The Early Whodunit | Romantic Fiction | E.T.A. Hoffmann | Emily Brontë | Charlotte Brontë | Sensation Fiction | Mrs. Henry Wood | Charles Dickens | Joseph Sheridan LeFanu | Angus Reach | Charles Felix | Wilkie Collins | Richard Dowling | Mary Elizabeth Braddon | Doubles | Louisa May Alcott | Seeley Regester

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Recommended Works:

British Sensation Fiction

Joseph Sheridan LeFanu

"Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess" (1838)

Wilkie Collins

Mr. Wray's Cash Box, or the Mask and the Mystery (1851)

The Queen of Hearts

The Woman in White (1859-1860)

The Moonstone (1868)

The Haunted Hotel (1878)

Mrs. Henry Wood

Johnny Ludlow stories

W. S. Gilbert

"The Burglar's Story"

Richard Dowling

"The Going Out of Alessandro Pozzone" (1878)

"Negative Evidence" (1888)

Sir Gilbert Campbell

New Detective Stories (c1891)

American Sensation Fiction

Louisa May Alcott

Behind A Mask

Seeley Regester

The Dead Letter (1864) (Chapters 1 - 5)


The Early Whodunit

E.F. Bleiler's introduction to Richmond (1827) is the most elaborate look I know of at the earliest English language detective tales, writings from 1790 - 1840, from Godwin to just before Poe. In it, Bleiler identifies several main strands of the early detective story: the most common being tales in which circumstantial evidence implicates one person in a crime, but in which someone else is actually the guilty party. Eventually elucidation follows, and with greater or lesser ingenuity, the real villain is finally exposed. This is a good description of Bulwer-Lytton's Pelham (1828), for example, a novel that was very famous in its day. In Pelham we see other features of this tradition, less mentioned by Bleiler: foreshadowings of the crime, and building up of motives, detailed descriptions of the murder scene, considerable "sinister" atmosphere, the discovery of the crime and the preliminary investigation, much speculation about the identity of the actual guilty party, and the gathering of clues at the scene. In short, this tradition seems directly ancestral to the "whodunits" of today's mystery fiction. It includes elaborate looks at murder, a mystery centering largely and simply around the identity of the criminal, looks at motives and physical evidence implicating various parties, and has a hidden villain, whose actual commission of the crime involves ingenious explanation. A good deal of emphasis is laid on describing every detail of how the real villain committed the crime, and there is often real ingenuity in showing how the reality of the crime differs from its surface appearance. I am proposing a name for this tradition: The Early Whodunit.

The Early Whodunit goes back at least to Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794). In that book, two different people are suspected of the murder of an obnoxious squire. Bleiler cites two authors whose work directly derives from Godwin, the American Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800) and George Walker's Theodore Cyphon (1796), and a host of others whose work looks at circumstantial evidence for murder in general.

One can see this pattern surviving after Poe; Abraham Lincoln's "The Trailor Murder Mystery" (1843) adheres to much of this approach, for instance. It was also a major influence on many writers of the British Sensation school.

With Poe, we see a fundamentally different approach. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), we have a detective tale in which real, multi-purpose mystery is the centerpiece, in which it is the detective's job to elucidate all of the mysteries surrounding a crime, not just identify the guilty party. Poe's approach here greatly extends the scope of detective fiction. Dupin here is as much concerned with the How as the Who, and needs to explain both an apparent locked room, and contradictory testimony by the witnesses. Poe also emphasizes the use of reason in crime investigation, making the detective story a fiction about human reason in solving mysteries.

The Early Whodunit seems to be largely a British tradition, influencing British writers from Godwin and his numerous immediate successors, through Bulwer-Lytton, "Waters" and the police school, Dickens, on through Mrs. Henry Wood, all the way from 1795 to 1877. (For that matter, "The Mystery of Essex Stairs", by Sir Gilbert Campbell, seems to be in this tradition; it was collected in book form in 1891. Campbell was also a translator of Gaboriau for British editions.) Continental writers such as Germany's Hoffman and France's Gaboriau seem to have used other approaches, as did the Americans Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. The British Wilkie Collins used a richer approach, as did such British Poe-influenced police casebook writers as Charles Martel and Andrew Forrester, Jr.


Romantic Fiction and The Mystery

The Early Whodunit approach is perhaps related to other mysteries of identity in Romantic fiction. For example, in Scott's Ivanhoe (1819), the identity of the masked Black Knight is mysterious, and its eventual revelation forms an important element in the plot. Keats uses a similar gambit in his verse play, Otho the Great (1819), presumably influenced by Scott. In Romantic fiction, we see for the first time in European literature, a systematic use of mystery in plotting. In Elizabethan writers, by contrast, the plot tends to move forward in complex ways, but without any element of the mysterious. There are no mysteries in Shakespeare's plots, however complex and well constructed these are. But in fiction of the Romantic era, mysterious events that need to be explained later become widespread. Even Jane Austen used this approach in Emma (1816). The immense popularity of the gothic novel, in which mysterious events, both natural and supernatural, abound, is clearly a central influence here. It is this widespread use of The Mysterious in Romantic fiction, that is the true ancestor and source of the modern mystery novel. It is a systematic change in how people saw the plotting of books. It is not surprising that the whodunit murder mystery should emerge from this context, and form an important subgenre in the era.

E.T.A. Hoffmann

An early writer who went far beyond the paradigm of The Early Whodunit is German author E.T.A. Hoffmann. His "Fraulein de Scuderi" (written 1818, published 1819), includes extra mysteries, too, such as: how does the gang of jewel thieves know how to attack? how does an assassin seemingly vanish into thin air? Hoffmann's work is unusual as well, in that the mystery elements are woven into a complex tale, in which the very shape of the crime becomes a mysterious issue. Hoffmann's tale recalls nothing so much as the pulp fiction pieces of a hundred years later, in which several independent groups of people each get involved with a crime, and the reader is kept in the dark about the role each is playing, and how they all fit into the overall picture. Hoffmann's ingenuity at fooling the reader about the real significance of events, and the real role of each character in the tale, is impressive - and even more ingenious is the concept of trying to fool the reader about such things - after all, Hoffmann had apparently few models of such mystery plotting ingenuity to draw on. Hoffmann was an extremely famous writer in his day; like Godwin, Brockden Brown, and Bulwer-Lytton, his work had very wide circulation, and presumably influenced Poe and other writers. While I am impressed with Hoffmann's ingenuity, and his pioneer status as both a mystery writer and as a pioneer writer of science fiction about robots ("The Sandman", 1816), I confess I do not really like his work at all. Hoffmann was sick, and his fiction is far more disturbing than enjoyable, satisfying or uplifting. Reading Hoffmann can be a depressing experience.

Emily Jane Brontë

The novels of the Brontë sisters, which they began publishing in the late 1840's, have links to the Sensation Fiction writers. They contain extreme dramatic events, and sometimes mysterious goings on - such as the strange events in the attic in Charlotte's Jane Eyre (1847). Emily Jane Brontë wrote only one novel that survives today, the outstanding Wuthering Heights (1847). She also wrote a fairly large volume of poetry, which mark her as one of the great English poets. Unfortunately this book is not read as much today as it should be. It is an odd coincidence that three of the best English language women poets had similar first names: the Elizabethan Emilia Lanier, Emily Jane Brontë and Emily Dickinson.

Influences on Emily Jane Brontë's poetry include Isaac Watts. His prosody seems similar to hers, and the mystical, visionary quality of his work also is related. In prose fiction, Horace Walpole seems the dominant influence. His novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), was the first gothic novel, and is still very good reading. Brontë and Walpole's storytelling styles are similar. Each focuses on characters obsessed with certain beliefs, and absolutely ruthless in carrying them out. Each unfolds a complex plot. The unfolding is done with remarkable logic, as if the author were proving a theorem in mathematics. The relationships between the characters form a complex pattern, a pattern woven into the plot structure.

Philosophically, Percy Bysse Shelley seems to be an influence. Heathcliff's rise seems to be an allegory of what would happen if the lower classes rose up with violence. Heathcliff turns Wuthering Heights into what seems to us, in the twentieth century, to be a foreshadowing of the modern totalitarian state. Later his son rises through education, with happier results. Brontë seems to be embracing education as the right way to solve the injustices meted out to the lower classes. The ideology here, warning against the negative consequences of violent revolt, seems similar to Shelley's philosophy of non-violence. Shelley believed that violence in service of "noble" ends, was worse than violence used to support tyranny.

The adjective Mary Shelley used to describe Shelley's poems, "abstract", was also used by Emily's sister Charlotte to describe her poems. Poe uses the same word to describe Roderick Usher's paintings. The word "abstract" does not seem to have here its full modern meaning of "non-representational". Instead it seems to refer to ideas far removed from daily life, dealing with lofty philosophical concepts. It also seems to have some implication of being involved in pure form.

Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre (1847) has many elements of mystery and suspense in it. Especially in the middle third of the book, a mystery plot is worked up about the attic. I think that Jane Eyre is the best novel ever written. It shows superb storytelling and plotting. The character of Jane has the greatest interiority of any character in fiction: she thinks like a real human being does.

Shirley (1849) is an underrated book today. It is written in remarkably rich poetic prose. After the success of Jane Eyre made Charlotte a famous public literary figure, she felt a need to express herself on public issues. She developed a complex poetic prose style for this. One can see examples of it in the introduction she later wrote for Jane Eyre, considerably after the novel was finished, dedicating the book to Thackeray; in her introductory tribute to her sister and her sister's novel Wuthering Heights, and in some of her letters of the period, in which she said she wanted to speak "in the language of conviction with the accents of persuasion". The first third of Shirley is especially filled with prose of this kind. The writing of Shirley was interrupted by the deaths of Charlotte's sisters, and the latter stages of the book are far more perfunctory. Still, the book is an outstanding achievement, and has some of the best English prose since such Elizabethan writers as Raleigh and Spenser.


Sensation Fiction

Sensation Novels were Victorian books featuring dramatic, thrilling events. Their plots often revolved around sinister conspiracies, hidden secrets, crimes, and villainous schemers. The events in Sensation Fiction clearly have a lot to do with mystery fiction. However, sometimes Sensation Novels take the form of a mystery story, and sometimes they don't.

The common assertion that the Victorian Sensation Novel was a transitional form to the true mystery cannot be supported. It is at best a first cousin. While it flourished in the 1860's, true detective tales were being created by such non-Sensation Novelists as Harriet Prescott Spofford in America, the police casebook writers in England, and James Skipp Borlase and Mary Fortune in Australia. Even before these works, Poe's 1840's stories were true detective stories in the modern sense. These genuine tales are presented by their authors with complete "generic casualness" (to coin a term), as if mysteries solved by detectives were the most familiar things in the world. There is little sign in the texts that the reader is being asked to make some radical leap. These works suggest that readers were already comfortable with the idea of a detective story, and many of its conventions.

If the Sensation Novel is not an ancestor to real mystery fiction, it does contain some truly brilliant works of literature. Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White is especially outstanding. And the Sensation Novel as a form has ties to the Brontës and their great novels. Also, sometimes the Sensation Novel intersects and produces works that conform to the paradigms of true mystery fiction. Examples: Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, and some of Mrs. Henry Wood's mystery tales.

Sensation novels tend to have such features as

In Sensation novels, we often see the crime being committed, from start to end. It is a whole process. In the definitely different tradition consisting of Poe, the Casebook writers, and most future detective stories, we open with the crime already committed, and the detective trying to solve it.

Sensation novels tend to be filled with written records of key moments of people's lives: wedding certificates, gravestones, parish registers, inscriptions in books. Just as the mirrors and paintings popular in Sensation novels constitute an imitation life, so do records seem to be a life parallel to our own, a half life created on paper and stone. These records have power over our real life. In fact in Victorian society, they seem to be more powerful than our actual life. If they say we have a certain identity, then we have that identity. If they say we inherit money, we inherit the money. They constitute a shadow version of our lives, one controlled by society, and which controls our own real life. These records constitute a twilight version of our own lives.

In Victorian times, altering a single page out of a parish register could change one's identity. In modern society, people are more used to technological records. No one today feels that they don't know who they are, or might be. Now we are all part of hundreds of databases. Everyone has a social security number, a driver's license, and a dozen pieces of ID, all stored in numerous computer databases. The feeling of anxiety in Victorian times, that one might lose one's identity, is gone. Also, records cannot be easily altered today, because info is shared out over a large number of databases. People are also heavily photographed in our time. This helps establish a record of our individuality. There are also fingerprints, and increasingly, DNA identification. And anyone can be communicated with instantly, through telephones, and increasingly, through e-mail, fax and other methods. This too preserves our identity. Anyone on Earth can reach out to us under our real name. In Victorian times, one was easily accessed often times by a very small circle of people. That circle of people could change the definition of who we are.

The secret from the past in Sensation novels tends to be a secret of identity. Lady Audley really used to be someone else. The villain in Clement Lorimer is operating under a new identity. All of these secrets tend to revolve around controlling someone's identity, preventing the real truth from coming out. Just like the mirrors, the drugs, the dreams, the paper record shadow of a lifetime, all of these are about entering another world, one where identity collapses. So are all the Sensation novel characters who are doubles of each other.

Many of the criminal schemes involve major life transitions: marriage, death and inheritance. These too involve new identities for the people who pass into them. In Sensation novels, entering into one of these states tends to involve victimization. The unsuspecting person believes that marriage will produce a lifetime of bliss; instead it leads to being fleeced of their money, then death.

Mrs. Henry Wood

Most of the tales I have read by Mrs. Henry Wood fall into the basic paradigm of The Early Whodunit. "The Mystery at Number 7" (1877), in which an innocent party gets suspected, depends on the revelation of a hidden villain, not too different from the other works in this tradition. In some of her stories, such as "Abel Crew" or "The Ebony Box", it is chance that caused the tragic events, and chance which produces the circumstantial evidence which "frames" someone innocent as the guilty party. In other tales, such as "Going Through the Tunnel", there is a hidden villain, whose existence is surprisingly revealed.

Charles Dickens

Similarly, Dickens in Bleak House (1852-1853) also has a murder, circumstantial evidence pointing to one party, and an arrest of the actual culprit. Like other writers in The Early Whodunit tradition, Dickens lays considerable emphasis on the gathering of physical evidence against suspects. Dickens combines this with a look at a police detective, another major strand of early crime writing. The one "Waters" story that is easily available today, "Murder Under the Microscope", also fits in with this approach. Like Dickens, "Waters" emphasizes both police procedure, and physical evidence against suspects. "Waters" has the full building up of motives, and the detailed description and investigation of the crime scene, found in Pelham, as well. Nether Dickens nor "Waters" at all tips their hand early on as to the actual identity of the guilty party; although modern readers will have no difficulty picking out the hidden culprit in "Waters"' tale. This is an improvement over Pelham, where the actual killer is the only other obvious suspect in the story.

Both Dickens' "Three Detective Anecdotes" (1853), and Bleak House (1852-1853) show his depiction of the police arresting subjects in sexual terms. Inspector Bucket's arrest of the woman criminal in Bleak House is compared to Jupiter's kidnap of Io in the form of a cloud, which also preserves the fog metaphor which runs through the book. There are also elements of voyeurism in both works, with the police spying on criminals. Dickens further stirs up the pot by suggesting that arrest gives lower class policemen power over upper class people, something that also must have excited him, and his readers. Despite Dickens' great popularity, his contemporaries do not pick up on these themes.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Le Fanu came to the mystery very early. Many of his first short stories (late 1830's) were written before Poe's mystery tales, before Dickens, and long before Wilkie Collins. However, Hawthorne was already practicing obscurely in America (early 1830's), and Le Fanu was also a successor to Bulwer-Lytton's Pelham (1828), not to mention Godwin and the entire Gothic novel. Le Fanu's tales often deal with impossible crimes, generally explained by some architectural trick or secret passage. In this he shows a similarity to both the Gothic writers, and to Hoffmann's "Fraulein de Scuderi".

One can also see variations on The Early Whodunit paradigm in Le Fanu's "Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess" (1838), which formed the basis of his later novel, Uncle Silas (1864). Here the heroine's father disbelieves the circumstantial evidence surrounding his brother, and places his daughter in his brother's power. Very little to the reader's surprise, the brother actually is guilty, and proceeds to menace the heroine as well. The little evidence in favor of the brother's innocence is gradually explained away, revealing his full guilt. One can see that this is essentially a complex variation on the basic Early Whodunit paradigm, one designed to create maximum suspense, among other things. LeFanu's approach centers on the guilt or innocence of a suspect, as revealed by evidence against him, just as in the Early Whodunit approach. And there are final revelations of how the villain actually committed his crimes, paralleling the final revelations in the Early Whodunit.

Society in Le Fanu

J.S. Le Fanu's stories tend to be elaborately plotted works about innocent people thrown in jeopardy. His books play upon people's fears about the principal institutions of society: innocent people are controlled by these institutions, which turn out to be nothing but elaborate frauds designed to swindle them of their money, and lure them to their death. Uncle Silas takes on The Family, while The Room at the Dragon Volant (1872) looks at Romantic Love. Le Fanu's suspicions about social relations is supposed to be very unhealthy: a lack of trust is indicative of a Type A personality, and indeed Le Fanu died of a heart attack shortly after writing his main works. However, the perennial appeal of Le Fanu's fiction indicates that perhaps others are also suspicious of these institutions, and their tremendous power to coerce our lives. Le Fanu's heroes in both works are naive, trusting young people, being sucked into a web by adults who are older and more experienced. Le Fanu's heroes in both cases make the mistake of believing that society is normal, not a monstrous conspiracy out to destroy them. Le Fanu also suggests that there are hidden realities behind these institutions which are not so pleasant. The ability of the male members of the family to penetrate the heroine's bedroom at the end of Silas suggests symbolically the vulnerability of women in our society. Also, the complex conspiracy to make the hero involved with the heroine of Dragon suggests that heterosexual romance is not just tolerated, but actively promoted by society, in a gigantic propaganda machine. By contrast, Le Fanu portrays the hero's Army officer friends as a benevolent alternative to society's conspiracies, with their uniforms serving as a badge of independence from it.

Social naiveté is not thought of as a crime in modern times, but it often leads to disaster in Sensation novels. Victorian society idealized innocence, and the avoiding of unpleasant realities as a desirable feature for young people's education. Writers like Le Fanu, Reach and Collins suggest that such innocence is positively deadly. Such characters in these writers always promptly fall victims to schemes that no aware, mature, properly skeptical person would ever be duped by. At a certain level, this is just a warning against plain ignorance. No sane person could want young people to be this green, so that they could be gulled by any con man they encounter. Even the most proper moralist would have to agree with this. However, the Sensation writers tend to go far beyond this. They suggest that innocence is actually a bad thing, that experience might actually be preferable. This is a point of view determined to disconcert moralists of all stripes. The Sensation writers are deliberately ambiguous on this point. They wrap their denunciations of ignorance and innocence into one big package, so that their socially acceptable message against ignorance will hide as a Trojan horse their attack on innocence.

They also suggest that Victorian sex roles are bad. The "heroine" of Collins' The Woman in White (1859-1860) is a traditional Victorian timid female. She is duped because she adheres to the social expectations of women at the time, to be a shrinking violet. Collins forcefully suggests that these sex roles are all wrong, and holds up the heroine's mannish half-sister Marian as a admirable role model instead. Similarly, Le Fanu's "The Room at the Dragon Volant" (1872) suggests the hero is victimized because he adheres to society's ideas about romantic love.

Le Fanu's imagery

Le Fanu had an interest in altered states of consciousness, an interest shared by Wilkie Collins, and dreams play a major role in his stories. This interest was considered chic in the 1960's, but now looks more frightening and surreal. The strange elaborate fêtes in Dragon, together with an interest in how moonlight and sunset alter the looks of things, also have a similar effect of pushing the hero into different worlds of perception. So do the elaborate supernatural stories told by different people in the book. The hero is constantly being drawn into worlds with a supernatural appearance, at least. Even the elaborately painted dragon of the title helps convey a supernatural atmosphere. In Chinese mythology, dragons represent the irrational, the positive supernatural hidden forces of the universe, and they seem to have a somewhat similar meaning in this novel. Even the use of mirrors, and the constant use of scenes where the hero sees the villains' images in mirrors, heighten the sense of unreality. They suggest that what the hero sees is largely illusion.

Le Fanu's characters are constantly traveling in Dragon. Long before Jack Kerouac, they were On The Road. Wilkie Collins' characters in The Haunted Hotel (1878) were also mainly traveling. This novel has a somewhat similar feel to Dragon, with its foreign adventure and scenery, elaborate mystery conspiracy plot, and occasional supernatural episodes along the way. From the Gothic novel on, foreign countries were used in English fiction to suggest both strange adventure, and supernatural atmosphere. E.F. Bleiler has suggested that Dragon was Le Fanu's attempt to write a Wilkie Collins style novel. It certainly has much in common with Collins' "A Terribly Strange Bed" (1852). Both stories concern a young Englishmen traveling in France, who is victimized by murderous swindlers, after staying in a strange inn. This story is nearly a pure thriller. (Collins' tale was still being imitated fifty years later by William Hope Hodgson in "The Inn of The Black Crow" (1915). Hodgson converted Collins' plot into one of his strange, visionary nocturnal landscapes, complete with a strange, complex geometry.) However, in general, Collins was more creative as a creator of puzzle plots than was Le Fanu, who tended to emphasize vivid description and atmosphere as a substitute for the immense forward momentum of Collins' plots.

It would be a mistake to interpret Le Fanu's tales as being about abnormal psychology. Le Fanu's interest is not in the abnormal, but in exposing the hidden realities that lie underneath what society considers to be, or at least labels, the "normal". Le Fanu wants to heighten the perceptions of both his protagonists, and his readers.


Angus Reach

I have read one episode from Angus Reach's Clement Lorimer, or the Book with the Iron Clasps (1848-1849). Aside from this one section, this very rare novel has long been out of print. Lorimer's novel is excerpted in Richard Peyton's anthology of horse racing mysteries, Deadly Odds (1986). This book was later reprinted under the title, At The Track: A Treasury of Horse Racing Stories.

This episode is a crime story, but their are no mysteries to be solved, and no detective character. It shows signs of similarity with the work of Wilkie Collins, and especially J.S Le Fanu. The young heroes in the story are persecuted by an evil old man. Just as in Le Fanu, and later in Collins, he plays on their sense of social naiveté and trust to exploit them. Mind hampering drugs play a role in the story. The hero makes a discovery by looking into a mirror and seeing the villain; this half world of illusion reveals truths not apparent in external reality. The old man functions as a "double" of the young hero; the mirror reveals the similarity in physical appearance.

People tend to think that Sensation novels are products of the 1860's. Here is a 1849 book that has such Sensation features as: secrets from the past; criminal conspiracies; victimization of the socially naive; characters who serve as doubles of each other; mind controlling drugs; the use of mirrors to suggest hidden truths about the villains; and satire of the religiously active.

Angus Reach's novel is the first use to known to me of a popular plot: the gambler villain wants to fix a horse race. This plot has been recycled on virtually ever TV drama and cop show of the last twenty years. Many other kinds of sports have been substituted - boxing matches used to be popular, and today basketball games seem to the most frequently used - but the basic plot remains unchanged, after 150 years.

Charles Felix

Charles Felix' The Notting Hill Mystery (1862) is a lousy book. It is a cross between the crime story and the paranormal sf book. Such devices as telepathy between twins and the more supernatural forms of mesmerism are used to cause a series of murders. This means that although it has some features of the crime novel, much of it is about the sort of stuff that winds up on The X-Files. Nor is there much actual detection in the book. Much of it is told in a fairly straightforward, linear manner, with event following event in chronological sequence. It is not like the "story told in reverse, with detection uncovering the hidden facts of crime" in a typical mystery story. Notting does have a well done, if short, section with a policeman narrator, Sgt. Reading, in its middle, that contains some genuine detective work.

The book is very different in tone from the 1860's casebook literature I have read. It seems much closer to the Sensation school instead. Both the use of twins, and multiple narrators seems derived from Wilkie Collins. And Felix' clear, logical, and in fact implausibly schematic narration reminds one of LeFanu.

Where Notting surprises is in the use of multi-media material. There are chronologies, lists of logical points, a reproduction of a marriage register in table form, a facsimile of a letter, and, toward the end of the book, a floor plan than looks for all the world like those in later mystery novels. This book is distinctly pre-Gaboriau, who published his first crime novel in 1865. I have oohed and ah-ed over this sort of multi-media material in Gaboriau and Green; here it also is in an earlier and much poorer writer. The author's motivation for including such material seems perhaps a little different from later writers. In most mysteries, such material aids the "puzzle" aspects of the story, its appeal to the intellect. Felix' tale has a hyper-logical narrative structure, and this intellectual appeal is certainly an aspect of his story. But the multi-media documents also seem to be an attempt to lead a phony verisimilitude to all the psychic material in the tale. They function as an attempt to add realism to all this mesmerism crap.


Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins' mystery short stories

Far and away the best of Wilkie Collins' mystery short stories is "A Plot in Private Life" (1858). Written a year before his great novel The Woman in White, it has much of the same feel. It clearly shows Collins "warming up" in the same mode as his novel, and serves as an overture to Woman's grand opera. "Plot" shows Collins' interest in detective work, and his way of having such work turn up the most interesting and surprising revelations about his characters.

We can have some mild applause for "The Diary of Anne Rodway" (1856), which contains both a pioneering woman detective, perhaps the pioneering woman detective in all literature, according to Collins scholar Robert Ashley, and some interesting detective work. It is noticeable as a story set among the very poor, and contains a powerful portrait of what life was like for the typical member of the 19th Century. Conservative propagandists, who are always setting up the Victorians as a model for the radical right, should read this tale, and see what these allegedly glorious times were really like. It makes an interesting companion piece to Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron Mills" (1863), a remarkable look at the lower rungs of the Victorian ladder. Davis' mainstream tale in fact does have some mild crime elements in it, but it is not a mystery by any means.

"The Dead Hand" (1857), a sensation tale, not a mystery, combining lurid discoveries with Collins' use of doubles, is not a bad work. I also rather liked Collins' "The Captain's Last Love" (1876), a non-mystery set in the South Seas, which seems like a definitive version of the Pacific island tale, anticipating Murnau's film Tabu (1931).

For the rest, I am not thrilled with Collins' short tales. Their quality seems way below that of Collins' longer works. Many are extremely fatalistic, wherein people lie back and accept the terrible tragedy to which they are predoomed. There are often strong supernatural elements, which is very chic today, with the current enthusiasm for Stephen King and horror fiction; but anything supernatural in fiction has always been anathema to me. It offends both my scientific and religious sensibilities, and also somehow personally repulses me.

Collins' American tale, "John Jago's Ghost" (1873), startles as being about the same plot as Abraham Lincoln's non fiction account, "The Trailor Murder Mystery" (1843). Collins at least supplies a full solution to the mystery, which was left ambiguous and open ended by Lincoln. Otherwise, I think Collins' lengthy story seems padded and over long compared to Lincoln's version. Collins based his work on a purportedly "true crime" case, written by another author, and I have been unable to trace back the tangle of Lincoln's involvement, and the real life history behind these works. Collins' tale is the opening salvo in a series of 1870's mysteries by him, including The Law and the Lady (1875), "My Lady's Money" (1877), and The Haunted Hotel (1878), after a long series of mainstream works. Most of these are of at least novella length.

Mr. Wray's Cash Box

Wilkie Collins' "Mr. Wray's Cash Box, or the Mask and the Mystery" (1851) is an early Collins novella. Despite its title, it is hardly a mystery story in the modern sense. Instead, it is a cheery Christmas story about a bunch of amateur actors in a provincial resort town. There is a small m mystery - what has Mr. Wray got hidden in his cash box - but not a big M Mystery, with clues, suspects, and the whole other modern mechanism of the mystery story.

The story has a bad reputation, with some critics being annoyed it is not a real mystery story, and others objecting to it as warmed over Dickens. Actually, I enjoyed it very much. Its general cheeriness seems like a welcome change from the Gothic gloom of much of Collins' short fiction. And it shows Collins' vigorous storytelling technique.

The Haunted Hotel

1878 was a remarkable year for detective fiction. Anna Katherine Green published The Leavenworth Case, Robert Louis Stevenson the two main sections of The New Arabian Nights, Fyodor Dostoyevsky started submitting The Brothers Karamazov for serial publication, and Wilkie Collins published The Haunted Hotel, a mystery novel with supernatural trimmings. In addition, on the short story front Robert Dowling wrote "The Going Out of Alessandro Pozzone", an interesting puzzle story. During the previous year, 1877, Collins wrote My Lady's Money, to which The Haunted Hotel is sort of a sequel (it features the same lawyer character), and Mrs. Henry Wood the short story, "The Mystery at Number Seven". So there was plenty of mystery activity. Soon Anton Chekhov would write The Shooting Party (1882) and "The Swedish Match" (1883), and then would come first Fergus Hume and Hugh Conway in 1886, then Doyle, Dick Donovan, Sir Gilbert Campbell, and Israel Zangwill.

The big 5 authors of 1878 each had different approaches. Collins, Dostoyevsky and Dowling each created clever puzzle plots, pointing the way to the Golden Age stories of the twentieth century. The publication of three such works in a single year shows that the concept of a puzzle plot mystery was already beginning to take hold as far back as that date. One would love to discover more examples. Earlier one could cite the stories of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1855). Perhaps works (which I haven't read) by James Payn and LeFanu might fit the bill here. Dostoyevsky's novel has many other concerns than its mystery, of course, but embedded within the book is a mystery plot worthy of Agatha Christie.

Green was not as interested in pure puzzles. Instead, her work features outstanding detective work, by both professional and amateur investigators. The detective work unfolds continually during the novels, rather than as a startling revelation at the end. It is tempting when reading her work to regard her approach as paradigmatic of the mystery genre of her time, but these puzzle plot authors form strong counterexamples. She wrote the way she did, not because she had no examples of puzzle plots, but because she wanted to write this way.

Stevenson's Arabian extravaganza is perhaps not a detective story strictly speaking, since it does not unravel a mystery. But its atmosphere of gaslit London as a site for mysterious adventure is perhaps the greatest influence on the setting first of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales, and then on G.K. Chesterton's stories. Stevenson's work also influenced R.H. Davis's In The Fog; Stevenson was one of Davis' favorite writers while growing up, along with Wilkie Collins. Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll" (1885) will be much closer to the actual tale of mystery, despite its science fictional elements. It is a real puzzle tale, in the tradition of the authors I have been discussing.

The Haunted Hotel is more of a detective story than a ghost story, despite its title. The ghostly manifestations are relatively few in number, and pretty short lived. They are mainly concerned with providing clues to the murder, clues which another author (or Collins himself in a different work) could easily have provided through pure detective work. Formally, the work adheres very closely to the canons of detective fiction. The solution has affinities with the ending of The Woman in White, but here it forms a solution to the central mystery situation of the book, whereas in Woman in White it formed more of a surprising plot twist. Hotel falls much more closely within what in the twentieth century will be the canonical plot structure of the mystery novel, with a mysterious situation, investigation by various characters, and the final detailed revelation of the surprising facts behind the crime. Three years later Collins will be publishing a story called "Who Killed Zebedee?" (January 1881), and what could sound more like a modern mystery than that? It would be interesting to know whether Collins was the first to use this sort of title.


Richard Dowling

Richard Dowling began writing mystery stories in the 1870's. Like Anna Katherine Green and Robert Louis Stevenson, he is a member of the "in-between" generation that debuted in the 1870's, halfway between the more famous Casebook and Sensation schools of the 1850's and 1860's, and the Doyle-Hume-Zangwill generation of the 1880's and 1890's. Green, Stevenson and Dowling were all born in the 1840's.

Dowling's works are hard to classify. He published in magazines edited by members of the Sensation school. But his stories seem to have little in common with theirs. His works are straightforward mystery tales, just like the Casebook writers. However, they do not focus on detectives the way the Casebook writers do. Instead, Dowling's stories can be pure puzzle plot pieces.

Dowling liked plots that turned on the technology of his day. The use of the camera and photographs as clues in "Negative Evidence" (1888) has antecedents in Casebook writers, such as Mary Fortune's "The Dead Witness" (1867).

His narrative style can seem rather flat and stiff. However, both the plots and the imagery of his tales are vivid, and stick in the memory long after reading.

He liked to trace the progress of characters across some landscape domain, whether it was the hills of "Negative Evidence" (1888), or the cityscape of "The Going Out of Alessandro Pozzone" (1878). This progress is carefully timed, in both cases.


Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Readers will want to check out Lucy Sussex's article on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and her first novel Three Times Dead (1860). Gaslight has an e-text of Braddon's own delightful account of writing this book.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Sensation novel, Lady Audley's Secret (1861 - 1862), followed closely on the heels of Collins' The Woman in White (1859 - 1860). Although Braddon's novel shows much originality, it is apparently also strongly influenced by Collins' book. Many of the devices used by Lady Audley to cover up her tracks are similar to those in Collins' novel. So is the whole genre of Sensation fiction used by both authors, with criminal activities taking place among the apparently respectable of the day. So is the duel fought in both books between the villains and the characters serving as their nemesis. Both books also have a contrast between two types of femininity, with the insipid doll like personality preferred by conventional Victorians coming in for much criticism. Both novels have a strong feminist subtext.

Braddon's novel Lady Audley's Secret mentions both Alexandre Dumas and Wilkie Collins (Volume 3, Chapter 7), in a way which makes it clear that they are ancestors of the kind of writing she is undertaking in the book. It is dedicated to Bulwer-Lytton, who served as Braddon's literary mentor. Braddon's 1860's contemporaries, the American Harriet Prescott Spofford and the English casebook writer Andrew Forrester, Jr, also make references to Poe. This sort of reflexive, self referential tribute to one's ancestors will become a literary tradition in mystery fiction. It will be found later in the 1880's in Doyle and Hume, who refers to Braddon among others in his Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) (Chapter 8), and later still in the Golden Age by Christie, Sayers, Crofts, Carr, Queen, Rawson, Marsh and other writers. I have found no such references in pulp fiction, perhaps because editors edited them out. It is a tradition still used in today's mystery fiction. Christie refers to Braddon in the story "Greenshaw's Folly" (1957), and the article on Sayers discusses what seems to be a reference to Lady Audley in Busman's Honeymoon (1937). Lucy Sussex's article, cited above, discusses self referential passages in Braddon's Three Times Dead (1860).

Braddon and Freeman

Braddon's novel Lady Audley's Secret has the format of one of R. Austin Freeman's inverted stories, fifty years before Freeman officially created the form with "The Case of Oscar Brodski" (1910). The early chapters show the events leading up to the crime; the later show the duel of wits between the detective and the criminal over bringing the crime home to the perpetrator. Freeman's later inverted novel, Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (1930), has many features in common with Braddon's book. Both novels have similar titles. Both are inverted stories. In both, a figure out of the past comes to haunt the hero in his present life. In both, the hero kills this past-figure, and disposes his body in the same location (unnamed here to avoid ruining the plot!). Both novels also include a faked death. Freeman's The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924) is a modern day version of Dickens' unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870); perhaps Mr. Pottermack involves a similar conscious analogy.

Another way in which Braddon anticipates Freeman is in her description of the English country side. Braddon always knows the exact names of all the plants which are growing. They tend to be planted by man, not to be wild, and tend to fall on both sides of the characters' paths: a double row of trees, fields on either sides of a road, lines of hedges on either side of a path. There is always a summertime abundance in Braddon, with Nature at her most fecund. This is similar to the imagery in Freeman, although it might partly just reflect the layout of British parks and suburbs.

Braddon's characters also anticipate Freeman in that so many of them seem to be involved with crafts. There is the blacksmith who deals with locks in Lady Audley's Secret, and the work with the ground glass windows in "The Mystery at Fernwood".

Braddon, the Casebook writers, and Detection

Like the Casebook writers of her era, Braddon, and her detective Robert Audley, are interested in the theory of detection. Robert describes circumstantial evidence in Chapter 15 of Lady Audley's Secret, and inductive reasoning in Chapter 16 of Volume 1. The Casebook stories tend to be narrated in the first person by their detectives, and such analyses of detective technique are presented as their thoughts and observations. Braddon's novel is narrated in the third person, but she keeps up the casebook approach by making such pointers be part of her detective's dialogue. Of course, before either the Casebook or the Sensation writers, such disquisitions on detection were part of Poe's tales. Poe presented his detection theory passages as the work of a unique genius, Dupin. The Casebook writers displayed theirs as the fruits of their detective's professional experience - after, the narrators of the casebook tales are often supposed to be policemen. Amateur detective Robert is neither a genius nor a professional, and it is not clear why he has such ideas. One suspects they are in Braddon's book partly because they are now part of detective story tradition. And partly because such ideas are just plain fascinating - I always really enjoy reading such disquisitions, in Braddon or elsewhere.

Braddon also uses the lists that are popular multi-media features with detective writers. Her list in Volume 1, Chapter 13 is an outline of events that have occurred so far in the story. This is rather different from the "tabulations" of unanswered questions used by Forrester. Braddon also uses the precise dating that is common with the Casebook writers. Several times Braddon compares Robert to an actual police detective of the era. The detection passages in Lady Audley seem quite close to her Casebook contemporaries. On the other hand, Robert does not use disguise, does not collect physical clues at a crime scene, and as an amateur, is not influenced by financial considerations, all unlike the typical casebook detectives of his time.

There are unfortunate gaps in Robert's detective work. For example, by the end of Volume 1, Chapter 12, Robert has good evidence that something bad has happened to his missing friend. But soon he seems to have jumped to figuring out whodunit, and the villain's whole plot. Braddon never shows us how he reached this conclusion. I would have liked some real detection here. Robert also shows a lamentable tendency to confront the villains of the tale with his knowledge of their conduct. It does not achieve anything in detection, it tips off the villains to his plans, as Braddon clearly shows, and it drags the book into melodrama. In general, the book runs out of steam after the first 15 chapters of Volume 1 - around one quarter way through its huge length. Chapters 1 - 15 describe the crime and its initial investigation.

Braddon can really plot. Volume 1, Chapter 12 is a superb development of a mystery plot. It has a surreal quality. It reminds one of nothing as much as Philip K. Dick's sf novel, Time Out of Joint (1959), when the pop machine disappears, and leaves nothing behind but a piece of paper with the words "pop machine" on it. There is a similar feeling in Braddon's chapter, of a world surrealistically collapsing down to artifice and idea.

It is hard to imagine that Victorian readers were not instantly aware of Lady Audley's secret, right after reading Chapter 2. Braddon never actually shows us the facts, or lets us share Lady Audley's inner mind, but the novel is written in such a way as to suggest the secret to readers immediately. This would be especially true of her original Victorian readers, who were used to teasing hidden relationships out of the novels of Dickens. It is also hard to imagine this deliciously entertaining novel even making sense to readers who do not guess Lady Audley's secret at once; much of the suspense of the book comes from wondering if her secret is going to be revealed.

Braddon's novel has many scenes set among servants. There are also working class characters, such as the blacksmith. This reminds one of Mrs. Henry Wood, who also frequently included such characters in her works. There is often a setting among daily life and its minutiae in both writers. Wood's "The Mystery at Number 7" (1877) seems especially close to Braddon. The way in which the detectives find a hidden route into the locked house echoes scenes in Volume 1, Chapter 8 of Lady Audley where the herores use a little known secret passage to gain entrance into a chamber Lady Audley has locked up. Later, Wood's detectives will investigate the life story of one of the suspects, just as Braddon's characters do of Lady Audley.

Doubles in Braddon

The pre-Raphaelite portrait in Volume 1, Chapter 8 of Lady Audley is especially well done. This art movement was still contemporary in 1861. Most of today's mystery writers would not be as sophisticated as Braddon at integrating contemporary movements in painting and photography into their tales. This sheer modernity was one of the things that most impressed readers of the Sensation novels. The portrait shows sinister aspects of Lady Audley's personality that are not visible to those who meet her in person. It is kept locked up, at least part of the time, by Lady Audley in her chambers. One suspects that it helped inspire Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891).

Braddon's short story "The Mystery at Fernwood" has much common imagery with Lady Audley's Secret, and one is tempted to interpret the novel in terms of the later short story. In both, the women in the story are the keepers of secrets. They are trying to conceal things from the men characters, and preserve a happy home. In both stories, there is a superfluity of men, who seem to be doubling up. In Lady Audley's Secret, there are two men who want to play the role of Lady Audley's husband; in "Fernwood", there are two young men who want to live at Fernwood. Both of these doubles are trying to occupy the same space at the same time, and an explosion ensues, just as in those sf stories in which two people try to fill the same space. This doubling effect can be interpreted in many different ways. It seems to have the quality of a myth, a richly suggestive story that suggests many different things. The doubles can stand for hidden psychological problems in the men, problems that women are trying desperately to control. The women are trying to create a happy home, but they keep having to deal with this shadow self of the man of the house, a shadow that threatens to destroy everyone's happiness. These stories also suggest that men are two faced. They also suggest that men are somehow too big to fit into the confines of the Victorian home, that somehow they squeeze and squeeze but do not fit there. They also suggest that men are intruders in the home, something that threatens it and needs to be kept out.

The above suggestions are all a bit too glib. They all suggest that the doubling of the men characters is a purely bad thing. However, one can also read this doubling as a magical event, a multiplication of beings. It is related perhaps to the fecundity of Nature that is found everywhere in Braddon. Braddon's heroines seem to double as well. Lady Audley has two different identities, one before and one after her first husband deserted her, and it seems as if she has multiplied as well. In fact, she seems to have three identities: as the wife of her first husband, as the governess, and as Lady Audley. Such multiple identities help her move through the Victorian class structure with ease, something her readers would have both desired and feared. Lady Audley's identities have in fact multiplied like rabbits. In addition, her portrait forms another self. So do her social relations with her maid, in which Lady Audley seems to take on a whole new role.

A Typology of Doubles WARNING: THIS DISCUSSION WILL GIVE AWAY PLOT IDEAS.

Doubles have a rich history in both 19th and 20th Century crime fiction. I would classify these works into at least twelve literary traditions.

1) Doubles run rampant through Wilkie Collins' work, including "The Dead Hand" (1857), The Woman in White (1859-1860) and Armadale (1866). Collins' friend Charles Dickens used doubles in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Some Sensation and Casebook stories of the 1860's seem directly influenced by these Collins works. Forrester's "Arrested on Suspicion" (collected in book form 1863) has doubles that could come from Collins, as does Charles Felix' The Notting Hill Mystery (1862). Some of Collins' writings are perhaps inspired by the Dumas story listed below.

2) One can see other traditions born in the 19th Century. One tradition starts with two very different works of the late Romantic period. Poe wrote the supernatural story "William Wilson" (1839), about a Doppelgänger. Alexandre Dumas' tale of the Man in the Iron Mask, The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1848-1850), deals with a hidden twin brother of Louis XIV. These seem to be the works that started the theme. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's story "The Mystery at Fernwood" combines the approaches of both Poe and Dumas' work, both the "hidden twin" and the Doppelgänger theme.

Braddon's story is the first of a series of mystery tales using this combined approach. It anticipates features of Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Image in the Mirror" (1930's); one wonders if Sayers knew Braddon's tale. Sayers' tale in turn is directly ancestral to Helen McCloy's "Through a Glass Darkly" (1948) and Roy Vickers' "Double Image" (1954), which itself anticipated Edward D. Hoch's "The Other Eye" (1981). Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar (1949) might also belong here, as well as Vincent Cornier's "The Monster" (1951). Most of these writers have ties to the Realist School of modern detective fiction. The use of doubles in these stories ties in with one of the Realist School's favorite themes: the "breakdown of identity". This theme is defined and explored in detail in the article on the Realist School.

Many of these stories involve doubles as mysterious Doppelgängers. They represent the supernatural fears of the Doppelgänger, the idea that people will meet their double then die.

But there is also a social dimension to these tales. Often they involve a "normal" person and their illegitimate twin or cousin, who is kept out of sight, just as in the Dumas novel. While the hero represents the privilege of the upper classes, the double represents social illegitimacy - a shadow version of the hero whom basically unjust social strictures keep down. He represents the immoral, unjust nature of the class system, something that everyone knows to be unjust, but which is accepted in public society as normal. The double reflects these hidden injustices leaking out, emerging from the shadows to cause problems for everybody, problems that society tries to sweep under the table. Somehow the hero of these stories, despite all of his normalcy, his conventional good looks and manly attributes, is not actually likable. The reader becomes all too well aware of those who have been left out of society in its attempt to canonize heroes. And the central character in these stories indeed tends to be a man; despite all the women authors involved, only McCloy has a female pair.

The hiddenness of the illegitimate twin or cousin also plays a formal role in the mystery plot. If this person's existence were not hidden, how could there be any mystery? Everyone would know of the existence of the double, and understand the plot that was going on right away.

A modern film that has something of a relation to this tradition is the comic Western, Cat Ballou (1965).

3) Another tradition involves mystery stories in which identical twins or doubles are mistaken for each other, impersonate each other, and in general complicate the puzzle plots of these stories. The earliest work of this kind known to me is Fergus Hume's The Piccadilly Puzzle (1889). This novel involves a very thorough working out of the possibilities of this kind of story. It seems ancestral to many Golden Age stories involving doubles, twins, Hollywood stunt doubles and the like. Mentioning the name of these works would spoil their authors' surprise solutions. However, one can point out such tales seem most common among members of the Van Dine school, such as Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice. And Clarence Budington Kelland's "Ramikin Rubies" (1930) and John Dickson Carr's "William Wilson's Profession" (1941) hearken back to Poe. The wonderful 1950's detective comic book Big Town had many stories involving actors, doubles and impersonation. Hume's novel has some problems. It is not very excitingly written, and he doesn't use much fair play in pulling off his plot ideas. It also suffers from racist stereotypes. One wonders if there are other 19th Century works in this tradition, especially among the vast corpus of 19th Century French mystery fiction that is so little known today.

4) There are a number of other literary traditions involving doubles. Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) are the first of many adventure stories in which a commoner changes places with royalty who is his double. Modern films on this theme include Charlie Chaplin's classic, The Great Dictator (1940), Double Switch (1987), "The Royal Mystery" episode (1990) of Father Dowling, written by Gerry Conway, Dave (1993) and The Prince and the Surfer (1999). Both the Chaplin film and Dave are closer to Zenda, in which an ordinary person assumes the identity of a political leader to achieve some public goal. By contrast, Double Switch, "The Royal Mystery" and The Prince and the Surfer derive from The Prince and the Pauper, where two people who are curious about each other's lifestyle trade places. In "The Royal Mystery" Sister Stephanie trades roles with a Princess Di-style look alike. In Double Switch a rock star and an ordinary teenager who are doubles for each other switch lives. The film is not too far off in suggesting that rock stars are the modern day equivalent of royalty. All of these films are quite entertaining.

5) There are also numerous spy stories in which a look alike is coached to replace a famous world leader. These have the same plot as the Prisoner of Zenda tales, but tend to be much darker and more paranoiac. Usually a whole vast conspiracy lies behind the impersonator. A thriller about a similar conspiracy, but one involving ordinary people, is Samuel W. Taylor's The Man with My Face (1948). George A. Best's "The Counterfeit Cashier" (1902) is a Rogue tale involving impersonation of a banker.

6) Perhaps related to Zenda tradition are comic tales in which twins change places. These include Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors (1594) and Twelfth Night (1601), which have many predecessors before Shakespeare. Modern examples include Erich Kästner's children's book, Das Doppelte Lottchen (Lise and Lotte), which was filmed with Hayley Mills as The Parent Trap (1961). Other films include the TV series, The Patty Duke Show, the TV movie Double Agent (1987) and the film comedy Big Business (1988). A suspense film in this tradition is Dead Ringer (1964). There are numerous soap operas in which an actor plays his main role's evil twin; or in which a popular actor who has played a villain is "killed off" and brought back as his good twin brother, a gambit recently used on the series Savannah (1996) with the actor George Eads. His surprise reappearance was a genuinely eerie moment. It suggested that his life force and vitality was stronger than anything else, even murder. Some mystery films have twin heroes, including Twin Detectives (1977) and Double Impact (1991), in which martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme plays twins, and has a karate duel with himself. A richly symbolic film about twins is Peter Medak's The Krays (1990), which deals with identical twin gangsters, one straight, the other gay. Medak also directed a comic film on the same theme, Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), in which George Hamilton plays both the straight Zorro and his gay brother Bunny.

7) The theme of robotic doubles seems to start with Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1953). The Superman family comic books often included stories in which Superman used robot doubles of himself to patrol while he was away, or to preserve his secret identity - the robot would put in an appearance as Superman, while he was appearing as Clark Kent. Three elaborate such stories include: "The First Superman Robot" (Adventure #265, October 1959); "The Day Pete Ross Became a Robot" (Superboy #100, October 1962) and "The Great Superboy Hoax" (Superboy #106, July 1963). Many of these stories involve not just the robot pretending to be human, but the human pretending to be a robot. Most of these robotic stories are cheery and upbeat.

There is a also series of sf horror stories and films about people being replaced by sinister alien doubles. These include Philip K. Dick's "The Father Thing" (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958). Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives (1972) follows in both this tradition, and the robotic one.

8) Stories like Twain's and Hope's also seem to be related to works in which two people actually swap bodies. These works include F. Anstey's children's fantasy Vice Versa (1882), in which a father and son switch minds, and which has been filmed many times, both officially and unofficially; Conan Doyle's "The Great Keinplatz Experiment" (1894), which gives an sf spin to the tale of mind transfer, representing it as a scientific experiment; Thorne Smith's novel Turnabout (1931), in which a husband and a wife trade places; Arthur M. Singer's Star Trek episode, Turnabout Intruder (1969), in which Kirk and a woman switch bodies, and which has virtuosic acting from William Shatner; and Craig Lucas' play Prelude to a Kiss (1990, filmed 1992). The film Face/Off (1997) uses plastic surgery to enable a similar switch between a killer and a government agent.

9) There is a tradition of characters who can impersonate anyone else. These include Ellery Queen's detective, retired stage star Drury Lane, who appeared in The Tragedy of X (1932). Drury Lane is expert with makeup, facial expression and voice, and can virtually appear to be any other character in the novel. Earlier detectives with similar impersonation skills include Paul Beck in "Driven Home" in The Quests of Paul Beck (collected 1908) by M. McDonnell Bodkin, and Hamilton Cleek in "The Problem of the Red Crawl" in The Man of the Forty Faces (collected 1910) by Thomas W. Hanshew.

This sort of impersonator-detective is also popular in early comics books. Jerry Siegel's heroes were expert impersonators, who could take on anyone else's identity, beginning with government agent Steve Carson of the Federal Men in "The Invisible Empire" (Adventure Comics #8-10, September-November 1936) and "The Stolen Stamp" (Adventure Comics #22, December 1937). Siegel's later hero Superman will also have the same skill: see the Superman daily comic strip "The Comeback of Larry Trent" (February 20 - March 18, 1939). So will Siegel's super-hero the Spectre: see "The Reluctant Bridegroom" (More Fun Comics #71, September 1941), as does the Spectre's nemesis Zor: see #55 (May 1940). The slightly later comic book detective Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise (not by Siegel) will also have this ability; Cosmo began in 1937, a few months after the Steve Carson tale. So do such 1940's comic book characters such as The King and the Chameleon. Impersonation and doubles play a role in some stories in the 1950's detective comic book Big Town.

Other comic book heroes had actual super-powers involving impersonation. Plastic Man (a character first created in the 1940's) could distort his body to any shape. Chameleon Boy was a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1960's. He could assume any appearance at will. So could his pet Proty, unusual as an animal who could assume any form. All of these characters are good guys. A comic villain was False Face, who appeared on the Batman TV show in the pair of episodes written by Stephen Kandel, True or False Face / Super Rat Race (1966). Like Drury Lane, he was a master of impersonation. The villain of Steve Ditko's comic book, The Creeper (1967), was named Proteus, and had the ability to take any shape. The TV series Timecop (1997) has a villain who uses high tech devices to assume anyone's image. I enjoyed all of these characters very much.

10) Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" (written in December 1909) is a mainstream story in which men are not physical, but psychological doubles for each other. This approach is often seen in modern mainstream literature. It also shows up in the suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock, and his disciple Claude Chabrol.

11) There are stories in which a character meets an imaginary or fantastic projection of himself. For example, in Isaac Asimov's fantasy "Author! Author!" (1943), the hero is a mystery writer, and his detective character comes magically to life, causing all sorts of comic problems. Wade Miller's mystery story "The Memorial Hour" (1960) achieves similar effects, as do such fantastic tales as Henry James' "The Jolly Corner" (1906), Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and Carlos Fuentes' tragic fantasy "Aura" (1962) - one of Fuentes' best works. When such tales are filmed, it is usually common to have both the hero and his fantasy alter ego to be played by the same actor, thus underlining the doubling effect. Examples include the TV film Murder by the Book (1985), with Robert Hays in the dual role, and Ate de Jong's A Flight of Rainbirds (1981), with Jeroen Krabbe.

12) Films allow an unusual kind of doubling, one in which two roles are played by the same performer. Usually this is done to suggest a psychological affinity between the characters. This sort of doubling includes Masahiro Shinoda's Shinju Ten no Amijima (1969) and David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997). There are also films in which cities become doubled up. Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) mixes shots from Moscow, Odessa and other cities into one imaginary city. Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot (1976) similarly merges San Francisco and Los Angeles, while Alain Resnais' Providence (1977) combines Paris and Providence, Rhode Island.


Louisa May Alcott

Alcott's most important thriller is the long novella "Behind a Mask" (1866). It has a well constructed plot, and steadily dynamic forward storytelling. It is not a puzzle plot or a mystery at all; rather it can be classified as a melodrama. Among her other works, "The Abbot's Ghost" (1867) is lighter and cheerier than "Mask". It shows some good storytelling and mise-en-scène in its later sections. It falls into the Victorian conventions of a ghost story for Christmas, often with a happy ending. "Pauline's Passion and Punishment" (1863) was apparently Alcott's first thriller. It is simpler as a work of storytelling, instead concentrating on the flames of passion.

Seeley Regester

Regester's work is the closest I know of in theme and technique to Louisa May Alcott's thrillers. Alcott and Regester were both American women who wrote suspense fiction during the 1860's. In both their works, there is a vividly pictured setting of domestic life, with emphasis on the women's point of view. There is great deal of sensitivity towards women's emotions, which are well portrayed.

It is hard to classify Alcott and Regester's work as to genre. It seems in some ways to be an American relative of the British "Sensation Novel". The similarities of Alcott's and Regester's works in theme and techniques suggest that they, and presumably other American authors as well, were writing in some genre of fiction that was popular in the America of their day, but which has since disappeared into the limbo of literary history.

Regester's work has a mystery and its solution in it, whereas Alcott's typically does not. This might lead one to expect that Regester was writing detective tales, and Alcott mere suspense fiction. However, the English Sensation Novel also mixes mystery and suspense in different works, and this American cousin of the genre could easily do likewise.