Before the Golden Age of the mystery novel (1920s-1930s), there was the first golden age, roughly from the late 1880s to the early 1910s. This was the era of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, R. Austin Freeman and Dr. Thorndyke, Arthur Morrison and Martin Hewitt, and many other authors and their detectives.
And there was Robert Barr and Eugene Valmont. Barr launched his detective in the early 1890s, and in 1906 a collection of the stories was published under the title of The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont.
Valmont is a private detective in London, something of his city for exile after his dismissal as the top police detective in Paris. He wasn’t dismissed for incompetence or failure – Valmont often muses on the incompetence of the police – but for ridicule, detailed in the first story in the collection, “The Mystery of the 500 Diamonds,” which involves the theft of a necklace originally designed for Marie Antoinette. The French can stand anything, apparently, except ridicule.
Barr’s tales of Valmont’s cases are as much about his failures as his successes. In fact, many of his success are off stage and only occasionally referred to in these stories. The reader is often led to wonder how much fun Barr was actually having at his fictional detective’s expense.
The stories are as varied as they are intriguing. Valmont poses as an anarchist to uncover a bombing plot. The theft of 100 pounds at a gentleman’s dinner is solved by a connection to missing silver spoons. A new earl is unable to find what his predecessor did with his fortune; all he knows is that the fortune is to be found “between two pages.” Valmont is asked, by two different people, to find a ghost with a club-foot. The detective finds himself involved in a game of blackmail that he solves by becoming a possible accessory to manslaughter. And then he’s asked to find a missing emerald necklace, which the police have been unable to do.
Barr was born in Glasgow and spent his early years in Canada. He was a teacher in Canada, and began to write short stories for the Detroit Free Press. In 1876, he joined the Free Press fulltime. In 1881, he moved to London to establish the English edition of the newspaper. He retired from the Free Press in 1895, and continued to write stories and novels, many in the crime genre like those in The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont. In his day, Barr was as well-known as such poplar writers as Stephen Crane and Bret Harte.
Barr also wrote two parodies of Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs” and “The Adventure of the Second Swag,” and both are included in this edition, even though they are not Eugene Valmont stories.
Currently available on Amazon for 99 cents is a collection of Barr novels – 21 Mystery and Romance Novels.
The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont is a fascinating collection of stories from the Gaslight Crime Era – contemporaries of Sherlock Holmes who deserve to be better known.
Top illustration: A scene from one of the stories in The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont, “The Ghost with the Club-Foot.”