Friday, June 10, 2011

Three Victorian Detective Novels, by E.F. Bleiler (ed.)


Definitely a worthwhile read. It's strange to think that there was a time when no one had yet thought of the idea of detective stories. This collection boasts three of the earliest. Andrew Forrester's The Unknown Weapon features one of the first female detectives in fiction--and not just an amateur or free lance detective, but an official one. Forrester highlights the many avenues of investigation uniquely available to women. This is quite a surprising (and feminist) elevation of ability over gender, considering the state of gender relations at the time.

My Lady's Money, by Wilkie Collins (best known for The Woman in White, another mystery), presents a more classic mystery: the theft of a 500 pound bank note from an open envelope. The detective here is dirty, unprepossessing old man with keen powers of perception--the unlikely amateur detective at his best.

The final novel in the collection, The Big Bow Mystery is one of the very first "locked room" mysteries. A man in found dead, his throat slit, in a locked room--the windows and doors all locked from the inside. Israel Zangwill injects a healthy dose of humor into the tale, which was not always a characteristic of the genre. Also, Zangwill's introduction sheds some interesting light on the serial nature of Victorian mystery writing. Because he wrote in installments, readers had an opportunity to write in their guesses as to who perpetrated the crime and Zangwill had an opportunity to interact with those guesses. The extent to which those guesses affected his writing is anyone's guess, but it's fascinating to think of that sort of interaction predating television or the fan-fic so prevalent in the internet age.

All in all, an enjoyable and interesting collection, well worth reading. The mysteries aren't the most brilliant, but then the genre was still quite nascent. As first forays into a new kind of literature, they are quite good.

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