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
Somewhere in France (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11144)
Dove Dulcet stories
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.
"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.
By the way, the title has quotes in it; this is apparently how news dispatches from the front were tagged.
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.
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.
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:
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.