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Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle gives us a taste of the interesting trivia to be found in his new book…

I spent a lot of time looking into treacle earlier this year. Not literally. But, as it were, literarily. You see, there’s more to treacle than meets the eye. (If treacle ever does meet your eye, I recommend washing it out immediately.) Take Treacle Mines. They don’t exist. At least, not really. But in fiction, they do. It all began at St Frideswide’s Well in Binsey, Oxfordshire, a small village immortalised by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem ‘Binsey Poplars’. One notable visitor to this well was Charles Dodgson, who worked nearby at Oxford University. One of his companions was probably a girl named Alice Liddell, of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You see, Charles Dodgson was also Lewis Carroll. (Alice’s nurse, the wonderfully named Miss Prickett, came from Binsey.)

To locals, St Frideswide’s Well was known as Binsey treacle mine, from the original meaning of ‘treacle’ denoting any curative fluid or medicine. The word ‘mine’ was a sort of joke, conveying the idea that treacle could be ‘mined’ like gold or lead or coal. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the Dormouse Read the rest of this entry

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Dr John Dollar: The First Criminal Psychologist in Fiction

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