Longdog Library: CSI: Edinburgh

By John Linwood Grant

We’re going way back in the Longdog Library archives this time, for something which is both an episode of early Victorian history and yet spawned a popular detective character known today. OK, who can tell me what connects Silence of the Lambs, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edinburgh Old Town in the 1830s. Yes, the girl at the back, with the green hair and the switch-blade. No, sorry, it’s nothing to do with butchers. Not directly, anyway. It’s the actor Brian Cox, of course.

What? You want to know more? I can explain.

You see, I love Inspector McLevy. In fact, I think anyone who likes crime and detective stories, or police procedurals, would enjoy McLevy. He isn’t occult, psychic or any of those weird things you’ve come to expect from me (though see more below about the audio adaptation). He was a tough cop in a tough city, and a real person, whose history I came across a while ago when I was looking for Victorian period detail. You know, like what brands of mobile phones they had in 1850, that sort of thing. I’m a meticulous writer James McLevy (1796-1875) was, by many accounts, the first proper police detective in Edinburgh, in the cheery old days of hanging and transportation.


Magistrate: Why did you steal that loaf of bread, you little vermin?
Street Urchin: ‘Cos I wanted to be a-feedin’ of them kangi-roos dahn under, guv’nor.
Magistrate: Oh God, just string him up anyway.

After time as a nightwatchman with the Edinburgh police, McLevy was given the rank of detective in 1833, and had a successful career which spanned thirty years and a reported 2,220 cases. This might all have ended up as a minor historical note, except for three things:

1) McLevy wrote up his cases in a number of books from 1860 onwards, around his retirement. How much of what he recounts is true, we can’t tell, but they are not wildly exaggerated tales. They cover the ups and downs of policing Edinburgh Old Town, with its slums and theatres, cobblers and cut-throats. Dickens without the silly names, so to speak.

2) Actor/writer David Ashton, whilst researching Conan Doyle, decided to create a series of radio plays about McLevy’s, developing fictional exploits from the actual case histories. These are quite superbly done, terrific fun, and occasionally rather moving.

3) More directly relevant to our library, Mr Ashton has also written a number of novels featuring the character as well, including ‘Shadow of the Serpent’, ‘Fall from Grace’ and ‘A Trick of the Light’. These are well worth checking out

The real McLevy was a hard worker. He had an insight into criminology, employing stings and forensic techniques. He seems to have had a certain sympathy for the miscreants in his parish, and was not without mercy at times. Eventually he became well enough known to be consulted by parliament and social reformers on the subject of how to deal with criminality.

Some claim that because he consulted the medical school of the University of Edinburgh, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later studied, he might have influenced Conan Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes. McLevy was better known back then, and Conan Doyle might at least have considered some of the cases when constructing his own stories.

On the radio, Brian Cox gives one of his best performances yet as Jamie McLevy, thief-taker in the Parish of Leith. He brings humour and humanity into what can be quite brutal tales, covering such diverse subjects as:

  • Revenge tragedies;
  • The horrors of the Crimean war;
  • Women’s rights;
  • Deadly rivalry between brothels, and
  • Victorian pornography.

McLevy’s own accounts in his books are relatively dry and straightforward, so don’t expect detective thrills as such. Ashton’s McLevy is far more accessible. He’s dedicated to his job, cranky and occasionally eccentric. He needs his coffee. He has a dry wit, and he eats too many sugary sweets.

The good Inspector (not as high a rank as it is now) has a love-hate relationship with Jean Brash (played in the audio version by Siobhan Redmond), the owner of a body house, or brothel, called the Happy Land. I’m guessing that there is intended irony from Ashton here, as the real Happy Land was a tenement/slum area in Victorian Edinburgh. If I wanted to sound really mock-academic, I could point out that it’s also referenced in an 1838 hymn:

“There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day.”

‘The Happy Land’ was therefore sometimes mentioned by spiritualists as where the souls of the departed would end up – if they were lucky.

Curiously, while James McLevy was an Irishman who came to Scotland as an immigrant in his teens, Brian Cox is himself a descendant of Irish immigrants to Scotland. A match born in… well, somewhere up there. David Ashton, for fun, plays Lieutenant Roach, McLevy’s superior.

The other notable character on the radio is Constable Mulholland, McLevy’s assistant, who spends his time getting exasperated with his Inspector, fishing, keeping bees and hitting people with a big stick. And he likes the ladies, but is not the luckiest of fellows. Mulholland is supposed to have been a real contemporary of McLevy, but I can’t prove that bit.

I’m always mithering on about occult detectives and period crime, so I look out for spooky references in everything I read or listen to. The radio series does have a distinctly unsettling element – odd presentiments, a sense of the violence and death which follows McLevy, and a prophetic vision or two from the locals. You can feel doom and vengeance on the wind.

However, the original James McLevy gives little shrift to spookiness. The best you get is the ending of The Cobbler’s Knife:

“This is the only dream-case in my book; and I’m not sorry for it, otherwise I might have glided into the supernatural, as others have done who have had more education that I, and are better able to separate the world of dreams from the stern world of realities.”

You’ll have guessed the other connections by now, which include the title. If not…

Brian Cox plays Inspector McLevy, but he also played Hannibal Lecter in the original 1986 movie Manhunter, the film adaptation of the book ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris, who wrote Silence of the Lambs. Cox’s son Alan played Dr Watson in the film Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). And in Manhunter, the lead FBI agent/profiler hunting Hannibal was played by William Petersen, who, of course, was Gil Grissom in CSI.

And none of the above are actually from Edinburgh.

Longdog Library: Ain’t No Witch – Hoodoo and the Blues

By John Linford Grant

Never let it be said that the Longdog Library is limited in its scope. For example, you might not know that it includes sundry volumes on hoodoo and conjure-work, kept carefully surrounded by a circle of Hot-Foot Powder. I’ve always had an abiding interest in the Cunning Folk of Europe, the hedge-wizards, wise women and others, often Christian (though not always), who could be called upon for protection against curses, hexes and blights. In the US, whilst Wicca, historical witchcraft, and voodoo or vodun, are fascinating in themselves, the real roots that interest me there are those of hoodoo, which is something different.

“Because sometimes I’m waitin’ at the crossroads, but I does it how I choose,” said Mamma Lucy. “I ain’t one of your mamalois, Voodoo girls or Sant-eria ladies, liftin’ their skirts when you come callin’, neither.”
—  
John Linwood Grant, ‘Tales of the last Edwardian’

Historically, as with many of the Cunning Folk, the guiding principle for most hoodoo was belief in God and the Bible. Where Caribbean and New Orleans spiritual movements blended Catholic saints with African belief systems, a lot of hoodoo folk were Protestant in one form or another. Voodoo and hoodoo get confused, but they ain’t the same.

You might call hoodoo a dominant blend of African beliefs, with threads of European herb and symbolic lore pulled in as well. Much conjure-work links back to Ewe and Fon lore from West Africa. If it was a predominantly black road, it didn’t automatically exclude whites, because it slowly blended with folklore from European immigrants, especially Germanic ones. It came from the big slave plantations, but it spread into communities through freedmen and women, and had resonances for many poor and disenfranchised people. It absorbed elements of Native American herbalism, and became its own thing. Root-work is one other name, from the use of medicinal or magical roots and herbs.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the black novelist and folklorist, wrote a study of Afro-American folklore, including discussion of hoodoo, root work and conjuration in her 1935 collection of tales, ‘Mules and Men’. One crossover example is ‘The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses’, a magical text allegedly written by Moses, passed down as hidden portions of the Old Testament. A grimoire, a collection of magical incantations and seals, the text circulated in Germany from at least the 1700s, passed through immigrants such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and entered both white general folklore and black Christian hoodoo.

One of Manly Wade Wellman’s books

The writer Manly Wade Wellman also slipped in to my mind when I came across a copy of  ‘Pow-wows, or The Long Lost Friend’. This book crops up in a number of Wellman’s stories. This is another genuine ‘grimoire’ from the 1820s, by one Johann Georg Hohman, and was originally called Der Lange Verborgene Freund.

“Bind,” he said to someone over me. “Bind, bind. Unless you can count the stars, or the drops in the ocean, be bound.”
It was a spell-saying. “From the Long Lost Friend?” I asked.
— 
M W Wellman, ‘Vandy Vandy’, (1953)

‘The Long Lost Friend’ is a mixture of spells, charms and remedies for everyday use. Like the Books of Moses, it initially entered hoodoo through the Pennsylvanian Dutch and other groups of Germanic origin. It crossed relatively easily into hoodoo because it also puts Christianity in the driving seat and emphasis belief in the Bible as core. ‘Pow-wows’ was added to later editions, in reference to real or supposed Native American practices.

“The book has remained quite popular among practitioners of Hoodoo… James Foster noted that many shops in Harlem and Brooklyn stocked The Long Lost Friend in 1957.”
–Daniel Harms, ‘The Long Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire’ (2012)

And if you write about hoodoo from around the early 20th Century, you can’t avoid the blues. You also can’t avoid Aunt Caroline Dye. Despite her association with hoodoo, Caroline Dye was a psychic, a fortune-teller –  there’s less evidence of her performing root-work, setting up actual spells. People went to her for readings, and they went in their thousands.

Aunt Caroline Dye

She was born to enslaved parents in Jackson County, Arkansas – or in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There are different versions, both of her origins and her death. The earliest suggestion of her birth is 1810, which seems unlikely, and the more accepted one is in the 1840s. As Caroline Tracy, a name which seems to have come from her family’s original owners (a phrase which should never have had to be typed), she married Martin Dye of Sulphur Rock, some time after the American Civil War.

Called “one of the most celebrated women ever to live in the Midsouth”, she is said to have died September 26th, 1918 (which would have made her 108 years old – or, more likely, in her seventies). She is buried in Jackson County. Caroline Dye was supposed to have the ‘second sight’ even when she was young, but became famous for being a seer after the Dyes set up home in Newport, Arkansas, around 1900. 

Despite the dates above, others such as catherine yronwode of luckymojo.com have compiled evidence that suggests Caroline Dye may have been around longer. One of the problems is that there are mentions of her in music which suggest she was alive in 1930, when Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band recorded their song about her. This details Dye’s hometown as Newport News, in Virginia, but the song’s music and a verse was lifted from the band’s 1927 song Newport News Blues, so that was probably just convenient (or locally popular).

Others have spoken as if she was around until 1936-37. This may have been the general remembrance of a notable figure. It may even have been complicated by the tendency for famous ‘names’ in fortune-telling and hoodoo to be adopted by later practitioners. So there may have been a second ‘Caroline Dye’, no relation but using her reputation.

Dye was ‘the gypsy’ in the 1914 song “The St. Louis Blues,” according to W.C. Handy, who wrote it.  He later names her directly, in his 1923 song “Sundown Blues.”

For I’m going to Newport
I mean Newport Arkansaw
I’m going there to see Aunt Car’line Dye
Why she’s a reader
And I need her
Law! Law! Law! She reads your fortune, and her cards don’t lie.
I’ll put some ashes in my sweet Papa’s bed,
So he can’t slip out, Hoodoo in his bread

In 1937, Johnny/Johnnie Temple named her again in his Hoodoo Woman song:

Well, I’m going to Newport,
          just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
Well, I’m going to Newport,
        just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
She’s a fortune teller, hooo, Lord,
        she sure don’t tell no lie

She also crops up in “Wang Dang Doodle,” (1960) by Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor. This is a curious song about rowdy merry-making. It borrows from black oral history, including lesbian nicknames of earlier times. The original reference to Fast Talkin’ Fannie, for example, used a word other than Talkin’.

Dye would read futures and make predictions. Her most commonly quoted method was using cards, as in Handy’s lyrics. It’s said that she wouldn’t help in romantic matters, though, and told people that they should sort their own love lives out. She did offer to find lost people, lost cattle and other items through reading her deck, or through her visions.

“Going to go see Aunt Caroline” became a common saying among black people of the time, and as she grew famous, she became respected by many whites as well. She reportedly died a landowner with substantial fortune. In the 1960s, Will Shade from the Memphis Jug Band spoke of her having wider powers. He said of her:

“White and Colored would go to her. You sick in bed, she raise the sick. Conjure, Hoodoo, that’s what some people say, but that’s what some people call it, conjure.”

Interview by Paul Oliver, ‘Conversation with the Blues’.
“Seven Sisters ain’t nowhere wit’ Aunt Caroline Dye; she was the onliest one could break the record with the hoodoo.”
— ibid

The Seven Sisters were supposed sisters in 1920’s New Orleans. As usual, controversy surrounds their nature. Some say they were genuine sisters, others that they were just seven women working together, and it’s even been claimed that they were one woman in different guises. The name also crosses concepts of seventh sons and seventh daughters being special. And as with Caroline Dye, they were well known for their psychic abilities or clairvoyance.

They tell me Seven Sisters in New Orleans that can really fix a man up right
They tell me Seven Sisters in New Orleans that can really fix a man up right
And I’m headed for New Orleans, Louisiana, I’m travelin’ both day and night.
They tell me they’ve been hung, been bled, and been crucified
They tell me they’ve been hung, been bled, and been crucified
But I just want enough help to stand on the water and rule the tide.

As to hoodoo itself, apart from mid-century and later commentaries, it’s interesting to read earlier writers. One source is Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858 – 1932), an African-American author, essayist, political activist and lawyer. Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, his parents being ‘free persons of color’ from North Carolina. His position was odd – Chesnutt was legally white in some States, black in others. In a shameful time of Jim Crow laws in America, many state had a ‘one drop’ rule, which meant that even if you had only a single grandparent or great-grandparent who was black, you could be discriminated against. North Carolina adopted ‘one drop’ legislation in 1923. Chesnutt’s paternal grandfather was known to be a white slaveholder, and he would have had other white ancestors. Despite his outward appearance, he identified as African American, and never chose to be known as white.

Charles Waddell Chesnutt

Here’s a passage from his essay ‘Superstitions & Folklore of the South’:

“Conjuration: The only professional conjure doctor whom I met was old Uncle Jim Davis, with whom I arranged a personal interview. He came to see me one evening, but almost immediately upon his arrival a minister called. The powers of light prevailed over those of darkness, and Jim was dismissed until a later time, with a commission to prepare for me a conjure ‘hand’ or good luck charm, of which, he informed some of the children about the house, who were much interested in the proceedings, I was very much in need. I subsequently secured the charm, for which, considering its potency, the small sum of silver it cost me was no extravagant outlay. It is a very small bag of roots and herbs, and, if used according to directions, is guaranteed to insure me good luck and ‘keep me from losing my job’. The directions require it to be wet with spirits nine mornings in succession, to be carried on the person, in a pocket on the right hand side, care being taken that it does not come in contact with any tobacco.”
Modern Culture, volume 13. 1901

His collection ‘The Conjure Woman’ (1899) is available on-line, and also includes the full essay http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11666

There is one problem with writing about hoodoo, by the way. It’s difficult to get right, and yet sometimes difficult to get wrong. People did make up ‘spells’ to suit them. There are so many variants, and styles of traditional conjure-work can be personal to a practitioner, or peculiar to a geographical area. The terminology varies across the States, and some branches came from passed-down pamphlets, others through family word of mouth.

So be careful, now.

One of John Linwood Grant’s Mamma Lucy stories, “Hoodoo Man,” is in the 18thWall Productions anthology Speakeasies and Spiritualists, curated by Nicole Petit. His new collection A Persistence of Geraniums & Other Worrying Tales is available on Amazon.

Longdog Library: 1893 – The Year of The Nesbit

By John Linwood Grant

Today for the Longdog Library we browse some Victorian oddities, and end up going supernatural and historical at the same time. Why? Well, because every fine library should contain a selection of classic books from the year 1893. Trust me. They may not all be brilliant – or, indeed, entirely readable – but many of them are certainly odd.

For example, published that year you have Byron Alden Brooks’s ‘Earth Revisited’, one of those end-of-the-century Utopian novels. Early SF, basically, though with a lot of spiritualism thrown in.  Brooks, incidentally, is credited as inventing the first typewriter where you could shift between upper and lower case. Also in 1893, H Rider Haggard published what he considered to be the last of his decent books, Montezuma’s Daughter, though I’m not sure I’d recommend that one.

Then there’s Hartman the Anarchist, or the Doom of the Great City, by Edward Fawcett, brother of the explorer Percy Fawcett – who disappeared looking for the Lost City of Z (recently filmed). The illustrated 1893 version of this tale of anarchists, socialists, giant airships and the like is often overlooked, but always worth a browse, especially when London is set ablaze from the air.

Or how about Anatole France’s At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, which tells of the struggles of a young meat-turner amongst alchemists and wicked uncles? Part of the novel draws on ‘Comte de Gabalis’, a 17th-century French occult book by the Abbé de Villars, and the main alchemist is on the hunt for salamanders. The magickal kind, not the newt-like fellers.

However, we covered a lot of men in our previous outing, so let’s pick out a female writer who had two collections published in that same year. Do you remember those heady days? We laughed, we shared brandy by the Seine, and you were sick in a gendarme’s hat. We snuggled close and read E Nesbit’s scary tales. Later that year, the First Matabele War started in South Africa, so we went back to knitting socks for the missionaries. The Nesbit carried on, to some acclaim.

Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was a typical British housewife of her time. Oh, apart from:

  • Her friendship with Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist dissident
  • The fact that she adopted two children fathered by her first husband, and let the mother live with them as secretary
  • Her Marxist-socialist beliefs and involvement in founding the Fabian Society
  • The seventy or eighty books she wrote or co-wrote
  • Her political lecture tours, which included the London School of Economics

Strange, then, that nowadays she is best known as a children’s author, the woman who wrote the Railway Children, The Five Children and It, the Bastable series and the Enchanted Castle. Not that these have been without influence. Her children’s stories are referenced in C S Lewis’s Narnia series; Noel Coward and J B Priestley both admired her work.

Gore Vidal wrote in the New York Review of Books, in 1964:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B. Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive, and they prove to be most disagreeable.

(Yalding Towers, incidentally, from the Enchanted Castle, is a setting in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

Her approach to writing children was less sentimental than many, making her legacy more important. Some call her the first of the modern children’s fantasists, escaping the twee or moral tales of earlier Victorian writers. As a result, adaptations and derivations continued long after her death.  The Psammead stories are well known. Jenny Agutter’s career (see also further down) was boosted by her performances in two adaptations of The Railway Children (1968 and 1970), which allowed her to have less clothes on in Walkabout (1971) and Logan’s Run (1976). These latter two films certainly influenced many teenagers. Ahem.

And Michael Moorcock wrote a series of books with an adult Oswald Bastable (The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, The Steel Tsar), drawing partially on Nesbit’s Fabian views of where the British Empire should be going.

But to the point. E Nesbit wrote four collections of ghost or supernatural tales. Something Wrong (1893), Grim Tales (1893), Tales Told in the Twilight (1897) and Fear (1910). Naomi Alderman wrote, of Nesbit’s ghost stories:

“There is darkness in the corners of these stories, like that gathering shadow – ordinary callousness turning into something more disturbing.”  Guardian Arts (2016)

Her ghost stories are variable. Some contain musings which could have been left out, others evoke a worrying mood but don’t exactly scare. However, when she gets it right, she is excellent, with a less “period” style than some of her contemporaries, and she can be truly chilling. She evokes images of the dead who are determined (or cursed) to keep going long after the grave has beckoned. And when I say images, I mean not only intangible revenants but also too, too solid dead flesh. In fact, she has a penchant for corporeal returns, which places her firmly in the horror genre.

As I can’t go into every scary E Nesbit story here, you might start in 1893 with her volume ‘Grim Tales’. This collection includes two of her most anthologised stories, ‘John Charrington’s Wedding’ and ‘Man-Size in Marble’.

  • The Ebony Frame
  • John Charrington’s Wedding
  • Uncle Abraham’s Romance
  • The Mystery Of The Semi-Detached
  • From The Dead
  • Man-Size In Marble
  • The Mass For The Dead

Within ‘Grim Tales’ you will find questions of the nature of love – the selfish and the selfless aspects of love are both explored. There are many unhappy endings, yet also sad visions of what might have been – and what might have been avoided. And as suggested earlier, you will find the determination of the dead to wreak damage. Things walk when they should not…

You could buy the book, but Grim Tales is also available free from Project Gutenberg, as is The Enchanted Castle (for children) mentioned above. Add them to your library one way or another.

Longdog Library: Sherlock Holmes versus The Thinking Machines

John Linwood Grant

Welcome to our newest column on 18thWall.com, John Linwood Grant’s Longdog Library. It’s an eclectic collection of history, genre fiction, and nearly forgotten books and genres. Check it out on every second Thursday!

There’s something about a classic detective whose approach – or even mind – is a touch off the beaten track.  Most people know their Holmes, and many have flirted with Poirot, Father Brown or one of those other quirky fellows. So today we’re going to visit three lesser known crime-solvers. I’m conscious that I’ve picked male detectives here, but it wouldn’t be too hard to do the same for female sleuths. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley (from the 1930s onwards) would have done just as well. A peculiar and erudite woman, she was described as “an alligator smiling gently while birds removed animal irritants from its armoured frame”.

However, I’ll stick to the chaps for now. Our tireless trio are Edgar Wallace’s Mr J G Reeder, Roy Vickers’ Detective-Inspector Rason, and Jacques Futrelle’s Professor Augustus S F X Van Dusen.

J G Reeder

Edgar Wallace

We start with my absolute favourite, Mr J G Reeder. It’s strange in a way that the character is so little known nowadays, as he stands out amongst his contemporaries in fiction. His creator Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was already known for his thrillers, and was prolific, being described as being able to write a full novel in three to four days. Prior to Wallace, most British thrillers had featured amateur or private detectives as their main protagonists – Wallace almost single-handedly popularised the use of a police officer as the main investigator.

J G Reeder is a former police investigator with considerable experience in money-related crimes such as forgery, counterfeiting and bank heists. Taking up a position in the Department of Public Prosecutions, he is assigned a number of cases where officials are rather stumped. The character was first introduced in Edgar Wallace’s novel Room 13, but really took off in a series of short stories published in 1925.

This might be seen as a standard set of crime stories for the period, except for the nature of Reeder himself. In appearance and surface behaviour, Reeder is a mild-mannered civil servant of nineteen twenties fiction, polite and unassuming, described at one point as looking more like a rabbit than an officer of the law. He speaks gently and tries not to stand out. His mind, however, is extraordinary. He himself puts it down to being able to think precisely as his opponents do.

“I have that perversion,” he said. “It is a terrible misfortune, but it is true. I see evil in everything… in dying roses, in horseshoes – in poetry even. I have the mind of a criminal. It is deplorable!”

The Poetical Policeman

The end result of his ‘criminal’ mind is that whilst the investigator is orthodox in every visible way, his approach to investigations is often highly unorthodox. The mysteries themselves are novel and quite interesting, but Reeder’s character elevates every tale.

Hugh Burden as J.G. Reeder

It’s difficult to cherry-pick, but for me one of the most enjoyable is ‘The Green Mamba’, originally entitled ‘The Dangerous Reptile’. An “uncrowned emperor of the underworld”, Mo Liski is persuaded that Reeder must be taken down. The story which follows is a wonderful exercise in subtlety as the investigator misleads and misdirects everyone around him, a non-criminal mastermind at his finest.

“The world is full of sin and trouble,” he said, shaking his head sadly; “Both in high and low places vice is triumphant, and virtue thrust, like the daisies, underfoot. You don’t keep chickens, do you, Mr Liski?”

The dangerous reptile is, naturally, J G Reeder. My recommended Sleuth of the Month.

Associated trivia – The stories were turned into a UK TV series between 1969 and 1971, and rather well done. Doing an excellent job as Reeder was the actor Hugh Burden, who conveniently also starred in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, one of my favourite mummy films.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

Wallace links to my own writing, as well. As a young man he enlisted in the Royal West Kent Regiment, transferred to the Medical Staff Corps and ended up South Africa during the second Boer War. In 1898 he left the army to become correspondent for Reuters, then correspondent for ‘The Daily Mail’. He wrote a series published as ‘Unofficial Dispatches’, but due to his viewpoint and criticisms, Lord Kitchener removed Wallace’s credentials.

Wallace was therefore operating at the same time that Henry Dodgson and Redvers Blake, from my novella A Study in Grey, became disenchanted with aspects of the war, especially the concentration camps. And yes, Wallace and one of my characters did meet, but that’s for another time…

Detective Inspector Rason

My next detective, who is given no first name, is not in J G Reeder’s class, but he and his cases are curious enough to deserve a mention. His creator, William Edward Vickers (1889-1965) was an English mystery writer better known under his pen name Roy Vickers, (he had five or six other pseudonyms as well).

The Rubber Trumpet, the first of Vicker’s thirty-seven stories featuring the fictitious Department of Dead Ends, appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in September 1934. Partial collections of the stories were later made in 1947, 1949, and 1978. I have the 1978 Dover Edition, introduced by E F Bleiler (who also edited science fiction and fantasy fiction anthologies).

The “Department of Dead Ends” is Scotland Yard’s dumping ground for unsolved mysteries – some serious, some mundane. It’s a classic cold case set-up, with the expectation that most will never be looked at again or ever solved. The stories are described thus:

“That repository of files which were never completed, of investigations without a clue and clues which led nowhere. From time to time, quite illogically, Inspector Rason finds a connection between happenings in the outside world and the objects in his Scotland Yard museum, a rubber trumpet, maybe, or a bunch of red carnations. Then events move inexorably to their appointed end.”

The central investigator, Detective Inspector Rason, is not a character on whom to dwell for too long, although the stories are themselves interesting. He’s neither as clever nor as ruthless as Mr Reeder. Instead, he acts as a collector of trivia, one who sees tiny links between people and items. Some of his cases are solved entirely by accident, or via an afterthought.

These are not detailed forensic investigations where science and team effort prevail. Rason might hear something in a corridor, and remember an item on a shelf. And that’s it. It’s an unusual way of doing things, and Vickers emphasises the random nature of existence above all else. The most casual action or incident in one town on an unimportant day might easily link to an horrific crime elsewhere a week or a year later. The connections are sometimes ingenious, and might make you worry a little if you’re a career criminal. Did you leave a discarded ticket on a train three years ago?

Although Vickers wrote over 60 crime novels and 80 short stories, it was on the basis of the Department of Dead Ends that he developed a reputation in both the UK and the US as an accomplished writer of “inverted mysteries.”

“One of the half-dozen successful books of detective short stories published since the days of Sherlock Holmes.” Manchester Evening News

The Thinking Machine

Jacques Futrelle

Finally, the earliest and most weird of our three sleuths for the day. If there is a cold, calculating challenger to Holmes, one who shares his irascibility, his disdain for others, and his logical bent, then it is Professor August S F X Van Dusen – also known as The Thinking Machine and in the press, ‘the American Sherlock Holmes’.

Van Dusen was the creation of Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912), an American writer and journalist. Rather tragically, Futrelle died on the Titanic after insisting his wife take her place in one of the lifeboats. Despite having written a number of novels, he is best known for his tales of Van Dusen, who is in some ways a monstrous central character – Holmes with less redeeming features. Our sleuth this time is no Holmes in appearance, either:

“He was slender with the droop of the student in his thin shoulders and the pallor of a close, sedentary life on his clean-shaven face. His eyes wore a perpetual, forbidding squint – the squint of a man who studies little things – and when they could be seen at all through his thick spectacles, were mere slits of watery blue. But above his eyes was his most striking feature. This was a tall, broad brow, almost abnormal in height and width, crowned by a heavy shock of bushy, yellow hair.”

Where Holmes had his Watson, Professor Van Dusen had American journalist Hutchinson Hatch, perhaps drawn from Futrelle’s experience working for the Atlanta Journal.

1905 drawing of Van Dusen

Acclaimed science fiction and fantasy author Harlan Ellison says of Van Dusen, in his introduction to the 2003 collection of Thinking Machine stories:

“This irascible genius, this diminutive egghead scientist, known to the world as “The Thinking Machine,” is no less than the newly rediscovered literary link between Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe: Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, who—with only the power of ratiocination—unravels problems of outrageous criminous activity in dazzlingly impossible settings.”

It’s tempting to think that Ellison, who is sometimes described as an irascible genius himself, felt a certain bond with Van Dusen.

A number of the short stories were originally published in The Saturday Evening Post and the Boston American. They’re a mixed bunch, and some are exercises in the most unlikely uses of logic, to the point of being rather unbelievable. If you ever questioned Holmes’ ability to make logical deductions from limited evidence, then you can have a field day here. The most widely anthologised tale, ‘The Problem of Cell 13’ (1905), relies on a chain of arrangements and events which stretch credibility about as far as you can go.

They’re still rather enjoyable, though. Because of their age, the full text of many of the stories can be found on-line.

Incidentally, Van Dusen is odd enough to have cropped up in other media a few times. The professor appeared in two episodes of the 1970s Thames Television series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Douglas Wilmer portrayed Van Dusen in “Cell 13” and “The Superfluous Finger.” This is rather appropriate, as Wilmer played Sherlock Holmes himself in the first series of the UK sixties production of Holmes’ exploits. Peter Cushing was to take the role for the second series. Despite much criticism of production problems by both actors, Wilmer is actually a rather good Sherlock.

Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes

In addition, the character appeared in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel Nemo: Heart of Ice (2013). Van Dusen aids explorer Janni Nemo when she encounters H. P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods in Antarctica.

There you have our three lesser known detectives, and if there is one who might have genuinely rivalled Holmes, it would have to be the annoying Professor Van Dusen. Although they’re all worth a look, Mr Reeder is the true delight. Do explore…