The Rogue School | Adventure Offshoots of Rogue Fiction | Secret Identities | Frank L. Packard | Sinclair Lewis | Virgil Markham | Jack Boyle | Roi Cooper Megrue | E. Phillips Oppenheim | William Le Queux | Frederick Harcourt Kitchin | Charles Edward Montague | Grant Allen | Gelett Burgess | Robert Barr | Dick Donovan | J.S. Fletcher | J. Storer Clouston | Dietrich Theden | Arnold Bennett | Ernest Bramah | Johnston McCulley | Octavus Roy Cohen | Ralph Durand | Harold MacGrath | Joseph Szebenyei | James Howard Wellard | Undercover Operatives
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Chronicles Of Elvira House
Running Special (collected 1925)
The Adventures of Mr. Joseph P. Cray (collected 1925)
The Loot of Cities (written 1903; published 1905) (available on-line at http://archive.org/details/cu31924013586858)
An African Millionaire (1896-1897) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4715)
Miss Cayley's Adventures (1898) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/30970)
The Heaven-Sent Witness (collected 1930)
Jim Hanvey, Detective
What the collected in a date means: (collected 1930) means a book of short stories was collected in 1930; while (1922) means the stories were first published in magazines in 1922. The original magazine date is preferable; but if it is not known, we have to settle for the date of collection in a book.
Many of these rogue stories are not really mysteries. That is, there are no mysterious events to be solved. Basically, they are adventure stories, often with elements of suspense and comedy. There are often surprise twists in the plots of all these writers, and a great deal of emphasis on the protagonists ingeniously outwitting their opponents through clever plot schemes. Although there are often plot surprises, there is not typically much emphasis on puzzle plots in any of these authors.
The Rogue school was still going strong into the 1930's. I am not an expert on this brand of fiction, strictly speaking; I know more about mystery stories proper than the real Rogue tales. What I do like are some of the genuine mystery stories that have roots in the Rogue tradition; this article will examine some of these writers in more detail below. Rogue fiction also influenced the adventure fiction of the 20th Century.
Another thing notable about the Rogue writers, and the detective authors they influenced, is how many of them were immigrants to the society in which they worked. Robert Barr, Grant Allen and Frank L. Packard were all Canadian. The contemporary Canadian mystery author Howard Engel notes that these writers all left Canada for other countries, England in Barr and Allen's case, the United States in Packard's, in order to publish their work. Similarly, Guy N. Boothby was from Australia, and published in England. Hornung grew up in Britain, but emigrated to Australia before returning to England. Leslie Charteris was from Singapore, and worked in the US and Britain; English was not his first language. Baroness Orczy was Hungarian, and did not learn English till she was 15. Michael Arlen was an Armenian immigrant to Britain. Herman Landon, author of the Grey Phantom tales, came to the US from Sweden. Percival Pollard, author of Lingo Dan (1903), came to the US from Pomerania as a teenager. Film director Maurice Tourneur came to the USA from France. Other Rogue writers performed different kinds of "immigration". Arthur Morrison came from a background of extreme poverty in England, but educated himself to be a respected writer. He kept his boyhood poverty a dark secret; in a class conscious society like Britain he would have been discriminated against had it been known. This involved a complete change of his appearance, speech habits and social customs, just as if he had immigrated from another country.
One might note that this immigration is by no means universal among Rogue writers. Pemberton, Donovan, Leblanc, Fletcher, Freeman seem to be non-immigrant Englishmen and Frenchmen, in Leblanc's case. The spy writers who adopted Rogue traditions, such as Le Queux, Oppenheim and Kitchin, are all non-immigrants. But still, around half of all writers in this tradition seem to be immigrants. This is a statistically significant percentage. Another common factor in the biography of the non-immigrant writers is how many of them worked in foreign countries. Donovan, Le Queux served as foreign correspondents; Freeman was a doctor in Ghana; O. Henry lived in Latin America; Oppenheim married his American wife while on a business trip to the USA. This is an experience much like immigration, in that it involves working in a foreign country.
Two themes in Rogue writing could be related to this background of immigration. One, the way Rogue protagonists often impersonate upper crust members of society to achieve their schemes. Many immigrants spend a long time learning to adopt the manners and customs of a society. While people born into a society might accept its mores unconsciously, immigrants often adopt its clothes, customs and mores as part of a conscious, learned effort. They might see a societies' clothes as a costume that is put on to make one look like part of a group.
Secondly, is the emphasis in these writers on heroes who are perfect social aristocrats. Baroness Orczy's Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is the perfect English gentlemen, the ultimate embodiment of the mores of English society. Similarly, Frank L. Packard's Jimmie Dale is the ultimate millionaire member of New York society - his saga opens at the St. James Club, the most exclusive in New York, and constantly emphasizes his perfect belonging to New York's top rungs. Both of these men truly belong to the society they inhabit. Michael Arlen liked to write about the chic British inhabitants of Mayfair, the section of London occupied by the "smart set" of London Society.
I have to admit that I don't think that either of these writers is very good, nor do I like Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel as much as her detective fiction, but at least all three writers created archetypal situations in popular fiction, and deserve credit for that.
The Adventures of Jimmie Dale seem like a complete blueprint of the way in which secret identities will be used in later fiction. Such stories in the collection as "By Proxy", "The Affair of the Pushcart Man", and "Devil's Work" ring ingenious changes on the secret identity theme that have been used countless times in later pulps, in superhero comic books, and in TV shows derived from them. The ideas in these stories will seem very familiar to today's readers, who are used to them - they are still being used as plots of superhero TV shows in the 1990's - but they must have wowed readers back in 1914. Not only his hero uses secret identities, but later in the book his heroine and villains will use them as well.
Packard's Jimmie Dale maintains a half way house where he can change from one identity to another. Hornung's Raffles maintained a similar apartment. However, Packard's hideout seems to have some new overtones. It is called Sanctuary by Jimmie Dale, and seems to have the feeling of a refuge for him - and a place where he can be "himself". It anticipates in tone such places as Superman's Fortress of Solitude, a secret place known only to the hero. Such lairs were also used by the 1930's pulp heroes who preceded Superman, such as Lester Dent's Doc Savage.
Robert Sampson, in his history of pulp fiction Yesterday's Heroes, thought that The Adventures of Jimmie Dale was the first American book to show the sort of tough adventure in the underworld that would later dominate Black Mask and other hard-boiled pulp fiction. I certainly agree that there is a resemblance.
Some elements of Packard's characterizations anticipate later writers who are non pulp, as well. Jimmie Dale's other secret identity as "Larry the Bat", an underworld character who gets his name from living largely by night, might have inspired the name of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood's super criminal The Bat (1916 - 1920). And the aristocratic Jimmie Dale's drawling and pose of indifference in his dialogue seem like a prototype of the character of S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. Dale is a gifted artist, and lives in a luxuriously furnished house, complete with a rosewood desk.
Although the Dale stories unquestionably come out of the Rogue tradition, their villains seem to derive more from contemporary authors in the American Scientific School, such as Reeve and Rinehart. The villains tend to be crooked businessmen. There are also looks at police corruption. These are themes that dominate the writings of Packard's scientifically oriented contemporaries. In general, like the Scientific School writers, Packard deals with the public realm of theft, industry and civic corruption, not with the family and romantic motives that dominated Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie.
Lewis' fiction is largely written in the "plain" or "vernacular" style that wowed critics in the 1920's and 30's. The originator of the style seems to be Sherwood Anderson; others of Lewis' contemporaries who used it include Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, and Ernest Hemingway. The style seems to be an attempt to write prose that matches the way that ordinary Americans speak. Many critics treated the style as more artistic than the ornate prose that was traditionally so admired. They also felt it had something profound to say about America. I tend to think the plain style is overrated, and am more impressed with more elaborate, more poetic prose styles. It has become an oft repeated idea that Dashiell Hammett's prose is closely related to these writers. This idea seems doubtful to me. Hammett's prose, and those of many of his hard-boiled contemporaries, includes richer and more ornate descriptive passages. It also eschews the often deliberately inane dialogue of Lewis and his mainstream cohorts, in favor of complexly organized, nearly epigrammatic, dialogue.
Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well, Act 1, Scene 3
Virgil Markham's The Devil Drives (1932) is a novel somewhat out of its time. Its prison opening reminds one of the jailbreak in Jack Boyle's "Boston Blackie's Mary" (1917), although it is told from the point of view of the warden, not the inmates, unlike Boyle's tale. And the subsequent underworld scenes recall Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914 - 1915). Both Packard and Markham write about respectable heroes who take on new identities as low life tough guys, and who infiltrate the New York underworld. Both men use disguise, another Packard favorite. The numerous other characters in Markham stories with multiple identities also recall Packard. So does the prominence of safecracking in the tale, and the secrets contained therein: Packard's hero was mainly a safe cracker. The names of Markham's bad guys, such as Raffy the Guk, recall such Packard monikers as Larry the Bat. Both Packard and Markham describe the underworld as a place full of shadowy figures, hiding out away from respectable people. There is also a certain tone of Romance in Packard and Markham, a feeling that entering the underworld is a great adventure.
This gives Markham's story the flavor of a story written nearly twenty years before 1932. Chapter 6 of The Devil Drives refers, by plot but not by name, to G.K. Chesterton's story "The Queer Feet" (1910), another late Edwardian reference. Later on, Markham's detective Inspector Veen talks about Rudyard Kipling's "The Return of Imray" (Chapter 18) and Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "Marjorie Daw" (Chapter 19), even older references.
Although Markham's novel was published by Alfred A Knopf, who were also Dashiell Hammett's publishers, there seems little sign that Markham had ever read Black Mask, or absorbed any of its conventions of hard-boiled writing.
The Devil Drives also completely fails to observe the conventions of the Golden Age novel, with an opening murder, a detective, and a closed circle of suspects. Indeed, for its first half no murder is committed at all; the hero instead tries to track down a secret which seems like a plot device out of a romantic melodrama. The Rogue story seems to have served as an alternative paradigm during the 1920's and 1930's, a different model for writers like Virgil Markham, J.S. Fletcher and Harold MacGrath, who all published mysteries that bore no resemblance to the typical Golden Age detective stories of their day.
The locked room puzzle of The Devil Drives is a new wrinkle on the locked room story. I don't know if it is fair play; surely the police would have figured it out after investigation. Still, it is something that I haven't seen elsewhere, and is a mildly interesting idea. If The Devil Drives were a short story concentrating on its locked room puzzle, it would be an anthology standard. Unfortunately, this plot is embedded in a not very good novel, one that meanders all over the place without much point or interest. The book cannot be recommended as a whole.
Boyle's hero and tales seem influenced by Jimmy Valentine, the safecracker originally created by O. Henry in "A Retrieved Reformation" (1903). Boston Blackie seems especially close to the version in Paul Armstrong's hugely popular stage adaptation, Alias Jimmy Valentine (1910), and in director Maurice Tourneur's fine silent film of the same name (1915). Jimmy Valentine might be a crook, but in the play and film especially, he has a deep respect and affection for women and children. These profound and somewhat rare virtues make him a genuine hero, and lure him away from a life of crime. Boston Blackie has a similar genuine respect for women and children.
Both Jimmy Valentine and Boston Blackie spend time in prison, an important element in both their characterizations. Tourneur's film actually has location footage shot at Sing Sing.
Boyle's hero influenced those of other silent crime films: please see the discussion on Tod Browning's Outside the Law (1921). Boyle's crook hero reminds one not just of the Rogues of crime fiction, but also the outlaws popular in Westerns. For example, the "good Bad Guy" (as William K. Everson called him) of William S. Hart's Western film The Toll Gate (1920) is softened and reformed by his love of an innocent little tike, just like Boston Blackie in "The Baby and the Burglar" (1918). Unfortunately, I know too little about Western fiction or films to offer a detailed history of the Outlaw in the Western. But it is clear that Rogues have to be seen as part of a wider movement of the period to have dishonest protagonists in books and films. Early silent movies were full of rough, dishonest leads. In addition to thieves like Blackie and outlaw Western heroes like those of William S. Hart, the silents had an assortment of spies, vamps, swindlers, gangsters, swordsmen, crooked preachers, rotten military officers and crooked businessmen.
Megrue's brisk, fresh dialogue, alternating between the exciting and the humorous, seems quite modern in tone. In fact, Under Cover seems curiously modern in all of its aspects. It is the sort of entertaining tale of suspense that might have been made into a crime movie or TV show at any time during the last 100 years. Quite a few Rogue influenced writers have a similarly fresh tone. Much of the comic dialogue is full of a naughty disregard for convention.
Under Cover is included in Famous Plays of Crime and Detection (1946), edited by Van H. Cartmell and Bennett Cerf. And there is a link in the Recommended Works section above to a free e-book version.
Another writer who could have been influenced by the Rogue tradition is the American Richard Harding Davis. There is a good deal of swindling in all of his crime stories, not to mention plain, old fashioned lying, and his spy characters in works like "Somewhere in France" (1915) seem especially Rogue like.
All of these British writers went on to write "thrillers", non spy stories, set in the world of crime and criminals, that are not at all fair play, puzzle plot mysteries in the Golden Age tradition. These thrillers were immensely popular in their day, although they are little read today.
These thrillers anticipated and probably influenced many later branches of crime fiction and film. E. Phillips Oppenheim's work, like that of Richard Harding Davis, probably influenced the hard-boiled pulp stories of the 1920's and 1930's, with their tough two fisted heroes, their mobsters, and their settings in night clubs and restaurants. Although Pulp Fiction is often (mistakenly) described as a Uniquely American phenomenon, it is hard not to see resemblances here.
Le Queux' fiction perhaps influenced movie serials, with their cliff hanging traps and master villains. And Frederick Harcourt Kitchin's books are about heroes who do undercover assignments, taking on new identities and infiltrating bad guys. Such undercover agents were popular in the semi-documentary films of the 1940's, and the TV shows of the 1980's.
In Oppenheim's fiction, the hero often has to gather his strength. He is in a position of weakness at the start of the work, when he is suddenly surprised by some enemy. He marshals his resources, does research on the issues involved, gets himself in physical shape, and gathers allies. All prepatory towards a big fight at the end of the tale. He does this silently, careful not to tip his hand towards his adversary. This is fairly realistic. It is in contrast to today's macho action heroes, who always swagger in, guns blazing, at the beginning of the tale. They never admit the slightest sign of weakness. Oppenheim's stories also require moral strength from the hero. In The Great Impersonation (1920), this involves a long process of moral and physical rejuvenation, with the hero drying out and getting himself fit. In "The Reckoning with Otto Schreed" the hero has to gather evidence.
Both J.S. Fletcher and J. Storer Clouston wrote about Rogues who dressed in the formal city clothes of the successful London businessman. Such costumes were important in Oppenheim, as well: in "The Reckoning with Otto Schreed" the hero is dressed this way at the start of the tale. In Fletcher, it is the crooks who wear such clothes, not the hero. In Oppenheim, the clothes have similar function, however. They are power clothes: wearing them is a sign that his hero now has considerable wealth and power in the world. There is a flashback to the past, when the hero was dressed as an army officer in his W.W.I khakis. Then, he could not do anything about war time profiteers like Shreed. Now, his business clothes mark him as a power figure, with the wherewithal to successfully tackle this, or any other weighty problem. Oppenheim emphasizes how well tailored the hero's clothes are. Everyone notices how well he looks in them, compared to his khakis, and much thinner, too. Such fine tailoring was an upper class status symbol. Here they mark the protagonist as a hero. He has undergone a transformation: while in the Army, he was an Everyman, a representative of all the men who served in the war. Now his hard work has elevated him to a position of power in society, and he can undertake a reckoning with their former oppressors.
Just as in the rogue tales, the clothes are something the hero puts on, and which mark him as a person with entree into the upper classes. Oppenheim's story is more emotionally satisfying than the rogue stories, however. The rogues are fakes. However much delight they and the reader have in their impersonations, they are just using an image. Cray is for real. His hard work has given him these powers in real life, and he can use then to achieve some long overdue social transformations. It's like watching Clark Kent turn into Superman.
Oppenheim also refers to his hero in ways that underline his business success. In The Adventures of Mr. Joseph P. Cray, both the "Mr." and the middle initial are forms of a name that might appear on a business card or an office. Neither is typical of the "Adventures of ..." pattern common in detective fiction since The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891 - 1892).
As Robert Sampson pointed out, the hard-boiled underworld began to appear in US pulp magazines with the publication of Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914 - 1915). There are also hard-boiled locales and themes in Richard Harding Davis' "The Set-Up" (1915). This is just a few years after Oppenheim's book. Oppenheim was an immensely popular writer. Both Oppenheim and Packard are straight out of the Rogue tradition. We can see a similar mix of underworld and society settings in Packard as in Oppenheim. Packard's "Devil's Work" opens in a glittering Broadway theater, and follows its opulent society crowds out onto the street. It then moves to an underworld dive. This is exactly the progression in Oppenheim's The Lost Ambassador (1910).
One can see some difference's between Oppenheim's hero, and that of Black Mask. Oppenheim's protagonist is an upper crust British gentleman, not a private eye. In fact his brother is an earl. Such a background was a sine qua non for the British in 1910. However, one should not be misled by this. Oppenheim's hero is a tough man, out looking for adventure, and not afraid of action or bad guys. He is infinitely closer in personality to Philip Marlowe than Lord Peter Wimsey. Packard's Jimmie Dale resemble's Oppenheim's hero, in that he is a socially prominent millionaire, who is also good at tough action in the underworld.
Oppenheim's underworld figures are faultlessly dressed in the elegant clothes of the upper class Frenchman. In fact, at one point the hero notes that the only difference is that these crime leaders' clothes are too perfect. In some ways, this is not too different from American mobsters and their sharp suits and evening clothes. But Oppenheim's book also reflects Rogue tradition. His underworld capos are impersonating members of the upper classes by wearing their clothes. American mobsters are simply flaunting their power by wearing $300 suits, while Oppenheim's Parisian underworld types are actually trying to pass as French upper class males. Oppenheim and his readers clearly found this exiting. Members of the Parisian mob do not just wear well cut evening clothes and morning clothes. Some also have military beards and demeanors, as if they were high ranking military officers. The illusions are very detailed.
Oppenheim's Parisian mobsters are very different from the Mafia. The mob is first called by name in stories of 1909: Baroness Orczy's "The Irish Tweed Coat" (1909) in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (collected 1910); Joseph Conrad's "Il Conte" (1909), and Arthur B. Reeve's "The Black Hand" (1911) in The Silent Bullet. These tales always emphasize the Secret Society nature of the Mafia, and its ability to reach out and punish victims. These tales have little to do with the Rogue tradition. Their Mafia characters are not elegantly attired figures in white tie and tails, like Oppenheim's; they are shadowy figures in the background who can reach out and strike around the world.
This sort of ambiguity is distinctly different from that found in the "pulp style of plotting", in which there are so many characters operating at cross purposes, that the reader is never sure who has committed the latest criminal act. The confusion is resolved at the end of the tale, often with considerable ingenuity. This style of plotting is first found in Carroll John Daly in the early 1920's, then in Erle Stanley Gardner in the later 1920's, and finally in a whole slew of Black Mask writers of the 1930's (see the article on Baynard Kendrick for a list). It is largely absent from the work of Dashiell Hammett. We could contrast the two styles of ambiguity in pulp fiction. In Oppenheim and his successors, we are unsure about the characters and their motivations, but we know who is committing each act in the story. In the Daly "pulp style of plotting", we largely know about the character of the people in the tale, but the stream of actions in the story are difficult to ascribe the individual characters. However, the Daly tradition also enables ambiguity about characters in the story: for example, is the mysterious woman in the tale a heroine, or a femme fatale in league with the villain?
There are far more stories using the "pulp style of plotting" than there are employing the Oppenheim approach. However, the Oppenheim tradition is strategically placed, due to its use at the start of some key series in detective fiction. The fact that there are at least two major traditions of ambiguity in pulp fiction is itself interesting.
Le Queux's fiction has some features in common with the Rogue writers. His hero is, to a degree, impersonating a member of the upper classes. Although he is a spy for Britain's Nameless Bureau, his cover is that of a diplomat in Britain's service. In this role, he has access to every sort of upper class function and event. The hero is probably a genuine member of the upper classes, even if he is a fake diplomat, but one suspects his diplomatic role gives him an entree far beyond that of a typical British Gentleman. In any case, he enjoys the conspicuous wallow in the trappings of the elite that Rogues love. He lives in clubs, he attends diplomatic soirees, dates glamorous Parisiennes, and has friends among the idle rich.
Le Queux's hero concentrates on stealing documents that do not belong to him, just as Raffles concentrates on stealing jewelry. Like Raffles, he always has some fairly ingenious scheme in place to enable such theft. Like Raffles, he sometimes assumes a lower class identity, as a ruffian, to aid his schemes.
The hero also encounters the sort of danger that Rogues face. Just as Raffles is nearly always falling into the clutches of the police on his burglary raids, so is Le Queux's hero often getting trapped by the enemy's spies. Both Le Queux and the Rogue writers tend to emphasize ties and gags, with both the hero and enemy agents often getting bound and gagged.
The tale includes the now familiar situation in which the hero is lured into a trap, tied up, and left alone in a room where a device will kill him in a few minutes. I am used to seeing this as a form of Camp parody on film and TV. For example, the Batman TV series always used a cliffhanger of this sort to join its two episodes. Similarly, the spoof Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981) has such a device. I don't recall reading stories before where such traps were treated straight, but here it is! Le Queux's story appeared at a time before the major movie serials began. Presumably films got such devices from writers like Le Queux.
One can see some differences between Le Queux and Oppenheim. Oppenheim's heroes and villains tend to be masters of disguise, and are always impersonating others. Le Queux's hero tends to stick to his cover role as a diplomat - a fake role, to be sure, but more stable than Oppenheim's wig and makeup jobs. Le Queux's fiction tends to be set more in the "real world" of public life - embassies, government bureaus and offices, diplomatic functions. Oppenheim's spies tend to move around in less official surroundings, such as music halls, restaurants and resorts. Le Queux shows a great deal of sophistication in his politics. Indeed, his tales are still politically relevant today. Events in the Balkans in Le Queux still resonate in the 1990's.
Also noteworthy in "Reveals the Cotton Glove" are the two sympathetic French Jewish characters. There is so much racism in British popular fiction of the era, that Le Queux's anti-racist treatment stands out.
Le Queux's heroes tend to work for British Government interests. They often pour scorn on the received opinions of the public, politicians and the press, feeling all these groups underestimate danger from Germany. But they have great confidence in their positions, and feel few conflicts of any sort about the role they are performing, or their work. Oppenheim's tend to be more private citizens, and they have to grope more to find the best course of action.
Frederick Harcourt Kitchin wrote two books of adventures about Dawson, a Secret Service agent in the first, an undercover investigator in the second. Each book contains four long stories. These tales attempt to be sophisticated and witty, although they often deal with fairly gritty elements of crime, and are definitely far more extravagant than realistic in tone.
In each story in The Diversions of Dawson (1923), the hero goes undercover with a different identity. The last tale in the collection, "The Butler", has been reprinted in anthologies, and is the only piece by Kitchin that is at all familiar to modern readers. Reading it alone is very misleading, because almost every twist and turn of the plot of "The Butler" echoes and satirizes elements of the first tale in the collection, "Mr. Cholmondoley Jones". Even dialogue from the first story is given ironical twists in the latter. This means that paradoxically, although many people have read "The Butler", few people have ever had the reading experience of the tale that Kitchin intended. This unusual situation is perhaps unique in world literature.
The two middle tales in Dawson are mediocre. In one of them, "The Prime Minister", Kitchin advocates a government in Britain based on Mussolini's brand of Fascism. This is not quite as inflammatory as it sounds - Hitler was a complete unknown in this era, and Mussolini's early government managed to preserve a certain degree of civility, at least compared to the horrors of the Hitler era - but it is still absolutely dreadful, a betrayal of democratic values. It is perhaps because of Kitchin's shocking political ideas that his book has been so little reprinted.
I am not at all sure whether even at his best Kitchin was a really good writer. Even "Jones" and "The Butler" are hardly classics of crime fiction, and I debated long and hard about including them on my list. If they are not great, however, they certainly are different. Kitchin's work corresponds to no school of detective fiction known to me. It seems to have arrived from outer space, completely ignoring A. Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, G. K. Chesterton, and everybody else. The first Dawson book, which I have not read, dealt with spies, and it is possible that Kitchin's work has antecedents in early spy fiction. He is best regarded as a highly personal offshoot of the Rogue School. Kitchin's emphasis on the ability of his detective to disguise himself and to assume new identities seems most related to 19th Century detectives, such as those of Gaboriau and Nick Carter, not to Twentieth Century writers, although disguise is also something Kitchin could have incorporated from the Rogue tradition.
I also do not know what biological relationship, if any, F.H. Kitchin had to Clifford Henry Benn Kitchin, the author of the classic detective novel Death of My Aunt. Given their birth dates, F.H. might conceivably even be the father of C.H.B., but this is wild speculation.
Like Oppenheim, Montague's tale contains a considerable love story, one that involves much uncertainty between the two parties. Neither is ever fully sure of the other's position, due to the war and the espionage and impersonation work which they undertake. Both the man and the woman have the full bodied emotionalism of Oppenheim's lovers, in addition to all the sensitivity and insight mainstream writer Montague can bring to bear on their condition.
Montague shows the interest in plot symmetry occasionally found in older writers. His love of symmetry anticipates such writers in the mystery field as Allan Vaughan Elston.
"Judith" also recalls the two part storytelling of Kitchin's collection The Diversions of Dawson, in which events from the first story occur in new contexts in the last. Similarly, the plot, characters and locations of the first half of Montague's tale occur in mirror image in the second.
The Rogue Colonel Clay in An African Millionaire is a con man or swindler, unlike such later thieves as Raffles and Jimmie Dale. Another difference: Raffles and Jimmie Dale are the point of view characters in their stories, people whose thoughts and feelings we follow, while Colonel Clay is mainly seen from other people's point of view. He is a far more enigmatic person than these later rogues. The people in the foreground in Allen's tale are Clay's victim, wealthy diamond king Sir Charles Vandrift, and his society wife and opportunistic brother-in-law. All of these characters are mainly seen satirically. They are examples of rich, greedy people at their absolute ugliest. It is hard to think of a more repulsive bunch of human beings, mean, materialistic, social climbing, heartless to the poor, charityless, grasping and duplicitous. It is a portrait of 19th Century Robber Barons at their worst. One of Allen's main motivations in these stories is to offer social commentary, mainly about the worthlessness of such plutocrats. Reading about such unlikable people can be unpleasant.
The tales in An African Millionaire are about swindles, but they are mainly not mystery stories, in the traditional sense. Some of the tales do have Clay pulling off clever stunts whose mechanism is difficult for the reader to guess; these are carefully explained at the ends of the tales. In this sense, the stories do have mystery elements. The mystery is more "how did he do it" rather than "whodunit"; in this, the mystery is a little bit like those in impossible crime stories. The reader does wonder how Clay could have pulled off some of his coups; at first glance they do look impossible. These stories include "The Mexican Seer", "The Tyrolean Castle" and "The Arrest of the Colonel".
The tales mainly have a similar structure, in which a disguised Clay sneaks up on the Vandrift establishment and swindles them. Allen builds up an ostinato quality here, which gets funnier and funnier as the tales progress. He uses a theme and variations approach, in which each new story is a variation on the composite pattern that has gone before. The Vandrifts become quite conscious of these patterns, and often analyze them right in the stories. They often try to compare their current experiences to those of the past stories, critically analyzing them for similarities and differences. Such self-aware, critical analysis of a current plot is an approach also very strongly allied with the mystery genre. One of the notable things about mystery fiction is that both the reader and the characters in the story are not mere passive consumers of the unfolding plot. Instead, the reader and the detective are constantly analyzing the plot, trying to look for its hidden underlying patterns, its links of causality, the plausibility of its sections, its repeated motifs and principles. This is exactly what occurs in the African Millionaire tales, as the Vandrifts try to solve the mystery of each new appearance by Clay. This sort of self-reflexive analysis is especially found in "The Arrest of the Colonel", "The Seldon Gold-Mine" and "The Japanned Dispatch-Box".
While it is not a mystery in the traditional sense, "The Arrest of the Colonel" contains an early depiction in fiction of a private detective. He works for a large detective agency, whose customers tend to be rich men who need help coping with business fraud or theft. This is one of the more ingenious stories in the collection. There is also some good detective work in "The Bertillon Method". This portion of the story is quite science based, and reminds us that Grant Allen began his career as a writer of popular science. "The German Professor" is an early tale about the alleged manufacture of artificial diamonds; later such writers as Jacques Futrelle, Arthur B. Reeve and Ellery Queen would write on this subject.
An African Millionaire shares many plot approaches with Allen's earlier detective story, "The Great Ruby Robbery" (1892). Both tales have a dual perspective, involving both servants and the upper class characters in the same household. A Lady's maid is a key character in both. The scenes in "Ruby" describing the first discovery of the crime, and whether one servant will notify others, recur in a transformed way in "The Bertillon Method". And the discussion immediately following, in which masters try to protect their servants, recur in a much expanded form in the final chapter of An African Millionaire. All of this material is highly comic in tone. There is also social criticism here, in seeing that the servants are often more talented than the members of the upper classes.
Their are other similarities in approach. Suspicion is a key element of both tales. Suspecting whether a character is guilty, and building a case against them, is a key formative element of both stories' plot. "The Great Ruby Robbery" offers at an early date the principle of the Least Likely Suspect. This is explicitly formulated by the police detective in the story.
Both works also involve intervention by the criminal into a process at an unexpected stage as a way of building a mystery puzzle plot. The mystery effects in "The Tyrolean Castle" and "The Arrest of the Colonel" both depend on this. It is hard to discuss this in depth without giving away the details of these mysteries.
Gordon Browne's illustrations for An African Millionaire and Miss Cayley's Adventures are delightful. When these two story sequences were reprinted from The Strand Magazine in book form, Browne's illustrations were reprinted along with them. This means that Allen's books are among the few adult mystery stories to be profusely illustrated in their book form. Not all of Browne's illustrations survived the transition from magazine to book: in the Strand, each chapter title has an illustration going along with it, and these were unfortunately not reprinted.
Allen clearly likes the "Old Lady" of the title, too, despite her cantankerousness. The Old Lady's comments on train travel form a detailed, even relentless, portrait of international travel of the time. Every detail of a trip from England to Germany is covered, with extreme artistic economy. They remind one of the similar progress of "The Thames Valley Catastrophe" (1897), Allen's alarming science fiction account of the wiping out of London. The catastrophe in this tale spreads with ferocious regularity from one location to the next. Allen's story has an apocalyptic quality than makes most contemporary disaster films look like mush.
"The Adventure of the Cantankerous Old Lady" is the first of twelve adventures of Lois Cayley. The tales form a story sequence, with each story building on characters and plot developments that have been introduced in previous ones. Most of the stories are not detective tales, in any sense of the word. Some are romances, some social comedies, other adventure tales. I especially liked Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of this book: "The Adventure of the Inquisitive American", "The Adventure of the Amateur Commission Agent", "The Adventure of the Impromptu Mountaineer". These stories are basically light hearted comic, adventure tales, with Lois as their heroine. She gets to perform all the heroic feats usually associated with men. Both their New Woman, feminist theme, and their comic tone anticipate the Tish stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Eventually, this story sequence turns into something of a novel. The last stories in the book all deal with one common mystery case, whose unraveling carries over from story to story. The individual tales become episodes in the working out of this mystery. I cannot think of any other Victorian or Edwardian sequences that work this way - most of them have a self contained mystery in each short. Each story does have its own subject matter - one deals with a courtroom drama, another with a suspenseful chase - and its own tone. The whole thing produces a mosaic effect. This mosaic style of construction anticipates Clifford Hicks' children's mystery novel, Alvin's Secret Code (1963), which is also put together as one novel made up of a series of very disparate short stories, each with its own tone and style.
Because of its unity of plot, readers should probably read all of Miss Cayley's Adventures, and in order, to get the book's full effect. This does not mean all chapters are equally good, far from it, and I name my favorite stories from it on the recommended list above. The India set "The Adventure of the Magnificent Maharajah" contains a memorable attack on racism, one that anticipates E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (1912 - 1924).
His comic tone seems appropriate to the author of "The Purple Cow". At one time this comic poem was apparently known to every man, woman and child in the US. My father used to recite it to me as a child. I always loved it, and still find it funny.
Burgess has an interest in the technical gimmicks used by con men, fake spiritualists, and burglars, such as Astro, the phony seer who serves as his detective in The Master of Mysteries (collected 1912), or Harry Glasher, the burglar protagonist of "Up the Spout" (1929). This interest in criminal technique seems like an odd echo of the technological interests of Reeve, MacHarg and others of the American Scientific School. Burgess' realism about the often crooked behavior of the upper classes, and his use of the public sphere as a setting for his tales, are definitely related to mystery approach used by the American School, as well. The independence and dynamic quality of his female characters is also typical of the American School. These women are definitely not shrinking violets, but rather just as likely as his men to engage in crooked activities.
The stories are very varied as well:
Three of the recommended stories in Valmont are puzzle plot mystery stories: "The Clue of the Silver Spoons" (1904), "Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune", "The Ghost with the Club-Foot". Two other recommended works are best described as tales in which Valmont intervenes to thwart criminal intrigue: "The Siamese Twin of a Bomb-Thrower" and "The Liberation of Wyoming Ed". I didn't like "The Mystery of the Five Hundred Diamonds" (1904), "The Absent-Minded Coterie" (1906) or "Lady Alicia's Emeralds".
"The Siamese Twin of a Bomb-Thrower" comes long after Stevenson's encounter with bomb throwers in More New Arabian Nights (1885), and Doyle's "An Exciting Christmas Eve" (1883). Professor Stephen Knight's fine introduction to the 1997 Oxford paperback edition of Valmont has much useful analysis of Barr's influence from Doyle, especially from the first six stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
"The Siamese Twin of a Bomb-Thrower" is best when imagining the complex relations between Valmont, the police of two countries, businessmen, government officials, and various kinds of anarchists. Barr manages to dream up many paradoxes in these relations.
"The Clue of the Silver Spoons" lacks a con-man. But the characters do evoke the personalities and behaviors of Rogues. They have the fancy clothes and elaborate manners often assumed by Rogues, as well as cleverness beyond Valmont's skill, in some cases. SPOILER. Everyone Valmont meets in this tale outclasses him, in one way or another. This too reminds one of the way Rogues often out-class the duped protagonist of a true Rogue tale. The people Valmont meets often surpass his original low estimation of them, also a sly comic sign that he is being outdone.
The tone of Barr's fiction is comic. He is often described as a satirical writer, but this does not seem to me to be an especially accurate description of his works. His tales instead tend toward sophisticated wit, paradox, elegant conversations, clever repartee, and ingenious, off trail situations. This is a tradition with roots in Saki and Wilde, and is a strain that pops up in mystery fiction in Barr, Frederick Irving Anderson, and T.S. Stribling.
Many of Barr's tales are driven by comic but frightening villains. These are usually all-powerful older men, who will stop at nothing at imposing their way on everyone around them.
A detailed look at Donovan's work, with bibliography, can be found at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
SPOILER. The strange place where the missing woman is found shows both ingenuity, and haunting atmosphere. It is part of the surreal aspect of Donovan's fiction.
"The Spell of the Black Siren" has features also found in other Donovan tales:
"The Spell of the Black Siren" also has ties to spy fiction. It exemplifies the links between spy fiction and the Rogue tradition.
The discovery of the first crime in the cab in "The Spell of the Black Siren", recalls the crime in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) by Fergus Hume. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was in this era an extremely famous best-seller.
These rogues are often gaining illicit power through their wearing the clothes of the upper classes, a subject that seems to fascinate all members of the Rogue School. Both Fletcher's rogues and his businessmen are fully dressed in the formal "Morning clothes" of the well to do City gentleman of the era: frock coats, striped trousers, shiny silk top hats, and well polished boots. Fletcher's hapless hero keeps getting bested by such businessmen-conspirators in The Million-Dollar Diamond (1923). This book was published by the firm of Herbert Jenkins, who was also a mystery writer in his own right.
Fletcher's plots seem to often revolve around clever swindles, a subject that interests him much more than murder. Swindles are common in Rogue fiction.
Like the Rogue school, Fletcher's story typically is one of adventurous intrigue. His characters are often running around tracking down some lead that will allow the capture of the criminals, and sometimes getting in a tight spot in the process.
The story opens with a prisoner being sentenced by a judge, a scene that seemed to fascinate Fletcher, who included it in several tales. One can find similar courtroom scenes in E.W. Hornung's The Shadow of the Rope (1902).
Archer Dawe is an elderly amateur detective who works closely with Scotland Yard. Both he and the Yard detectives rely closely on Fletcher's two favorite techniques: tracking, and disguising oneself in the clothes of the upper classes. Although Dawe is a good guy, his approach here is very similar to those of Rogues. "The Contents of the Coffin" states at one point that when Dawe is dressed up in his Morning coat, that he looks like a judge. This draws together two of Fletcher's ongoing themes: impersonation of the powerful, and judges.
Another perennial Fletcher subject in this tale: a family whose grown male members all bear a striking resemblance to each other. This recalls the twin brothers in "From Behind The Barrier".
There are other architectural motifs in Fletcher as well. Northern English buildings in Fletcher often include both offices, serving as places of business, and adjoining bedrooms. I have no idea whether this was a typical feature of the region's architecture, or whether it is rather something that comes from Fletcher's storytelling imagination. It tends to give an unusual flavor to the stories. A scene that starts out in an office can suddenly move into a bedroom. Together with all the disguise in the tales, it can give the stories a surrealist flavor.
"The Button and the Banknote" (1929) looks at the same sort of financial skullduggery as "Blind Gap Moor". It is not as creative as the other story, but it still seems "nice". This story is written in Fletcher's version of the Freeman Wills Crofts police procedural. However, Fletcher's simplistic idea of police procedure consists of exactly the same behavior he attributes to his amateur detectives: following suspects around, tracking them down, talking to people, and occasionally picking up a clue. As in Fletcher's The Charing Cross Mystery (1923), the detective takes a trip from London to a Northern manufacturing city. The story is notable for its many sympathetic Jewish characters. It appeared in an era of British fiction when race prejudice was virulent, so in its own low key way it makes Fletcher's feelings on this issue firmly known.
"The Murder in the Mayor's Parlor" completes Fletcher's trilogy about tales of financial crime in the North of England. All three short stories are merely anecdotes, with hardly a puzzle plot between them; but all three have real charm besides. This story is firmly set in 1914, and might be the earliest of the lot. Its combination of Northern city setting, a crime in a mayor's office, and financial skullduggery anticipates Henry Wade's The Dying Alderman (1930), and might have influenced that book.
Theden depicts his police detective dressed "undercover" as a businessman in clothes of the upper classes; such class disguises are most common in English tales of roguery by Guy Boothby and J.S. Fletcher, where con men adopt such an outfit to achieve a commanding position in society. Both of these writers also sometimes included a certain Germanic element in their tales. Theden seems most closely related to this British rogue tradition; indeed his tale focuses more on the crooks and their lives than it does on any strictly detectival elements. Also, it involves the robbery common in the rogue tales, not the murder typical of the mystery story. Of course, this rogue tradition is hardly exclusively British; France's Arsène Lupin is also a prominent representative.
Theden is more pessimistic and also more class conscious than his English contemporaries. His story has a tragic tone, and one perhaps in retrospect can see an anticipation of the terrible troubles that would overtake Germany.
The desire of his heroine for pretty things (in this case lace curtains) takes on extra force when one realizes how plain, barren and minimalist German life was in the material sense - a documentary film like Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927) shows an overwhelmingly bleak and depressed looking environment, compared to the America of the 1920's. (One can also see from this film what an impact the Bauhaus and its gleaming modern design must have had on the beauty-starved German psyche of the time. It would truly seem Utopian, like the birth of a new way of life.)
We can start the comparison with the characters. There is the wealthy, widowed father, and his spirited, courageous, investigative daughter. The daughter is much respected and indulged by the dad, and given a free hand in her investigations. The daughter here is 23, not 17 like Nancy, but this is not actually much of a switch. The daughter here seems far more like Nancy than any of the Edwardian "Lady Detectives" I have read, including Anna Katherine Green's debutante detective Violet Strange, sometimes cited as a Nancy Drew ancestor because of their similar ages. Age aside, Violet Strange seems to have little in common at all with Nancy Drew.
There are a roster of villains, all engaged in a criminal conspiracy. The way the villains are identified early on, and given plenty of detailed characterization throughout the book, seem similar to the Nancy Drew tales.
If the villains are identified early, the objects of their schemes are not clear, and are only unraveled gradually by the heroine and her father throughout the course of the tale. This, too, is similar to the pattern of the Nancy Drew tales.
There is tons of physical adventure, on boats and carriages (updated to cars in the 1930's Nancy Drew tales.)
There are secret passages, just like in Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.
The Loot of Cities is a story sequence, not a novel. But the stories are more interconnected than those of most Edwardian detective series. Characters are introduced and continue, and personal relationships develop. The tales cumulatively have some of the effect of a novel, and should be read in sequence and complete to get their full effect. In this they resemble Grant Allen's detective series, which also have such cumulative effects.
Bennett's imagination continues to be triggered by large buildings. The apartment house of the first tale, and the luxurious hotel of the fourth, seem like descendants of the Grand Babylon Hotel. Bennett comes up with new mystery plot ideas to treat them, however. Ostend and its Kursaal return, as well, in the second tale.
The writing style of Cities is far more condensed than in the earlier novel The Grand Babylon Hotel. Bennett tries to shoe horn a great deal of plot and description into a very small space in these tales, unlike the expansive, discursive style of the novel. Sometimes this gives a clogged effect to the style that makes it harder to read, but it also ensures that the book, while very short in absolute length (around 100 pages paperback), is filled with interesting material.
Bennett continues to write about high society and the very rich. There is a great deal of emphasis on intrigue and clever schemes, and less on pure detection of mysteries. His romances have a very distinctive tone all his own, and add some welcome variation to the world of the early mystery. I wish he had written more mysteries, and wonder if his first serial is any good.
Bennett's two Algerian stories, a pair of linked tales in "The Loot of Cities", form one of the few North African excursions in turn of the century crime fiction. The other known to me is Max Pemberton's "The Watch and the Scimitar". Bennett's stories make an excellent set of crime romances, and are not unworthy of comparison with Camus' classic "The Adulterous Woman". Both Bennett and Albert Camus have the motif of penetrating deeper and deeper into the Sahara. It is in both cases a voyage into the heart of another world.
Bennett's stories show remarkable artistic economy. Many of the scenes are clearly chosen to depict the emotional relationships between his characters, which are advancing throughout the book. This is a bit unlike the conventional detective story, where many of the scenes are designed to advance the mystery plot.
One might also point out that the elaborate descriptions of luxurious surroundings are in keeping with the Flaubertian techniques of naturalism that Bennett employed in his more "Literary" books. One is used to these techniques used to describe in detail the stifling environments of the lower classes, not the opulent surroundings of the elite. Tragedy, not comedy. But the formal methods are the same.
"The Knight's Cross Signal Problem" has all sorts of serious political problems. SPOILERS. One the positive side, it gains points for its blistering denunciation of colonialism. But very negatively, in its seeming support for violence, it comes close to endorsing terrorism. And its Indian character's flaws, corruption and lechery, are inescapably racist in their depiction. This seems to me to be one of Bramah's most overrated tales.
Bramah also wrote some good tales, listed in the Recommended Works above. My favorites are "The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor" and "The Mystery of the Vanished Petition Crown". In Queen's Quorum, Ellery Queen singles out Carrados' deduction about a moustache for praise. He's likely referring to a clever incident in "The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor".
For most of this novel, the point of view character is tough policeman Inspector Bleek. We see a great deal of early police procedure here, including trailing suspects, dealing with informers, political pressure on the police, and interrogations of suspects. McCulley has a clear idea of exactly how the police behaved in 1917. I have no idea if this police procedure accurately mirrors real life, or whether it is something McCulley invented. The police procedural novel is usually considered to have started with Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920); this book is a look at police procedure before Crofts.
Most Golden Age writers concentrated on people who were middle to upper class. McCulley's book has a whole family of upper crust characters as suspects, and the central crime is committed at their palatial mansion. But it also repeatedly shows us the crooks of the underworld. As in Golden Age books to come, many of the suspects spent time slinking around the crime scene at the time of the murder, and Bleek gradually uncovers and reconstructs their movements. These aspects of detection occupy a major portion of the novel, and strongly anticipate the later Golden Age.
It also anticipates Octavus Roy Cohen, and his first mystery novel, Six Seconds of Darkness (1918). Cohen's book comes from the same sort of world, with a much traversed crime scene at a mansion, embedded in a city filled with urban crime and politics. Unlike McCulley, however, Cohen's detective is a private eye, although he works hand in glove with a realistically described police force.
McCulley's book was written before Black Mask made a huge impact on portraits of the underworld. Instead, we see an underworld that derives from depictions by Frank L. Packard in such stories as The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914-1915). McCulley's crooks slink around in shadows, concealing themselves in a slum district of town known as "the underworld". There is also nicely done melodrama about secret heads of underworld conspiracies, somewhat reminiscent of the Crime Club in Packard's novel. This too recalls early pulp writers, such as Hugh MacNair Kahler, who also wrote for Detective Story Magazine. Kahler's first story for the magazine, "The Green Nail" (1917), in fact appeared while Who Killed William Drew? was being serialized.
The idea of the underworld being a separate district the city, a geographically distinct location, survives in the scripts that John Broome wrote for the 1950's comic book Big Town, one of the best and most detection oriented of mystery comic books.
McCulley's book has an old-fashioned feel. It deals with a world that would gradually drop out of detective fiction, under pressure from Black Mask on the one hand, and the Golden Age on the other. The story is a great deal of fun. McCulley has story telling flair. He also writes vigorous dialogue. McCulley tends to construct scenes as confrontations between people, each with their own point of view.
One thing that is very different about Cohen's work from Rinehart's is that it is purely a formal detective story. The murder is discovered in the first few pages, and the detectives spend the rest of the book trying to reconstruct the crime. What did happen during those 6 seconds of darkness, when shots rang out and a millionaire was killed? The detailed investigation of the crime and its attendant events takes up the entire rest of the book. It anticipates such writers as Ellery Queen, who also investigated crime scenes in depth. However Cohen's work differs from Christie, Queen, and Carr and other Golden Age writers with not being fully "fair play". While the solution is logical, the story does not provide all the clues that would allow the reader to deduce the solution in advance. One has to simply watch the detectives work it all out, as they gradually acquire evidence. The detectives do largely share their knowledge and theories with the reader as they go, which helps make this a satisfying reading experience.
The victim headed up a civic reform party, and the book plays out against a background of civic corruption. This was very common in American detective stories of the period - see Rinehart's The Window at the White Cat (1909), or Richard Harding Davis' "The Frame Up" (1915). There is considerable realism in all these tales. Yet the atmosphere of the Cohen book is still quite removed from Hammett and the Black Mask school. The milieu of the book is the squad room, the precinct house, and the police raid, not the private detective agency, and even the book's private eye lead character David Carroll works closely with the police throughout the tale. There is more emphasis on machine politics in these writers, and less on purely underworld characters or "open cities" like Red Harvest's Poisonville. One can argue that Rinehart and Cohen are more realistic than Hammett in their depiction of civic corruption, although this idea will seem anathema to critics who regard Hammett as the ne plus ultra of realism.
Cohen's book reads like the wind. I downed it all in 3 1/2 hours, while lingering over a Chinese buffet lunch. (I stopped eating after the first hour!) It is full of twists, and vivid detail. There are passages that comment reflexively on detectives, and detective storytelling traditions.
Coincidence is often seen simply as an artistic flaw. However, coincidence in Green and Cohen is viewed somewhat differently. These writers see coincidences, which do sometimes happen in real life, as the causal source of serious problems, often tragic and even mysterious. So the mystery plots of the stories often start with some terrible coincidence occurring, a bad event that causes all sorts of further problems and mystification.
The exhaustive search of the crime scene for physical clues is also part of the Green tradition. In Green these often vanish in strange mysterious ways - see Green's Violet Strange stories, "The Second Bullet" or "Missing: Page Thirteen".
This novel, like other Cohen works, includes a heroine who won't speak up and share what she knows, at any price - such secret keepers are common in Rinehart. I know this is a plot creation device, but it always annoyed me - clearly everyone would be better off here if the heroine had blabbed, if not to the hero, at least to the FBI.
The first half or so (Chapters 1 - 15) of this novel is gripping, but then it runs out of steam.
There is a night club cum gambling hall in the story, but it doesn't play the same role as in hard-boiled tales. In writers like Raymond Chandler, such night clubs tend to be sinister, and centers of moral corruption within the tale. In Cohen, however, the denizens of the night club, while trampy and lower class, are refreshingly more honest than the country club types around whom most of the story revolves. They form a straightforward, welcome relief from the sinister, upper class characters with secrets who dominate much of the novel. I particularly like the torch singer, Fern Meredith.
The tale seems quite Agatha Christie-ish somehow. This is perhaps because the crooks have some schemes of misdirection, which recall that great master of misdirection Christie.
The story gains extra suspense from the Rogue tradition: one is never sure till the tale's end, whether the policeman or the crooks are going to win. In traditional Rogue tales, the bad guys always outwitted the police, but in this story, the policeman is the protagonist, so one suspects that he might win...
The protagonist of MacGrath's novella is a young man out to steal the Blue Rajah; and the story falls into the Rogue tradition. As usual in such tales, the theft is committed against an elegant society background, and the hero is a person of great polish and accomplishments. He is so accomplished, in fact, that he is a virtual superman. Just as Packard's Jimmie Dale was an artist, here the hero is a gifted classic pianist. Most writers today would not dream of creating such a multi-talented hero, at least not with a straight face; his only modern rival is the gifted spoof hero of the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension (1984), who was a race car diver, particle physicist, rock star and neurosurgeon! Buckaroo Banzai was apparently a spoof of Lesrter Dent's Doc Savage, who also ultimately came out of the Packard tradition. I thoroughly enjoyed Buckaroo Banzai, and wound up liking the hero of this tale too. At least such heroes uphold the idea of civilization.
"Impromptu" shows a passion for fishing that recalls Lee Thayer's Q.E.D. (1921). Both writers also love country streams and woodland scenery, where the fishing takes place. Perhaps the 1920's was an era of great enthusiasm for fishing as a sport. In both books, a love of fishing is shared by women as well as men. MacGrath seems to like gadgets. In addition to the fishing equipment, there is the trick safe and the player piano.
"Impromptu" is a pleasant if minor tale. Everything in the story works. MacGrath has shown good craftsmanship, with all aspects of his story dovetailing. MacGrath somehow conveys the feel of a writer of adventure stories and romances who has decided to write a mystery. He is at least as interested in the love story and the Rogue elements here as he is in the murder mystery itself.
Our hero and his background are not fully explained at the start of the tale; only gradually do we learn more about him. This is the same paradigm used in the first Jimmie Dale tale. Both of these writers do ingenious things with their mysterious protagonists. Other Packard like features in this story: a thief hero; the importance of romance; and the artistic gifts of the hero. There is a certain quantity of sentiment in both writers, as well, that is different from the calm, rationalistic approach of much Golden Age detective fiction. Both writers' heroes are struggling to move towards some ultimate fate, a resolution of all the different issues in their lives and emotions. This is different from most detective heroes, who are already doing the detective work they were born to do.
This tale is set in Vienna, and was published in Adventure, a magazine that encouraged exotic foreign settings for its tales, unlike most mystery publishers of the era, who wanted their detective stories set firmly at home, among surroundings familiar to the reader. Blochman and Stribling also published in this magazine.
Much is made of how the resort's manager is an expert on hotel guests, and can spot trouble-makers and phonies at a glance (start of Chapter 4). But as the novel progresses, we see that he has not in fact tumbled to the facts about the central couple! This failure to understand them seems implausible.
The Snake in the Grass suddenly becomes much more interesting, in a section portraying black waiters at the resort (Chapter 7). We get a startling look at the oppression of African-Americans, and the struggle of ambitious, intelligent black men to obtain an education despite huge obstacles. This portrait perhaps reflects the early Civil Rights struggles of the era. This section, while imperfect, is much better than anything else in The Snake in the Grass. It recalls a little bit the equally surprising look at the black resort waiters in Rex Stout's Too Many Cooks (1938). Wellard's treatment, compared to Stout's is more inflammatory, violent and bitter. Unfortunately, it is also less dignified in its treatment of the characters. There is a little bit more about the waiter (start of Chapter 25), detailing his defamation in the racist white press, and the lynch hysteria inflamed against him there.
The Snake in the Grass has a murder mystery puzzle plot. SPOILER. The solution depends on an alibi gimmick that is an old dodge.
There are other, perhaps parallel traditions that could be operating here as well. There is a school of detective fiction that seems to have stated with highly fictionalized accounts of Pinkerton detectives in the 1870's, and which led to Nick Carter and other private detectives of the dime novels a decade later. These detectives emphasized their mastery of disguise, and their ability to work undercover as investigators. Even Conan Doyle sometimes wrote in this tradition: the second part of The Valley of Fear (1914) describes an undercover Pinkerton agent who infiltrates a Molly Maguire-like group. Fletcher and Kitchin could have drawn on this school, as well as the Rogues. Hammett's Continental Op went undercover in some of his early cases, such as "Zigzags of Treachery" (1924), but as the series developed he mainly stayed in his own identity.
The early American film star Francis X. Bushman also frequently played detective roles on screen. In The Eye That Never Sleeps (1912), he is a Secret Service man undercover in a counterfeiting gang, just like the later hero of T-Men (1947). Shadows (1914, directed by R. E. Baker) is another Secret Service versus counterfeiters film with Bushman. He also made two films as detective Richard Neal, an early example of a detective series in American film: In the Moon's Ray (1914) and The Mystery of Room 643 (1914). Other early Bushman films reflect different aspects of the rogue tradition. In the romance The Masked Wrestler (1914, directed by E. H. Calvert), he plays both a man who always wrestles with a mask on, and his secret identity as a respectable Frenchman in Paris. This is an early example of a film hero with a dual, secret identity.