In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle returns to the Golden Age of detective fiction with this crime classic
Before Colin Dexter breathed new life into the genre with his Inspector Morse novels published from 1975 onwards, the Oxbridge crime novel was already a sizeable subgenre within detective fiction: there was the Queen of Crime Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Gaudy Night (1935) had helped to blaze a trail for the Oxford crime novel, and in her wake, Bruce Montgomery, under the pen name Edmund Crispin, wrote mystery novels set in Oxford, where he was studying for a degree when he wrote his first, The Case of the Gilded Fly, in 1943. Crispin’s creation, the amateur sleuth Gervase Fen, is also an Oxford don and English Literature professor at the university.
But before these, there was Lois Austen-Leigh’s quartet of Cambridge crime novels, of which the 1931 novel The Incredible Crime (British Library Crime Classics) was the first. Now, the British Library have brought the novel back into print as part of their Crime Classics series. Lois Austen-Leigh (1883-1968), who was the great-great-niece of Jane Austen, has languished forgotten in old libraries and second-hand bookshops for over half a century, her novels known only to aficionados of the Golden Age of British crime fiction, lasting around two decades between the two world wars. Even then, as Robert Davies has noted, even experts in the field often haven’t heard of Austen-Leigh. Read the rest of this entry
In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library column, Dr Oliver Tearle considers E. W. Hornung’s forgotten ‘crime doctor’, John Dollar.
Dr John Dollar is a fictional detective with a difference. He is, as one of the characters in The Crime Doctor puts it, ‘a medical expert in criminology’. He is the forerunner to the fictional criminal psychologists we see in modern police procedural television dramas, probably most famously Cracker, the ITV drama created by Jimmy McGovern and starring Robbie Coltrane as Dr Edward ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, a criminal psychologist who helps the Manchester police to investigate crimes.
In the first story in The Crime Doctor, which is largely an introduction to Dr John Dollar’s history and his methods, he tells the Home Secretary, Topham Vinson:
‘It is impossible,’ replied the enthusiast, duly drawn, ‘to define the scope of an embryonic science. When the crime doctor has come to stay—as he will—I can see him playing a Protean part with the full sanction of his profession and of the law. He will be preventive officer, private detective, and father confessor in one, if not even privileged accessory after some awful fact. The humbler pioneer can hope for no such powers; his only chance is to work in the dark on his own lines, to use his own judgment and to take his own risks as I’ve done to-night. If he really can save a man by screening him, let him do it and blow the odds! If he can stop a thing without giving it away, all the better for everybody, and if he fails to stop it all the worse for him! Let him be a law unto his patient and himself, but let him stand the racket if his law won’t work.’ Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic Sherlock Holmes story
‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ is one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Doyle himself recognised that many readers would include ‘The Speckled Band’ among their list of favourite Holmes outings. It’s easy to read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and enjoy them, with no additional analysis deemed necessary. But closer inspection reveals its links to previous detective fiction and the reasons for its status as one of the finest of Doyle’s short stories.
‘The Speckled Band’, in summary, focuses on the case of Helen Stoner, a woman of thirty who lives with her bullying and domineering stepfather, Sir Grimesby Roylott, at Stoke Moran. She is nervous and fearful when she comes to Baker Street to consult Sherlock Holmes, and tells him her back-story. In India, Roylott had married Ms Stoner’s mother, a young widow of a major-general, when Ms Stoner and her sister were both very young, and their mother bequeathed her substantial wealth to Roylott while she was alive, on condition that an annual sum be paid to the sisters when they married. Eight years prior to the main events of the story, the girls’ mother had been killed in a railway accident, and Roylott had taken the two girls to live with him at Stoke Moran. Roylott had become violent and reclusive, though he was known to associate with wandering gypsies who hang around on the plantation near Stoke Moran, and we learn he has a passion for exotic animals which are shipped over from India, including a baboon and a cheetah. Read the rest of this entry