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Thu December 22, 2011
Author Interviews

'The Dead Witness': Classic Victorian Crime Fiction

Originally published on Thu December 22, 2011 6:48 am

With his pipe, deerstalker hat and formidable "methods," Sherlock Holmes may be the most recognizable face of the Victorian mystery story. But how does he stack up against Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, who pioneered deductive reasoning? Or quicksilver Violet Strange, debutante by day, intrepid sleuth by night?

In The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories, editor Michael Sims examines the nascence of crime writing in the late 19th century, revisiting such icons as Holmes and Dupin and introducing readers to a raft of lesser-known writers, many of them women.

Striking the balance was crucial for Sims, who tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer: "I wanted to have a few key historical [figures] — such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes — but I didn't want to have just the old standard usual suspects. I looked for a lot of forgotten things by big-name writers and lost, wonderful stories by people no one remembers."

Sims also unearths trends and plot points developed in this era of crime writing that continue to influence the genre.

Dupin, in particular, proves seminal. The Murders in the Rue Morgue featured the first "locked room" case — a murder committed in a room that no one could have possibly entered or exited — now a mystery staple. And Dupin cracks the case with deductive reasoning, presaging Sherlock Holmes' famous methods.

"There had never been a character quite like [Dupin]," Sims says. "He is something like Victor Frankenstein, in a sense. He's very scientific; he's very much a Romantic-with-a-capital-R kind of character."

More influentially still, Dupin was untrained, and this idea of the genius amateur detective has become a beloved trope.

"This tradition goes through Miss Marple and Murder She Wrote — that amateurs would have this arcane, genius talent as if they were musicians or mathematicians or something. It's a hilarious idea if you stop and think about it."

The Dead Witness also prominently includes stories by and about women, stories whose exclusion from the canon isn't merely unfortunate but systematic.

According to Sims, "male anthologists deliberately, gradually sidelined all of these strong, free, powerful, intelligent female detectives [in favor of] the Miss Marple type — little old women who are harmless and not bothering anybody, and not seen as independent and strong."

Among the stories of plucky female detectives Sims resurrects is one by Wilkie Collins, featuring an amateur sleuth (naturally) who is caught up in a crime and must solve it to clear her name.

Crime was certainly not considered to be a woman's topic, and a number of writers started out writing under male aliases or gender neutral initials, such as the author of the eponymous "The Dead Witness," who published her story under the pseudonym W.W., which stood for her nickname for herself, Waif Wander.

Still, some women were bold — even celebrated. Anna Katharine Green, credited as the first woman to publish crime fiction, was a best-selling author. Her creation is the unforgettable Violet Strange, a young New York socialite who must keep her detective work a secret so she can go behind the scenes in upper-crust New York.

Even when female writers didn't have to disguise their identities, their creations usually had to conceal their motivations. An interest in evil, an adventuresome spirit and the willingness to muck around crime scenes were considered markedly unfeminine. Female detectives would usually explain that they had been forced into such straits to help an unfortunate relation.

Most female detectives, that is. Sims' particular favorite sleuth, Loveday Brooke of "The Murder at Troyte's Hill" by C.L. Pirkis (aka Catherine Louisa Pirkis), is too practical-minded for such ruses. She is that most exotic of creatures in Victorian crime fiction: a bright but ordinary-looking woman, a "respected, paid professional detective."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The anthologist Michael Sims has gathered a collection of suspenseful stories for long winter's nights. His new book is called "The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories." Speaking to us from WQED in Pittsburgh, Michael Sims says he wanted to explore the idea of the detective and how that character evolved.

MICHAEL SIMS: I wanted to have a few key historical significant things such as, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. But I didn't want to have just the old standard usual suspects. And so, I looked for a lot of forgotten things by big-name writers and then totally lost, wonderful stories by people no one remembers.

WERTHEIMER: Sherlock was not the first and Conan Doyle was not the inventor of detectives who used the deductive methods of solving crimes. Who do you think ought to get that credit?

SIMS: I think unquestionably its Edgar Allan Poe with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" that came out in 1841.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," it's the locked room mystery. I mean, somebody is killed. They can't figure out how it happened because it doesn't seem to be any way in or out of the room, where it appears to have happened. And the detective, Dupin, he thinks his way through this whole thing and explains it to his sidekick.

SIMS: Yes. There had never been a character quite like this before. Voltaire had had a character who did very close scientific-type observation of the world around him. But really, Dupin is something like Victor Frankenstein, in a sense. He's very scientific. He's very much a romantic with a capital R kind of character. And, really, Poe launched the entire genre with this idea, a sort of genius level amateur, because Dupin is not a policeman. He's not trained in crime solving.

And the same tradition would go through Miss Marple and "Murder She Wrote," that amateurs would have this arcane, genius talent as if they were musicians or mathematicians or something. It's a hilarious idea if you stop to think about it.

WERTHEIMER: You've included stories written by women and stories written about women in this book. I must say that I liked the Wilkie Collins story, which is early in the book. I guess that means it must be a very early example of a crime solving female?

SIMS: Yes, and she's not a professional detective. And she is really a character who also became very important in the history of the genre, who is an amateur who's caught up in the crime and works to solve it behind the scenes, either to help someone or to clear herself.

WERTHEIMER: What's your sense of the women that you include in your anthology? Do you think that women who wrote about crime had a tough time of it? They weren't writing about women's subjects. There were a lot of women's magazines and I think there was really thought to be a woman subject.

SIMS: Definitely. Definitely. I think a number of the women started out writing under her male pseudonyms and things like that. In fact, the title story, "The Dead Witness," appeared in 1866 in Australia. And it's by a young woman of I think Canadian-Irish dissent. And she hid her gender behind neutral initials, W.W., which secretly stood for her nickname for herself, Waif Wander.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: I never heard of Violet Strange...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: ...who as described in the story: She looks down at her little, white fluttering hands weighted down by so many rings. I'm probably misquoting but she's the opposite of tough.

SIMS: Yes, and she plays that because Violet Strange was created by a very important woman in the history of crime writing, Anna Katharine Green, an American writer who published the first real detective novel by a woman. And she created Violet Strange toward the end of her career. And she is a New York socialite, very young and she has to keep her detective work completely secret, because all of her value as a detective is based upon her ability to go behind the scenes in upper-crust New York.

WERTHEIMER: Tell me why I never have heard of Violet Strange. I mean why is that? I pay a lot of attention to the Victorian period and to early detective writing, and that sort of thing. I never heard of her.

SIMS: I think there's a very clearly demonstrated the reason. I almost had a good reason, but it's certainly not a good reason. I discovered years ago that you can watch the male anthologists deliberately, gradually sidelined all of these strong, free, powerful, intelligent female detectives. So that they were really mostly gone by the time the new acceptable version comes along, which is the Miss Marple type.

You have little old women who are seen as harmless and not bothering anybody. And they're not seen as independent and strong and they're not paid professionals. And you can see it in the early anthologies. You watch them slowly faze them out and it's always male anthologist who were doing it.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have a favorite in that group of women writers and writers writing about women? Is there somebody in there that you thought was sort of special?

SIMS: I think my favorite is a short story called "The Murder at Troyte's Hill." It's a woman named C.L. Pirkis, Catherine Louisa Pirkis. And she later became very, very important in animal rights in England. But she wrote a few books in the early years of her career. And she created a detective called Loveday Brooke. And she is the first professional female detective. She is not doing it for some secret noble Victorian reason.

Because one of the things that comes up a lot with female detectives is that the author has to explain away their tampering in such unladylike material as crime. And so, they will incense a secret reason such as they're helping a disowned sister. Or - and really funny one, I think, is a "Dorcas Dean" by George R. Sims. She was an actress and she becomes a detective because her husband is an artist who goes blind.

They would do anything to prove that their detective was ladylike. And Loveday Brooke, C.L. Pirkis' detective, didn't have that. She's plain. She's ordinary looking. She's presented as very bright, a very respected, paid professional detective.

WERTHEIMER: Michael Sims' newest collection of Victorian stories is about detectives and it's called "The Dead Witness." Michael Sims, thank you very much.

SIMS: Thank you. It was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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