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Wednesday 11 February 2015

Joseph Smith Fletcher

Detectives of the Golden Age
Joseph Smith Fletcher (1863-1935)
by Carol Westron

Joseph Smith Fletcher was born in 1863. He was the son of a clergyman. His father died when he was only eight months old and he was brought up by his grandmother in Yorkshire. When he was eighteen, Fletcher moved to London to study Law and this knowledge of crime was of great use to him in his career as a writer of mystery and adventure. Fletcher abandoned his plans to become a barrister in favour of the more immediate excitement of journalism and worked for a time on the newspaper The Yorkshire Post. From 1890-1900 he worked as a freelance newspaper writer for the Leeds Mercury and the London Star, writing sketches of rural life under the pseudonym 'Son of the Soil.' In 1894 these pieces were published as a collection under the title, The Wonderful Wapentake.

Fletcher was a prolific and wide-ranging writer: he wrote poetry, history and historical fiction and detective novels. His first published novel was a historical novel, When Charles the First was King (1892). The novelist and literary historian Michael Sadleir, (probably most remembered for his novel about Victorian prostitution, Fanny By Gaslight) stated that When Charles the First was King was Fletcher's best work, which seems a somewhat depressing comment when Fletcher went on to write over 230 more books. Fletcher's historical works, mainly focusing on his native Yorkshire, were much respected and led to his selection as a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Fletcher married the novelist and playwright Rosamund Langbridge and they had one son, Wilfrid. Tragedy hit Fletcher and his wife when Wilfrid was killed in battle in 1914, in the early stages of the First World War.
Fletcher started crime writing by publishing volumes of short stories, the first of which was The Adventures of Archer Dawe, Sleuth-Hound (1909.) These short puzzle stories did not gain Fletcher any great degree of recognition or success. However other short story collections, such as Paul Campenhaye, Specialist in Criminology, (1918) were far more warmly received. Campenhaye is a private investigator who has little connection with the police.

In 1913 Fletcher published The Secret Cargo, which signalled the commencement of his prodigious output of mystery and adventure novels, although he also continued with his historical writing and poetry. Fletcher's crime novels were in a very different style to most of the early Golden Age authors. Most of his earlier books were stand-alone novels, usually with a young, untrained, but enthusiastic and courageous male protagonist who is thrown into a situation where he must discover a hidden truth and right a wrong. In the majority of Fletcher's work, the stories are set in the two places he knew best, London and Yorkshire. His love of Yorkshire adds weight and vibrancy to his stories as he describes the local scenery, buildings and landmarks. In 1919 The Middle Temple Murder brought Fletcher a greater level of fame than he had previously enjoyed when President Woodrow Wilson expressed admiration for the book. This resulted in several of Fletcher's books being published in the US and for some years he was a very popular author both in America and England. The Middle Temple Mystery was also significant because it introduced a young newspaperman detective, Frank Spargo. Spargo was one of the first journalist detectives, a breed of detective that became very popular in the 1920s, both in America and the United Kingdom.

It seems that this new success led Fletcher to the period of his greatest literary productivity. In the years up to and including 1920 to 1930 he wrote and published over fifty books. Although Fletcher wrote many books that involved murder and violence, his great interest was in fraud cases. He is quoted as saying: 'I believe I got my interest in criminology from the fact that a famous case of fraud was heard at the Quarter Sessions at a town where I was at school – its circumstances were unusual and mysterious and the truth hard to get at.' Fletcher also stated that he gained a lot of his knowledge of criminology from the expertise of H.B. Irving (the son of the actor Sir Henry Irving and a well-known actor in his own right) who wrote A Book of Remarkable Criminals (1918.)

Fletcher took delight in creating a wide range of detectives, ranging from the young enthusiastic men who became involved in criminal matters by accident; the news-hound, Spargo; the professional private investigator, Ronald Camberwell; through to the precise and orderly Rev. Francis Leggatt, who unfortunately only made a brief 

appearance amidst Fletcher's detectives. Mr Leggatt Leaves His Card (1929) is an amusing short story, involving the theft of a priceless chalice and the steps that Mr Leggatt takes to retrieve it. It has been included in numerous short story anthologies, including Best Detective Stories 2, edited by Edmund Crispin, and The Best Detective Stories of 1929, edited by Ronald Knox and Henry Harrington.

In 1931 Fletcher created a sleuth who would feature regularly in his work until Fletcher's death in 1935. Ronald Camberwell is a private investigator, based in London but travelling all over the country. Although Fletcher attempted to retire Camberwell after eight 'casebooks,' he discovered, as other greater and more famous writers have done before him, that the public is not happy to relinquish a favourite sleuth and Fletcher returned Camberwell to service within the year. The last two Camberwell books were published after Fletcher's death.

Fletcher is not the standard Golden Age detective writer and his books have not remained popular although many are being published as ebooks and are being more widely read than they have been for some years. His style is very different to that of Christie and the other early Golden Age greats, which has led some critics to denigrate him as a 'bad' mystery writer. It is true that some of Fletcher's work shows signs of suffering from the speed with which he produced a book, however it is not reasonable to condemn the majority of his work because it does not match the format of the usual Golden Age mystery. As well as writing rip-roaring adventures, Fletcher has a dry humour and is skilled in characterisation. In style many of Fletcher's novels bear a resemblance to Conan Doyle's adventure books, such as The Lost World,(1912) and an even stronger resemblance to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886). One of the great joys of the Golden Age was its diversity, originality and willingness to embrace different styles within the crime genre, and J.S. Fletcher was one of the earliest authors of the Golden Age and retained a significant and popular position throughout the period.
‘Dead Men's Money’ by J.S. Fletcher

The story is told in the First Person by Hugh Moneylaws, who is describing events that occurred ten years previously, when he was a twenty-one-year-old solicitor's clerk. At that point, Hugh lived with his widowed mother, a respectable woman who was forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet.
Hugh was looking out of his mother's parlour window when he saw: 'Standing right before the house, a man who had a black patch over his left eye, an old plaid thrown loosely around his shoulders, and in his right hand a stout stick and an old-fashioned carpet-bag.... If I had possessed the power of seeing more than the obvious, I should have seen robbery, and murder, and the very devil himself coming in close attendance upon him as he crossed the pavement. But, as it was, I saw nothing but a stranger.'
The man, who calls himself James Gilverthwaite, has come to ask for lodgings at Mrs Moneylaws' house. He seems respectable and wealthy and tells her that he wants to visit local graveyards where he has relations buried. Fletcher shows both his skill at characterisation and his sly humour as Hugh observes, 'I could see that the sentiment in his speech touched my mother, who was fond of visiting graveyards herself, and she turned to Mr James Gilverthwaite with a nod of acquiescence.'

All goes along quietly for some weeks, until Gilverthwaite becomes ill and is confined to his bed. He summons Hugh and offers him the large sum of £10 to keep a night-time appointment for him and, after using a code word, to explain to the person he is meeting that Gilverthwaite is to ill to meet him for a few more days. Hugh is eager to earn the money because he is saving to be married but his girlfriend, Maisie Dunlop, is more concerned about the danger he might be exposed to. 'I would liefer go without chair or table, pot or pan, than that you should be running risks in a lonesome place like that...'
Hugh does keep the appointment and finds a something terrible awaiting him there. 'And I knew on the instant that this was the stain of blood, and I do not think I was surprised when, advancing a step or two further, I saw lying in the roadside grass at my feet, the still figure and white face of a man who, I knew with a sure and certain instinct, was not only dead but had been cruelly murdered.'
Hugh summons the police but when he returns to his mother's house with the police officer, who wishes to question Gilverthwaite, they discover that he too is dead, lying in his bed.
As he was heading to meet the murdered man, Hugh had seen somebody else that fateful night, a famous and respected man that he recognises. Rather than win the ill-will of this man and place his own career in jeopardy, Hugh sets out to discover the truth and, supported by Maisie, his solicitor employer and other well-wishers, he soon discovers a complex and dangerous plot. Hugh survives many attempts on his life before he uncovers the truth.

Dead Men's Money is set further north than Fletcher's usual territory, in Berwick-on-Tweed, just south of the border with Scotland. This location may well add to the Robert Louis Stevenson feel of the book; certainly many of the adventures endured by Hugh Moneylaws are not unlike the sufferings of David Balfour in Kidnapped. The

start of Dead Men's Money, with Hugh explaining that he is recording an adventure now past, is very similar to Treasure Island, and the arrival of Gilverthwaite in Dead Men's Money mirrors the arrival of the sea dog in Treasure Island.

Dead Men's Money is a fast-paced, adventure detective story. I found Hugh's habit of placing himself in harm's way  irritating but over-all it is an enjoyable read and Maisie Dunlop is a well-rounded and likeable character.

Many of the J.S. Fletcher books are now available as ebooks. They are either free or very modestly priced.


Andrewlina (1889) 
The Golden Spur (1901) 
The Secret Way (1903) 
The Diamonds (1904) {aka The Diamond Murders}  
Paradise Court (1908) 
Marchester Royal (1909)  
The Secret Cargo (1913)   
Paul Campenhaye, Specialist in Criminology (1914) aka The Clue of the Artificial Eye
The Wolves and the Lamb (1914)
The King Versus Wargrave (1915)
The Annexation Society
] (1916)
Families Repaired
The Lynne Court Spinney (1916) aka The Mystery of Lynne Court, And Sudden Death, Pedigreed Murder Case Malvery Hold (1917) {aka The Mystery of the Hushing Pool}
The Perilous Crossways
The Rayner-Slade Amalgamation (1917)
The Amaranth Club
(1918) The Chestermarke Instinct (1918)
The Borough Treasurer (1919)
Droonin' Watter {aka Dead Man's Money} (1919)
The Middle Temple Murder (1919)
The Seven Days' Secret
The Talleyrand Maxim
The Valley of Headstrong Men (1919)
Exterior to the Evidence (1920)
The Herapath Property
The Lost Mr Linthwaite
The Orange-Yellow Diamond
(1920) Scarhaven Keep (1920)
The Root of All Evil (1921) The Wrychester Paradise (1921) aka The Paradise Mystery
The Heaven-Kissed Hill (1922) 
In the Mayor's Parlour
(1922) aka The Time-Worn Town, Behind the Panel The Markenmore Mystery (1922) Ravensdene Court (1922)
The Ambitious Lady (1923)
The Charing Cross Mystery
The Copper Box
The Mazaroff Murder (1923) {aka The Mazaroff Mystery}
The Million-Dollar Diamond (1923) {aka The Black House in Harley Street}
The Mysterious Chinaman
(1923) {aka The Rippling Ruby}
The Cartwright Gardens Murder
False Scent
The Kang-He Vase (1924)
The Safety Pin
(1924) The Bedford Row Mystery (1925) {aka The Strange Case of Mr Henry Marchmont}
The Great Brighton Mystery
(1925) The Mill of Many Windows (1925)
Sea Fog (1925)
The Mortover Grange Mystery (1926) {aka The Mortover Grange Affair} The Stolen Budget (1926) {aka The Missing Chancellor}
The Bartenstein Case (1927) {aka The Bartenstein Mystery}
Short Stories

The Ravenswood Mystery (1929) aka The Canterbury Mystery
The Malachite Jar
{Also published as: The Flamstock Mystery} (1930)
The Heaven-Sent Witness (1930)
The Marrendon Mystery.
(1930)The Man in No 3 (1931)
Safe Number Sixty-Nine
The Man in the Fur Coat
The Solution of a Mystery (1932)
The Murder in Medora Mansions (1933)
The Carrismore Ruby

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014.

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