up

"The Frame-Up" (1915) has a number of elements that look forward to Black Mask, and the hard-boiled stories of the pulp era: Still, while reading "The Frame-Up", it is hard for any pulp fan not to believe that one is reading a Black Mask story. The existence of "The Frame-Up", and other early mystery-adventure gambits in Morley's The Haunted Bookshop (1919), suggests that there was perhaps a whole series of such early adventure tales in the era, both in print and in the movies, whose milieu and approach anticipated the pulps.

In the Fog

"In the Fog" (1901) is the only piece I know of by Davis that contains a mystery and its solution - actually, multiple proposed solutions, none of which is ever considered by the text as absolutely definitive. There are no "subsidiary mysteries" in Davis' tale, (such as puzzling events or mysterious clues), just the riddle of whodunit, and Davis' tale can be seen as a very late example of the Early Whodunit tradition that stretched from Godwin to Dickens and Mrs. Henry Wood in the period 1794 - 1870. There is even much talk about circumstantial evidence in the story, which is a central aspect of the old Early Whodunit tales. Davis seems to completely ignore the more complex mystery approach of his contemporaries, with such writers as Doyle, Shiel, Meade and Eustace, etc., offering brilliant puzzle plot stories. There is not much use of detectives or detective work either in Davis' tales, ignoring the approach of his other most popular contemporaries, Gaboriau and Anna Katherine Green. Davis seems much more marginal to the history of the puzzle plot mystery than his big reputation would indicate. He is mainly a writer of thrillers and adventure fiction, albeit intricately plotted adventure fiction.

"In the Fog", for all its reputation, is not as good as one would like. The best part of "In the Fog" is the description of the fog itself, in the first section of the story. This shows Davis' view of London as a city where adventure is lurking in every foggy street, a view that is strongly indebted to Stevenson. Robert Louis Stevenson was Davis' favorite author while growing up, and "In the Fog" is a conscious attempt to write a story in the tradition of Stevenson's The New Arabian Nights.

"Somewhere in France"

"Somewhere in France", a W.W.I spy tale, shows Davis' skill at complex plotting. This short story is still one of the more enjoyable spy yarns of its era, and it seems vastly less dated as entertainment than E. Phillips Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation (1920), for example. Its intrigue seems very unlike war-like, and is rather close to the mystery-suspense story.

By the way, the title has quotes in it; this is apparently how news dispatches from the front were tagged.

Mystery Technique

Davis' mystery technique shows a common pattern in the three tales, as well. Davis is very interested in lying stories. In all of these tales, people enmesh other people in a web of deception. There is almost an absurdist element to the tales - eventually everything in them is seen to be simply illusion. It reminds one of Chesterton's early tale, "The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown" (1903). Chesterton, like Davis, was deeply influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson, and perhaps there is some common literary antecedent for this approach in Stevenson with which I am not familiar. In Davis, both the sympathetic and villainous characters lie. It is simply a way of life, and viewed as the "normal" way to deal with dangerous, thriller-like situations.

Scarlet Women

Davis' two real crime stories, "In the Fog" (1901), and "The Frame-Up" (1915), have much in common. Both deal with the horrifying consequences, in Davis' view, of having a love affair with a scarlet woman. There is family rejection and disinheritance, public career ruining scandal, and finally, in both stories, death by suicide pact. Yikes! Davis lived at a time when Vamps were the rage - a little later, Theda Bara would become a star in movies like A Fool There Was (1915) - but Davis' take on cheap flirtation by single men goes far beyond this into personal obsession. Even talking to a loose woman on a train, as the foolish hero does in the mid section of "In the Fog", can lead to career ruining disaster.

Male Bonding

In contrast, Davis glamorizes the act of male bonding. The DA's young detective assistant in "The Frame-Up", the Army officers in "Somewhere in France", and the police chief in the mid section of "In the Fog", are all a glamorized alternative harbor for his beleaguered heroes. Establishing ties with these people offers the hero support in a cold, cruel and difficult world.

Gallegher

Davis wrote a number of other stories whose thriller-like properties put them on the border of the mystery world. One of the best is "Gallegher", a story about a young boy working on a newspaper who achieves a remarkable feat for the paper one night. "Gallegher" was the story that made Davis' literary reputation, and at one time it was a famous story that "everyone" had read.

There was even a series of Gallegher TV films (1965-1968), now forgotten, shown on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color - a rare example of contemporary filmmakers remembering our American detective heritage.

Davis Films

I have also seen a rare silent film adaptation of a Davis story, The Scarlet Car (1916), directed by the otherwise obscure Joseph DeGrasse (I wonder if he was the brother of the much better known cinematographer, Robert DeGrasse.) The Scarlet Car is stiffly directed, but still fascinating. I have seen only a few movies from the teens, and hardly any mystery thrillers, so this is an interesting take on a neglected genre. The many silent mystery films mentioned in mystery reference books are never shown today or made available, despite being adapted from some of the best known writers in mystery history.

Charles Felton Pidgin and J. M. Taylor

Charles Felton Pidgin was an inventor as well as a writer; most of his other books are mainstream fiction. Charles and Ray Eames' wonderful history of scientific computing, A Computer Perspective (1973), has a picture of Pidgin. He was one of the rivals of Herman Hollerith in the development of statistical tabulating machines.

The Chronicles of Quincy Adams Sawyer, Detective

The Chronicles of Quincy Adams Sawyer, Detective (collected 1912) are charming early American detective stories. They place an emphasis on deductions from evidence at crime scenes. In this they vaguely recall R. Austin Freeman, although they are much simpler than Freeman's tales. The stories are mildly but pleasantly plotted. The authors like double crimes: two crimes whose details surrealistically echo each other. They also like to bring out surprising new perspectives on subsidiary characters half way through the stories; these new developments are often more ingenious that the finales of the tales.

Like many American writers of their era, Pidgin and Taylor recognize crooked city government and Tamany Hall style politics as part of their world. There are also crooked businessmen with illegal financial schemes. Such villains are prominent in the American Scientific school of the era, as well as Mary Roberts Rinehart and Jacques Futrelle. Pidgin and Taylor duly include a nice story involving theft from a bank, "The Affair of the Trimountain Bank"; such a tale is de rigeur for all early 1900's American authors with any ties to the scientific detective story!

"The Affair of William Baird, P. B." is an impossible crime tale. Like many of the tales, this one's solution is easily guessed. Still, it is a good idea. The story is also close to the Rogue tales then popular, dealing with Sawyer's attempt to catch a clever thief.

The first and most interesting of the tales, "The Affair of the Double Thumb Print", is an antecedent of the hard-boiled pulp detective tales to come. Sawyer is a Boston area private eye. This case pits him against professional, low life crooks, robbers who hang out in cheap saloons. It also requires plenty of two-fisted action on his part against said crooks, in a variety of cheap dives. All of this is strongly reminiscent of future pulp stories, such as Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914-1915) and the Black Mask tales of the 1920's.

Other features of the stories hearken back to the Sherlock Holmes tales. The story titles all begin with "The Affair of". Sawyer is a master of disguise, and like Holmes, he frequently disguises himself as a tough. Sawyer has friends from all classes of society - like Holmes, he is a democratically oriented, middle class man outside of the framework of the class structure. The weakest of the stories, "The Affair of the Golden Belt", pits Sawyer against a sinister cult group with an elaborate history, reminiscent of the many such groups in Doyle's fiction.

Sawyer had two years of college, and studied science, chemistry, psychology and sociology preparatory to his career as a private eye - like Holmes, he has a scientific background. Sawyer is an all-knowing detective in the Holmes tradition, who mystifies everyone around him till the final solution. This is typical of many Golden Age detectives too, but not of the typical later private eye. All in all, Sawyer is a hybrid of the Holmes era detective, and the private investigator to come.

Sawyer has many close friends on the Boston police, including young Inspector Gates, the other main continuing character in the series. Both Sawyer and Gates are the sort of frank young manly men whom people in 1912 regarded as an ideal hero. Neither has the ostentatious seediness or hard-boiledness of later pulp heroes. On the other hand, both are muscular and skilled fighters. Neither Sawyer nor Gates seem alienated: both enjoy the society around them, unlike many later hard-boiled crime fighters. The two men express their fondness for each other repeatedly in the stories. They also enjoy working with each other as a team. There are quite a few other examples of faithful male pals in the stories, notably in "The Affair of the Plymouth Recluse". Sawyer and Gates seem to live in a world with a gift for male friendship.

The authors also like tough older women. These strong women actually get involved in the physical action in some of the stories, notably "The Affair of the Double Thumb Print" and "The Affair of Unreachable Island"; such involvement is very unusual in any pre-1970 detective story. Partly this reflects an egalitarian Yankee tradition celebrating strong, independent women: see Jewett's mainstream classic The Country of the Pointed Firs.


Harvey J. O'Higgins

The Adventures of Detective Barney

The Adventures of Detective Barney is a collection of short stories about young Barney Cook, a sixteen-year-old who gets hired by a New York City detective agency. The tales show him learning the skills of the detective trade, and having exciting adventures on cases.

Detective Work. The Adventures of Detective Barney show many kinds of detective work, and how they are performed by a professional detective agency. Shadowing, spying, intercepting of messages and other techniques are detailed. All of this is done by tough professional sleuths, often against hardened professional criminals. This can be seen as anticipating the hard-boiled private eyes that emerged in the 1920's, such as Dashiell Hammett's sleuth the Continental Op.

The Babbing Detective Bureau that hires Barney is a large-scale professional detective business. It is not too different from the Continental Detective Agency that employs the Continental Op in Dashiell Hammett.

Are these Mysteries?. It is unclear whether all the tales in The Adventures of Detective Barney are full-fledged mysteries, in the strictest sense of the term. The tales are certainly full of crime and detection. But the stories often do not center on solving a mysterious situation.

Stories like "The Blackmailers" and "Barney Has a Hunch" show Barney investigating someone. Barney doesn't know all about this man at the start, and learns more about him as the investigation progresses. In this sense Barney is investigating a mysterious situation, and learning answers. This makes these tales mystery stories, in the loosest sense of the term.

But these tales are not "puzzle plot" mysteries. In other words, the tales are NOT works in which a "mysterious situation leads to a logical but surprising solution".

Tales like "The Case of Padages Palmer" are even more "pure detection without mystery". They show Barney or other detectives pursuing a crook, without much mystery at all.

Poor Working Teenagers. The Adventures of Detective Barney attempt economic realism. They depict a world of harsh capitalism. Long before the stories open, or Barney gets his detective job, Barney is a full time worker (as a telegraph messenger boy). Barney is from a poor working class family. Like millions of other teenagers, he is part of a world of full time, poorly paid work.

Barney's job as a detective is exactly that: a job. It pays better than his telegraph work, and is much more exciting. But it is a job all the same. Barney has to apply for it, struggle through a probationary testing, and work hard to keep it: a process shown in the first tale "The Blackmailers". In all stages, he is under orders from adult bosses, depicted with the full severity of 19th Century capitalism. His working environment is not that much different from that established by Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843).

In "Barney Has a Hunch" (1914), a boy selling newspapers is called a "newsie". This reminds one of the film Newsies (Kenny Ortega, 1992), and its depiction of the brutally opposed Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City. The Adventures of Detective Barney is immersed in a similar world of harsh capitalism. The silent film classic The Soul of Youth (William Desmond Taylor, 1920) gives a vivid contemporary account of working class teenage boys and their demanding lives.

Capitalism is depicted as hierarchical, with men giving orders and lower-downs carrying them out. In "The Case of Padages Palmer", the detective agency is compared to the Army, with operatives obeying orders without understanding them or the context behind them.

Exploitation. The Adventures of Detective Barney often show human beings exploiting or manipulating other human beings. The detective agency does this all the time, with suspects they are trailing or investigating. Barney is a full, enthusiastic participant in such manipulation. Such scenes have a disturbing edge. They can reach full scale unpleasantness, as in the nasty finale of "The Blackmailers", and what happens to its chief suspect. Other tales show middle class people exploiting sexuality and marriage for money, as in "Barney Has a Hunch". The characters in the tales are enthusiastic about such behavior, and no one in the stories seems to criticize such approaches, or suggest alternative ways to live. On the other hand, it is perhaps going too far to suggest that the author himself approves of such conduct.

This exploitive behavior makes The Adventures of Detective Barney much less fun to read than one might expect. To those who have not read it, The Adventures of Detective Barney might sound like a light-hearted wish fulfillment fantasy, a saga of a teenager who gets his dream job as a detective and has adventures. This is certainly an aspect of the actual tales. But the stories also show a young man's initiation into a world in which most human interactions are exploitative and dominated by greed, lying and manipulation. This can be depressing, nasty stuff.

By contrast, "The Case of Padages Palmer" is more light-hearted. It shows a pursuit of a crook without much violence or sinister events. Still, the crook is manipulated by the good guys.

A Teenager's World View. Among the more interesting passages are those which show young Barney's ideas on various subjects:

The Dummy: a play about Detective Barney

Harvey J. O'Higgins and Harriet Ford wrote a play about young Detective Barney Cook. The Dummy (1914) starred Ernest Truex on Broadway. It was filmed with Jack Pickford in the lead, as The Dummy (Francis J. Grandin, 1917), and again as an early sound film in 1929.

Christopher Morley

Christopher Morley's 1919 novel The Haunted Bookshop is an early example of a genre of story found constantly in later books and films: ordinary people who become amateur investigators of strange events that just happen to surround them. There were amateur investigators galore in novels by Green, Arnold Bennett, and Rinehart, and Christie was soon to create Tommy and Tuppence (1922), not to mention The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). Still, Morley's book anticipates future examples of the genre with uncanny accuracy. His settings are far more bourgeois, cheery, and commonplace, and his characters are far more like completely ordinary American types, not being rich members of Society. Such "everyday" characters will be more typical of future amateur detectives.

Morley's novel contains that archetypal scene of the pulps to come, the attempt to penetrate a house full of crooks. First sleuthing alerts the protagonists that something is going on in a mysterious house. Then there is sneaking up to the windows, and spying. Finally, someone goes into the house... In what is usually cited as the first hard-boiled private eye story, Carroll John Daly's "Three Gun Terry" (1923), there is a raid on a house full of crooks. It is more violent than Morley's story, but its is the same kind of tale.

Morley cites not other writers as sources for his characters and plot, but rather the movies. His hero is always being compared with the protagonists of films, and so are the plot developments. In 1918, when his story was set, feature films were only 6 years old, having emerged in 1912. Today, these early feature films are even more obscure than the mystery novels of the era, being either tragically lost, or buried in archives. It is very hard to compare the period's films with Morley's book. Also, while the novel cites many books and authors by name, film is generally just cited collectively as "the movies". ("This situation is just like the movies", his characters are always saying.) So if Morley had specific mystery films in mind, it is going to be hard to trace them now, because there are few explicit references. He does like and mention Dorothy Gish, and Charlie Chaplin, however.

Still, whether Morley pioneered this genre, or simply adapted it from other writers and filmmakers, the novel crystallizes the genre at an early date, and gives a reference point for comparisons with later books and films in a similar style.

Morley's literary style is impressive. His abilities to describe thought processes is especially wonderful. These passages should be quoted in books on cognitive psychology. And in literary textbooks. The descriptions of personal encounters, nature and Brooklyn are also good.

Morley's sincere pacifism, and his desire that the realities of W.W.I not be glossed over in literature, are also impressive. His judgments of art are less entirely reliable. I didn't like the badmouthing of Fatty Arbuckle's films. Nor does the unfortunately racist Conrad seem so entirely admirable today as he perhaps did in 1919, when Morley treated him as one of his heroes.

Morley clearly loved domesticity. Here there are scenes of eating meals and doing the dishes. Morley once set a whole one act play, Thursday Evening (1922), in a kitchen. The set of the play is supposed to be a realistic kitchen, complete with sink, etc.


Bliss Austin

"The Final Problem" (1946) is included here, not because it is a pre-pulp story, but because one of its central characters is Christopher Morley. Austin was a Baker Street Irregular, and this tale uses Sherlock Holmes material to spoof Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's first Detective Short-Story Contest. The judges in that real life 1946 contest were Morley, Howard Haycraft, and Ellery Queen, and Austin uses them as the detective protagonists of his story. The tale is a delightful little detective story, with a good deal of tongue in cheek humor, and a nice spoof of both Holmes and the Ellery Queen short stories.