‘The Dead Witness' focuses on early Victorian mystery writers

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2012 

An excellent collection of short stories culled from the 19th-century popular press, “The Dead Witness” by Michael Sims shines a light on long-forgotten “mystery” writers such as Wilkie Collins, Alexandre Dumas Sr., Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. These authors, better known for their other writings, and others, created a fiction genre that continues to be overwhelming popular.

“In the long view of history, detectives are a recent phenomenon. Crime is not,” Sims says.

He introduces his history of detective fiction starting with two biblical stories from the Book of Daniel then skipping through time to 1740s France and Voltaire. Finally, in 1841, you reach a familiar name: Edgar Allan Poe and his classic story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

“The Dead Witness” starts with “The Secret Cell” from 1837, a tale of an inheritance, a missing daughter and a laundress. Sims points out that that was the year Victoria became queen and therefore a good starting point for this collection.

For each story, Sims provides the writer’s historical and social context. For example, Australian Mary Fortune wrote the first detective story by a woman in 1866. She suffered the fate of many woman authors — “(Her editor) Walstab reduced Fortune’s pen name to a genderless W.W. Not only bias against women kept her identity under wraps: the stories were narrated by a male detective and presented in a factual-sounding and realistic tone.” He goes on to say that her gender wasn’t discovered for nearly 100 years and her first collection of stories was published in 1989.

Alexandre Dumas Sr., known for the “Three Musketeers” used d’Artagnan as a detective in the novel “Ten Years Later.” Here Sims includes the chapter where d’Artagnan deduces the truth of a terrible accident for the king.

But the big kahuna is Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation dominated the detective field so well that he invited parodies almost instantly.

In “A Stolen Cigar-Case,” Bret Hart, a rival of Twain, wrote, “I found Hemlock Jones in the old Brook Street lodgings, musing before the fire. With the freedom of an old friend I at once threw myself into my old familiar attitude at his feet, and generally caressed his boot. I was induced to do this for two reasons; one that it enabled me to get a good look at his bent, concentrated face, and the other that it seemed to indicate my reverence for his superhuman insight.”

“The Dead Witness” concludes at the end of the Victorian era in 1901 but the popularity of detective fiction lives on. PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” series starts the second season of its modern update to Sherlock Holmes, “Sherlock” in early May.

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