Published by No Exit Press,
25 March 2021.
ISBN: 978-0-85730439-1 (PBO)
American Sherlocks is an anthology of fifteen short detective stories written between 1890 and 1920. The collection starts with one of the earliest historical detectives, Uncle Abner, a God-fearing, backwoodsman. The Uncle Abner stories were written by Melville Davisson Post and were set before the American Civil War.
The American Sherlocks stories feature many types of sleuth, although most of them are amateur and private investigators, varying from ex-Secret Service agents such as George Barton’s Bromley Barnes, to the most amateur of amateurs, Philo Gubb, created by Ellis Parker Butler. Gubb is a small-town paper-hanger who is taking a correspondence course on how to be a ‘detective’. The cases also have a large range of subjects: from murder investigations to thefts of priceless artefacts, such as the Adventure of the Cleopatra Necklace; Christabel’s Crystal; and The Mystery of the Stolen Da Vinci; other stories feature both murder and precious artefacts, such as The Montezuma Emerald. There is an equal variety in the methods of detection, including the eccentric Ledroit Conners, created by Samuel Gardenhire, who depends on intuition and works in the opposite way to Sherlock Holmes; Connors begins his investigation by deciding who is the criminal and then focuses on gathering information to confirm this. A very different character is the all-action, American hero Jigger Masters by Anthony M. Rud, who, in the wartime adventure The Affair At Steffens Shoals, identifies and destroys traitors who are colluding with the German enemy.
The most durably famous detective in this collection is probably Nick Carter, created by John R. Coryell. Carter was part of American popular culture for 130 years and, in American Sherlocks, he is the only one of the detectives that is mentioned in another story as a popular fictional detective, a conceit that is used by many British Golden Age authors, notably by Agatha Christie in her stories Partners in Crime. In The Flying Death, featuring the blind detective, Thornley Colton, his young assistant the Fee ‘had but two heroes: Thornley Colton in real life; Nick Carter in his favourite fiction.’ The Carter story is one of the longer short stories in the collection: An Uncanny Revenge, or Nick Carter and the Mind Murderer, is a chilling tale of psychological violence.
There are four female detectives in this anthology. Elinor Frost, by Carolyn Wells, is an amateur detective, investigating the theft of a friend’s wedding present. Violet Strange, by Anna Katherine Green, is a strange mixture of amateur and paid private investigator as she moves in the best circles and accepts payment for her detective services in order to subsidise her luxurious life style. Clare Kendall is one of two female private detectives created by Arthur B. Reeve and, like many of Reeve’s detectives, solves crimes with the aid of technology. Madelyn Mack, created by Hugh Cosgro Weir, is almost forgotten nowadays, but was very popular at the start of the twentieth century and was the star of several silent movies. In personality and methodology, Mack bore a strong resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and has her own female Watson figure in journalist Nora Noraker.
Nick Rennison is the editor of several
anthologies of short stories, and American Sherlocks is an interesting
collection which illustrates a wide variety of detectives and investigative
styles. It is a very enjoyable read, especially for readers who wish to know
more about the early origins of American detective fiction.
Reviewer: Carol Westron
Nick Rennison is a writer, editor and bookseller with a particular interest in the Victorian era and in crime fiction. He has written several Pocket Essential guides published by Oldcastle Books including Short History of the Polar Exploration, Roget, Freud and Robin Hood. He is also the author of The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Crime Fiction, 100 Must-Read Crime Novels and Sherlock Holmes: An Unauthorised Biography. His debut crime novel, Carver's Quest, set in nineteenth century London, was published by Atlantic Books. He is a regular reviewer for both The Sunday Times and BBC History Magazine.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts click on the title.