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10 antidotes to the presposterous Sherlock Holmes

January 8, 2010

James McCreet

Anyone who has read Arthur Conan Doyle knows it’s impossible to observe Sherlock Holmes at work without skepticism. As James McCreet observes in The Guardian, Holmes’ “powers of deduction often bordered on the paranormal, and what passed for deduction was more usually just imagination.”

McCreet ought to know, having steeped himself in the period for his well-regarded debut novel, The Incindiary’s Trail, published in England last summer. One reviewer termed the book “splendid,” and praised it for its “vividly depicted squalor and grotesquery,”  and likening it favorably not to Doyle but to Dickens.

Real Victorian detectives, as opposed to the antics of Sherlock, had to outsmart criminals, McCreet asserts. “No DNA, no databases and until the very end of the century no fingerprints – the true detectives of that period were perhaps the purest of the form, either literary or factual. Their London was one that straddled industrial modernity and Elizabethan poverty: a breeding ground for crime, and for stories.”

McCreet offers 10 books or stories, some Victorian, some modern, that either correct the Holmes conceit of infallible ratiocination, or betters it. I love lists like this, because earlier literary periods teem with neglected or forgotten books, many of them delightful.

Thomas de Quincey’s On Murder,  No. One on McCreet’s list, certainly falls into this category. Best remembered for Confessions of an Opium Eater, an autobiographical account of drug addiction, De Quincey was a friend of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Lamb. McCreet says On Murder, about a real series of killings, may be “the true origin of detective fiction.”

McCreet’s includes Poe’s story “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” which he suggests is superior to the more famous “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” I agree — while still preposterous, it seems much more grounded in reality.

Dickens’ Bleak House, McCreet says, with its “sober and practical Inspector Bucket,” is not only one of the first works to feature a police investigator but is based on journalism Dickens wrote about the police and how they worked.

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, whose popularity rivaled that of his friend Dickens, was a huge bestseller in its day, and deserves to be read still. Though ludicrous in many respects, it, too, is based on a close examination of working detectives of the era.

Among modern treatments of the 19th century detective or the world in which he worked, McCreet includes Kate Summerscale’s popular novel, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, featuring a real historical detective; A Dictionary of Victorian London, by Lee Jackson; and Liza Picard’s Victorian London, which has a chapter devoted solely to the smells of the squalid metropolis where Holmes found miscreants lurking in the fog.

To the list of modern books, I’d add Louis Bayard’s 2008 novel, The Black Tower, with its potent fictional portrait of Eugene Francois Vidocq, the  Paris thief-turned-cop who pioneered scientific criminology in the early 19th century, instituting procedures — ballistics, accurate record-keeping — still in use today.

But I’m more interested in the older books McCreet names, including one, Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, by Henry Goddard, about which I can find almost nothing, at least not in a quick search of the Internet.

What are some lesser known 19th century novels you’ve found and loved? Please share.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:15 pm

    Cheese Whiz, I think I now have even more to add to my Must Read list. Thanks Mr. Mabe.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 8, 2010 3:34 pm

    I plan to start with the De Quincey. I’ve not read Confessions of an Opium Eater, but I read a short story by him once long ago, and I liked it. Next will come the Dickens, followed possibly by Summerscale’s novel and the nonfiction by Liza (Make It So) Picard. I’d love to read Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, but I doubt it can be easily found.

    For modern readers, even those who’ve read some Dickens, or Twain, or Thackaray or Trollope, the 19th century is a vast unexplored continent, with delights (and horrors) awaiting around every bend in the river.

    I think you’d find The Black Tower a good place to start. I was pretty hard on it in my 2008 review, but he’s an elegant writer who captures the time very well, and in Vidocq creates a powerful character. He tells a good story, too. I faulted him on the mechanics of his plotting, mostly, and some stylistic tics.

    If you want to read my review, you can find it on the Sun Sentinel website at Despite my harsh tone, you will notice I found a lot to like in the book.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 8, 2010 3:37 pm

      Hokay, that’s actually not the Sun Sentinel website, but PopMatters, an entertainment blogsite and aggregator. But the review originally appeared in the Sun Sentinel, back in the days when I had something called a “job.”

  3. January 8, 2010 7:03 pm

    A novel that doesn’t get much attention but which is a fast and engrossing read is Conrad’s THE SECRET AGENT, a book about anarchists (terrorists?) with a bomb wanting to blow up an observatory. The twist comes when the bomber actually goes to do the job. I’m teaching Brit-Lit this spring and Thomas Hardy’s TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES is still near the top of my list for the beauty of its writing and the poignancy of its story about poor, doomed Tess. Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN is still a jaw-dropping performance – given that it was written by an 18-year-old. Considering the greatest writers of the 19th century like Dickens, Thackeray, Austen, etc., the top of the top is still George Eliot and MIDDLEMARCH. I call her England’s answer to Leo Tolstoy.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 11, 2010 12:15 pm

      I’ve always placed Vanity Fair, by Thackaray, at or near the top of my 19th century list, because it revealed, with a wry humor, the foibles and hypocrisy of the age. The sentimental ending notwithstanding, it’s a tough-minded and a joy to read — besides, some people do find true love in the end. Don’t they? I’m a sucker for anything by Robert Louis Stevenson, and I’ve revered Conrad since I was forced to read Heart of Darkness in college. I think much modern fiction flows from him — The Secret Agent is a precursor to Maughum, Ambler, Greene and every above-average spy novelist, while his novels about imperialism, honor, the sea and war inform such recent novelists as Robert Stone, Philip Caputo and many more – whether they realize it or not. My favorite is The Outcast of the Islands or Almeyer’s Folly. He was a terrific short-story writer, too, and not just for “The Secret Sharer.” But I think of him as Edwardian, not Victorian, as the bulk of his output came after 1900…

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 8, 2010 8:25 pm

    The Secret Agent sounds good. Thanks!

    • January 9, 2010 9:48 pm

      Candice, If you haven’t already read it, let me also recommend JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte, a big book but a page-turner. Those Brontes were mind-boggling talents. Emily wrote WUTHERING HEIGHTS and never lived to see it published. Charlotte got it published after Emily died. She never knew that her one book made her a literary immortal. Sad, but true.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        January 11, 2010 12:24 pm

        Although it’s now fairly widely known, having been taken up by feminist studiers, but Kate Chopin’s The Awakening remains a shock. The story of a woman who slowly realizes her marriage is a prison, it reads like it was written in 1999, not 1899.

        I was hoping this blog post would ferret out more obscure worthy books, but everyone seems to be touting their familiar favorites. In that case, I must mention Balzac (Le Pere Goriot, among many novels); Flaubert (Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education); Stendhal (The Red and the Black). Also Twain (Huckleberry Finn, the closest thing to a Great American Novel, is a shockingly harsh satire of American verities). Maupassant, Henry James, Trollope, all great.

        But now I’m just thumbing through the canon.

  5. James McCreet permalink
    February 19, 2010 12:06 pm

    Glad you enjoyed my list in the Guardian newspaper. The “Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner” by Henry Goddard is one of those rare finds you make in a second-hand bookstore. My edition is published by the London Museum Press in 1956.

    Also, I wouldn’t say Poe’s Marie Roget is superior to Rue Morge, but it is a more realistic view into the detective mind.

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