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Introduction to The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes


Sherlock Holmes is the most famous fictional detective ever created. The supremely rational sleuth and his dependable companion, Dr Watson, will forever be associated with the gaslit and smog-filled streets of late nineteenth and early twentieth century London. Yet Holmes and Watson were not the only ones solving mysterious crimes and foiling the plans of villainous masterminds in Victorian and Edwardian England. The years between 1890 and 1914 were a golden age for English magazines and most of them published crime and detective fiction.

Of course, crime fiction had not been born with Holmes's first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, a novel-length story published in Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887. Scholars of the genre still bicker over when exactly it did first emerge. Some, marshalling more enthusiasm than evidence, claim it has its origins in stories from biblical and Ancient Greek literature. Others point to late eighteenth century fiction like William Godwin's Caleb Williams which hinges on the investigation of a murder. Certainly crime fiction, in a form recognisable to readers today, had been around for most of the nineteenth century and writers as various as the American Edgar Allan Poe, the Englishman Wilkie Collins and the Frenchman Emile Gaboriau had practised it. But it was Conan Doyle who took the genre to new heights of popularity.

Holmes was not an entirely original creation (Doyle openly borrowed elements from earlier detectives like Poe's Dupin and Gaboriau's Lecoq) but he rapidly became the most famous of all fictional detectives, a position he has held ever since and is unlikely to relinquish as long as crime fiction continues to be read. He did so because he appeared in short stories published in a monthly magazine. The truth is that, if Sherlock Holmes had only been the leading character in the first two novels about him Doyle published, it is extremely unlikely that he would be remembered today by anyone but a specialist in late Victorian literature. A Study in Scarlet, for which Doyle was paid the princely sum of 25, was not a great success and The Sign of Four, a much better story published in 1890, did little more to set the Thames on fire. It was only when Sherlock Holmes short stories began to appear in a new magazine named The Strand that the character really seized the public imagination.

In his autobiography, with the benefit of hindsight, Doyle could claim that he had spotted the particular type of market that magazines like The Strand offered. 'Considering these various journals with their disconnected stories,' he wrote, 'it had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine... Looking round for my central character, I felt that Sherlock Holmes, who I had already handled in two little books, would easily lend himself to a succession of short stories.' The result of Doyle's insight (and the perspicacity of The Strand's editor Greenhough Smith who commissioned him) was the first set of Holmes short stories which began with 'A Scandal in Bohemia' in July 1891. Doyle went on to become probably The Strand's most highly valued contributor and 55 more Holmes tales appeared in its pages in the next 36 years.

Not that Doyle was the first writer to publish fiction in The Strand. He was not even the first to write a detective story for it. That honour goes to Grant Allen whose story, 'Jerry Stokes' appeared a couple of months before 'A Scandal in Bohemia'. He could, however, claim to be the first to spot the importance of 'a single character running through a series'. There had been earlier detectives who appeared in sequences of stories in magazines (tales of the Glaswegian detective Dick Donovan, for example, date from the late 1880s) but Sherlock Holmes was undoubtedly the first such character to make a massive impact on a magazine's circulation. One immediate consequence was that Greenhough Smith began to commission other writers to produce series of detective stories. He wanted rivals to Sherlock Holmes if only because Doyle was unable (or unwilling) to write a Holmes story for every issue of The Strand in the 1890s. So characters like Martin Hewitt, the lawyer turned detective created by Arthur Morrison, and Lois Cayley, the feisty 'New Woman' whose adventures were recorded by Grant Allen, made their debut in the magazine. The Martin Hewitt stories were even illustrated by Sydney Paget, the same artist who brought Holmes to life. L. T. Meade, a veteran writer of romances and crime fiction, collaborated with a doctor named Clifford Halifax to write stories about a doctor named Clifford Halifax. (Clifford Halifax was actually the pseudonym of a medic called Edgar Beaumont who was presumably drafted into the partnership to provide professional expertise.) None of these characters attained even a tenth of the fame of Holmes but all did their bit to increase the popularity of crime fiction. For many years after 'A Scandal in Bohemia', nearly every monthly issue of The Strand, almost without exception, included a story of mystery and detection.

Although it was a dominant player in the market, The Strand was only one of dozens of similar magazines that were published in the late Victorian and Edwardian era. And, like The Strand, nearly every one of them wanted crime stories. Writers were only too happy to oblige. Some of these writers, like Arnold Bennett, are now famous for other work. Some, like Grant Allen and Guy Boothby, were famous in their day but are now almost forgotten. Some, like Victor Whitechurch and Headon Hill, were not particularly famous even in their own lifetimes. All, however, were prepared to supply the monthly magazines' insatiable demand for fiction, especially crime fiction. Bennett's stories of the mischievous millionaire Cecil Thorold appeared in The Windsor Magazine; Thorpe Hazell, the railway detective created by Victor Whitechurch, not only appeared (appropriately enough) in Railway Magazine but also in The Royal Magazine and Pearson's Magazine; the adventures of Headon Hill's exotically named sleuth Sebastian Zambra could be followed in a lesser known magazine named The Million. Robert Barr's tales of Eugene Valmont, a French investigator exiled to London, could be found in The Windsor Magazine and Pearson's Magazine. Barr himself, together with Jerome K. Jerome, was closely involved in the establishment of The Idler, one of The Strand's most successful competitors. The Idler played host to detectives like William Hope Hodgson's unusual character, Carnacki the Ghost Finder. Conan Doyle, a friend of both Barr and Jerome, contributed tales of mystery and the supernatural to their magazine.

It was not just in Britain that writers created detective heroes for the magazines. Some American authors published their work in British magazines. Several stories by the South Carolina orthodontist and mystery writer Rodrigues Ottolengui, for instance, appeared in The Idler in the mid-1890s. And, over on the other side of the Atlantic, there were plenty of home-grown magazines which provided a market for American authors, from Jacques Futrelle, creator of 'The Thinking Machine', to Arthur B. Reeve, whose tales of the 'scientific' detective Craig Kennedy began to appear in the years just before the First World War and continued to be popular for decades. It would have been perfectly possible to compile an anthology that consisted entirely of stories by American writers but, in the end, I have contented myself with choosing three.

A vast treasure trove of crime fiction, then, was published on both sides of the Atlantic in the years between 1890 and 1914 and it is from this that I have chosen the fifteen stories in this book. Others before me have produced similar anthologies. In the 1970s, Graham Greene's brother Hugh produced four collections of crime short stories from the Victorian and Edwardian era. Rather cheekily, I have borrowed the title of my anthology from one of his. However, the archive of fiction from the magazines of the 1890s and 1900s is so extensive that it is always possible to venture into it again, both to resurrect stories published in previous anthologies and to look for others.

The question remains - how good were all these rivals of Sherlock Holmes? The problem for those following in the wake of Conan Doyle in the 1890s and 1900s was that they were trying to compete with what rapidly became a phenomenon. Sherlock Holmes became so startlingly popular that writers looking to create successful fictional detectives faced an immediate difficulty. How could they differentiate their creations from Holmes? Some didn't really bother. Many Holmes clones can be found lurking among the back numbers of late Victorian and Edwardian periodicals. Some openly advertised their resemblance to the great detective. Some were rapidly categorised as Holmes lookalikes at the time they were first published. Sexton Blake, for instance, the creation of a prolific writer of stories for boys' papers named Harry Blyth, was soon dubbed 'the office boys' Sherlock Holmes'. And making your central character just like Holmes, only more so, was not necessarily a recipe for poor fiction. Jacques Futrelle's Professor S. F. X. Van Dusen, 'The Thinking Machine', clearly owes a great deal to the Baker Street sleuth staggering, almost inhuman intelligence, detachment from mundane reality, arcane knowledge, impatience with lesser intelligences etc but he is none the less one of the most memorable characters of the period.

Other writers chose a different strategy. Instead of trying to make their characters even stranger and more intellectual than Holmes, they chose to emphasise their ordinariness. Unlike the eccentric genius of Baker Street, Arthur Morrison's Martin Hewitt, who appeared in stories published in The Strand only three years after Holmes's debut in the magazine, is a deliberately colourless character. Hewitt is no deductive superman but someone not too different from the reader who solves his cases by the determined application of common sense. The ultimate embodiment of this technique is Chesterton's Father Brown who made his debut some twenty years after Holmes's first appearance in The Strand. The Roman Catholic priest is so nondescript that other characters in the stories often overlook his presence, so straightforward that he often appears simple-minded to those that do notice him. The paradox (and Chesterton was keen on paradoxes) is that it is Father Brown who sees further and deeper into the human heart than those who seem to be more sophisticated and intelligent.

By far the most common technique writers used in competing with Holmes, however, and one that is still employed today, was to give their characters a Unique Selling Point which was emphasised in every story. Provide your detective with a particular characteristic or give him or her the kind of career and lifestyle that (you hoped) no other detective had and you were several steps on the path towards success. For this reason, the period offers (amongst others), a blind detective (Max Carrados in the stories of Ernest Bramah), a detective who is a Canadian woodsman and hunter (November Joe, created by Hesketh Prichard), a detective who solves crimes from a corner seat in a London teashop (Baroness Orczy's Old Man in the Corner), a gypsy who own a pawnshop (Fergus Hume's Hagar), a wise old Hindu who travels to London from a remote Indian village (Headon Hill's Kala Persad) and a strangely named Edwardian gentleman whose opponents are largely supernatural (William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki).

One possible USP which very rapidly became anything but unique was to make your detective a woman. A large number of female detectives can be found in the pages of the magazines, from George R. Sims's Dorcas Dene and Catherine Louisa Pirkis's Loveday Brooke to Grant Allen's Lois Cayley and Baroness Orczy's Lady Emma of Scotland Yard. This may seem surprising at first but the reason is not hard to find. The late 1880s and the 1890s were the years of the 'New Woman', the proto-feminist who challenged men in what had previously been exclusively masculine domains. 'New Women' could be found at the ancient universities, in professions like journalism and running their own businesses. They could be seen riding bicycles and smoking cigarettes. They made their presence felt in ways that previous generations of women had not done. It was only to be expected that they would become detectives as well, if only in the pages of the magazines.

In the pages of this anthology, readers will find all sorts of crime solvers - women detectives, Holmes clones, deliberately ordinary detectives and detectives whose creators are keen to emphasise their special, defining characteristics. One or two of the protagonists of the stories I have chosen, like Chesterton's Father Brown, are well-known. I was determined to include a Father Brown story because it seems to me that the meek Roman Catholic priest is one of the very few detectives of the period, indeed perhaps the only one, entirely to escape the shadow of Sherlock Holmes. There are other detectives - Morrison's Martin Hewitt, Baroness Orczy's Old Man in the Corner, R. Austin Freeman's Dr Thorndyke - who are nearly as familiar. I could have included stories featuring these sleuths but I have never found any of them as compelling as their reputations would suggest. Besides, I wanted very much for the anthology to dig more deeply into the mountain of crime fiction that is to be found in the magazines of the era. I wanted to include less familiar heroes and most of those in the anthology fit this description. In the final analysis, I make no apology for preferring November Joe, Thorpe Hazell and Miss Lois Cayley to detectives with greater fame.

Not all the stories in this anthology are of equal quality. By very nearly every standard known to man, G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Bennett and Grant Allen were better writers than, say, Headon Hill and Victor Whitechurch and it shows in the tales they wrote. None the less all of the stories in the anthology are, in my opinion, well worth reading. Hill and Whitechurch may not have been as sophisticated as Chesterton or Allen but their stories remain engaging yarns and they tell us as much, if not more, about the era in which they were written as those by their literary superiors. Arthur B. Reeve's Craig Kennedy stories are naive when compared to Bennett's witty tales of Cecil Thorold but they have a buoyant enthusiasm for the wonders of newly emerging sciences which makes them just as appealing. The quarter of a century from the beginning of the 1890s to the outbreak of World War One was a golden age for detective fiction. Sherlock Holmes reigned over it as undisputed king but, as this anthology endeavours to demonstrate, there were plenty of rivals to his crown and many of them are worth rediscovering.

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