Thursday, March 16, 2017

Two mysteries from the pre-Golden Age

Before the Golden Age of Mysteries (1920s-1940s), there was a pre-Golden Age, roughly corresponding to the Victorian Era. It was the era stretching roughly from Edgar Allen Poe to the beginning of World War I. The era, of course, includes the master detective to end all master detectives, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.  

Two mysteries (available as ebooks and paperbacks) provide an idea of the writing of the era.

813 by Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941) shows that detective fiction wasn’t the province of authors writing only in English. Leblanc was the creator of the Arsene Lupin mysteries, wildly popular in France. Lupin happened almost by accident – in 1906, Leblanc was asked to write a story for a new journal, and a Lupin story was the result.

Maurice Leblanc
Arsene Lupin is no ordinary amateur detective. He is a villain – a thief, a burglar, a con man, but never a murderer (he has some principles, after all). In 813, published in 1910, an industrialist is murdered in the Palace Hotel in Paris, and while the police are investigating at the scene, two more murders occur, almost under their noses. A card is left on the first murder victim – the card of Arsene Lupin, who has not been heard from or of in four years. The police are shocked: is Lupin back, and now committing murder?

Lupin is back, but only to clear his name. And thus begins a rather wild story full of exclamation points, coincidences, the number of characters rivaling Dickens, and improbable situations that strain credulity. This is plot development on steroids. 813 provides an insight into French popular culture before World War I, and it makes one yearn for the calmer types of crime across the channel in Britain.

Head west across the Atlantic, and you find In the Fog by American Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916). Davis was a writer, journalist, war correspondent, editor of Harper’s Weekly, friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and the man credited with popularizing the clean-shaven look.

In the Fog, published in 1901 and Davis’s most widely read book, is actually three connected short stories set in London. The Grill is the name of a club for gentlemen, and the night after the great fog of 1897, five club members listen to the telling of three interconnected mystery stories.

Richard Harding Davis
The first concerns an American naval attaché, stumbling through a dense London fog, who takes refuge in a large house in Knightsbridge. He finds refuge, but also finds the bodies of a Russian princess and an English aristocrat, both stabbed to death. The second concerns the Russian princess (who may be a spy), who tried to steal a diamond necklace meant for the Russian czarina. And the third story is the resolution of the two murders, with a bit of surprise tacked on.

In the Fog reflects Davis’s journalism background. It’s essentially a factual recounting of the events surrounding the deaths, with the mystery added by the atmosphere of the fog more than the narrative.

The two books are both pre-World War I, nine years apart, and reflecting different cultures. Interestingly, In the Fog, the older of the two, seems more modern than 813.

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