Fictional Detectives

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, pt 2: the novel that made Christie’s career


The surprise ending. Photo by K.B. Owen




Okay, I warned you…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

This was the novel that established Agatha Christie’s mystery-writing reputation.  As mentioned in my earlier post (part 1 – Product of a Golden Age), Christie had written five mystery novels before this one, two of them Hercule Poirot mysteries.

Here’s the teaser blurb, as it appears on the back of my copy of the book:

Village rumor hints that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned her husband, but no one is sure.  Then there’s another victim in a chain of death.  Unfortunately for the killer, master sleuth Hercule Poirot takes over the investigation.

Sounds run-of-the-mill, doesn’t it?  However, it’s anything but ordinary, because Christie makes her first-person narrator – the likable, ethical, trustworthy village doctor, James Sheppard – the murderer.

There was quite a brouhaha about it when the novel came out, mostly from other mystery writers and book reviewers, rather than the readers themselves.  There’s a story that has floated around for a while that Christie narrowly missed being kicked out of the Detection Club (an organization of fellow mystery writers in London) and was dramatically saved by the vote of then-club-President Dorothy Sayers.  However, since the Detection Club was formed in 1929-30, and the novel was published in 1926, the story seems fanciful at best.

The premise of making the narrator the murderer was independently suggested to Christie by both her brother-in-law and Lord Louis Mountbatten, who wrote her a lengthy letter sketching his idea for another Poirot story.

Gasp! “Dr. Watson” as the killer:

Paget's illustration from "The Greek Interpreter" - via (public domain)

Christie did more than construct a skillful 1st person narrative of a killer who pretends he’s an innocent bystander.  She made Dr. Sheppard an active participant in finding the solution, as he is drafted by Poirot to act as his assistant in the case, compounding the deliciousness of the denouement of him as the murderer.  Remember the old adage of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?  That should be the novel’s motto.

In a post-Columbo age, this isn’t as much of a surprise to us as it would be to the readers of Agatha Christie’s time, of course, but we can still appreciate the irony and the sense (in retrospect) of Poirot closing the net around the good doctor, until he’s finally trapped.

Yet, at her most distinctive, Agatha Christie had often confronted her readers with impossible murderers.  Not necessarily impossible because of their social class, race, gender, psychology, background, etc, although those elements factor into the equation.  Rather, her murderers were impossible because the typical detective fiction reader of Christie’s time wouldn’t have considered them suspects at all.

The sole objection (for those who did object) to the solution of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was that it didn’t “play fair” with the reader.  Ironically, in the “highbrow” literature of Christie’s time period, the unreliable narrator was becoming more common.  But reading conventions of “Golden Age” mysteries had never allowed for an unreliable narrator, and that’s part of the reason it was such a surprise.

And the narrative did play fair (as Sheppard points out).  Neither Christie nor Sheppard lies to the reader, although there is a good deal of misdirection and omission.  Here’s a passage from Sheppard’s final revelation:

I am rather pleased with myself as a writer.  What could be neater, for instance, than the following:

“The letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine.  It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread.  I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.”

All true, you see.  But suppose I had put a row of stars after the first sentence!  Would somebody then have wondered what exactly happened in that blank ten minutes?

As you can see from the above excerpt, the type of clue shifts from material clues (what Sherlock Holmes relied upon) to textual clues: omissions, ambiguities, and the contexts of certain statements.  This shift in clue type points to the importance of the detective’s skill as a “reader,” and puts us, who are also readers, on equal footing.  Many of Christie’s stories work this way.

The charge of not “playing fair,” I think, is really a veiled objection to allowing Christie’s killer to get too close to us.  By the time we discover his guilt, he is a familiar, even intimate, figure – a stand-in for Poirot’s usual trusted side-kick, Captain Hastings.  Under these circumstances, it’s easy to sympathize with him.  And we don’t want to.  That’s the beauty of what Christie has done.

Would you like to re-read it?  Check it out on Good Reads.

The novel has also been dramatized in the Poirot television series.  Click on imDb for more details and links.

Perhaps in the 21st century, we readers are a bit more worldly-wise to unreliable narrators; especially in mystery fiction, we’ve seen a lot of plot tricks (many of them done by Agatha Christie) tossed our way.  I would maintain that we are still capable of being surprised, though.  Otherwise, mystery novels would be dying out, and that’s certainly not the case.  Thank goodness!

Here’s to enjoying many more surprises, from our current mystery writers and those to come!

What’s your favorite mystery story?  When has a story truly surprised you?  I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,



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Nate the Great, Master of Mystery

Welcome to Masters of Mystery, where we feature a classic detective.  Today we’re turning to the Juvenile detective category, and looking at:

Nate the Great

by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat

images via

Some interesting facts about Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and the series:

1.  Marjorie Sharmat has written over 130 children’s books since 1969, with the most popular being her Nate the Great series.  Many of her books have been among the Library of Congress’ Books of the Year and the Literary Guild Book Club selections.

Author pic from

2.  Nate the Great books are geared for the 6-9 year-old reader.  There are twenty titles in all, published between 1972 and 2009.

3.  Sharmat has a spin-off series: Olivia Sharp, Agent for Secrets.  She’s Nate the Great’s cousin, and solves mysteries, too, in four books so far.





Why we like Nate the Great:

1.  He handles the issues kids care about but can’t go to the police for: lost beachbag, missing sock, stray turtle, etc.

2.  Nate likes pancakes.  They help him think while he’s figuring out a tough case.

3. His partner is his dog, Sludge.  He’s the panting, silent type – always a great asset.

4.  Nate takes his job very seriously, and he’s good at it.  Kids call him at all hours, day or night.  Just a quick note to his mom, and he’s on his way.


5.  His clients are as distinctive in personality as he is.  The regular cast of kid characters includes: Oliver, the neighborhood pest; Rosamund, who makes tuna cookies and other concoctions for her “Hex” cats (Big Hex, Little Hex, Super Hex, and Super Duper Hex); and Annie, who is accompanied by her VERY scary dog, Fang.

6. Nate the Great’s first-person narrative voice is in the mock style of the terse, hard-boiled private eye, evocative of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.  I had trouble keeping a straight face the first time I read Nate the Great aloud to my son.  It parodies the style so well!

Here’s an excerpt from the most recent book, Nate the Great and the Hungry Book Club (2009):

My name is Nate the Great.
I am a detective.
My dog, Sludge, is a detective too.

Right now I am a mumbling, bumbling,
tripping detective.
I have just tripped over
a big pile of books
that Rosamond left in my house.

Sludge is sniffing them.
He has been sniffing them
since Rosamond knocked on my door
this morning.

She was carrying a bunch of books.
Three more were piled on her head.
Rosamond looked very strange.
Rosamond looks strange all the time.

“I have great news,” she said.
“I have started a book club.
I am calling it Rosamond’s Ready Readers.
But there is trouble in the club.
One of the members is trying
to wreck my cookbook. Look!”

Rosamond took a book off her head.
The other two books fell off.

“Why are you carrying books on top
of your head?” I asked.

“Because I’m president of a club now.

These books help me hold my head high
and look like a president.”

I, Nate the Great, knew that I was
looking at a very strange president.

“This is my new cookbook,” she said.
“Yesterday I left it open on my
kitchen table after I made treats
for the club meeting.
When the meeting was over,
I went to get the treats
for the members.
The page that was open
was torn, ripped, ruined!”

Sludge and I looked at the page.
I, Nate the Great, say that
it was torn, ripped, ruined.

Beyond print –  Nate the Great on television:

 Nate the Great Goes Undercover (1974) was made into a television movie, which won the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival Award.

TheaterWorks USA has done a stage production of Nate the Great.  Here’s their promo (I know, it’s kinda corny):

Great sites for more info:

About the Author (Random House)

Printable Activities for Kids – including “Write your own mystery!” “Where’s Sludge?” “Secret Word Search” and more!

So, have you or any kids you know read Nate the Great?  What do you think of the current kid detective offerings out there today?  I’d love to hear from you!



Until next time,


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The Maltese Falcon: Beyond Bogart

Today, we’re considering that mystery classic:

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930)

Of course, many of us are familiar with the 1941 film, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.  However, the background and elements of Hammett’s original novel are fascinating, and worth a closer look.

Hammett’s novel is considered part of the “hard-boiled” subgenre of the detective story, characterized by a hard-drinking, cynical private eye with his own moral code, a sexy dame with lies even longer than her legs, and an emphasis on action more than contemplative deduction.  The subgenre was a uniquely American creation, arising from the frontier heroes, larger-than-life loners, scoundrels and criminals of U.S. history.

Hammett’s target audience:

American literary tastes, generally, had been conditioned by the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper.  The hero, Natty Bumppo, had moral virtue and fantastic visual powers by which he could read broken twigs and faint footprints to seek out the enemy.  Rather than society’s rules, he followed his own code of ethics.

American readers were interested in frontier adventure tales, stories with a romantic interest, and stories with the residual sense of the “eye for an eye” justice of their Puritan forefathers.  They avidly read stories serialized in magazines – in 1922 alone there were over 20,000 magazines published – and the magazine detective story format was emerging as a very popular medium.  The enormous following of the late 19th century dime/pulps (even though the stories were rather primitive) encouraged the cheap fiction publishers of the early 20th c to promote this sort of fiction.

Some folks consider “hard-boiled” and noir interchangeable terms, but critic Otto Penzler gives a great explanation of why this isn’t the case: Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes.

 What 1920s and ’30s San Francisco was like:

  • The metropolis of the West: SF was the focal point of immigration, mining, industry, and export.
  • After the Volstead Act (18th Amendment that prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating beverages), the city became a major port of entry for illegal liquor; speakeasies paid off local authorities in free liquor; networks of rum-runners stretched inland to Butte, Denver, and Phoenix.  Houses of prostitution flourished.  San Fransiscans obviously considered Prohibition an incentive to commerce.
  • The Bay area during this time attracted German and Italian immigrants, in addition to Chinese.  In fact, an entire Chinese society, complete with criminal gangs, holy men and a social hierarchy, developed in a twenty-square-block area of downtown SF.
  • In terms of law enforcement, corruption abounded: many of the cops, D.A.s, and city officials were either on the take, or looking to advance themselves by whatever means necessary.  This mindset is a prominent part of the world of The Maltese Falcon.  The private eye doesn’t dare trust anyone but himself in such a world.

Bio of Samuel Dashiell Hammett:  1894-1961

Dashiell Hammett. Image via

Hammett’s life was more important to his work than is usual with an author.  He was the first detective (a Pinkerton) to write detective novels, and is considered the founder of the hard-boiled detective genre.  His life was varied and controversial.  He was friends with Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and West, and was Lillian Hellman’s lover.

  • His middle name came from the French side of his mother’s family the “DeChiells,” who had been famous in France for their bravery in battle, but his upbringing was humble.  Hammett was born on a run-down farm in Maryland to a struggling Irish middle-class family.
  • He loved to read anything and everything, and would do so late into the night.  However, he had to quit school at 15 to help support the family when his father became ill.  He hated his jobs, which were mostly in the railroad and industrial fields, and never held one for any length of time.
  • He became a Pinkerton operative when he was 21, and liked it.  The Pinkerton’s

    image via

    National Detective Agency was the largest private law enforcement agency in the U.S., founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, a former Chicago policeman.  He invented the trademark of his business – the unblinking eye – and its motto, “We never sleep,” which led to the shortened tag of “private eye.”

  • The Pinkertons filled a gap between the federal government’s small Secret Service and the local police forces.  As the nation grew more complex, the gaps grew:  the Pinkertons were called upon to prevent assassinations and to solve difficult cases, especially those crossing several local jurisdictions.   These are the kind of tasks the FBI performs today, but the FBI (1908) of the ‘20s didn’t really get going in terms of its mission, organization, and jurisdictional authority, until it was re-organized under J. Edgar Hoover in 1934.
  • The Pinkertons were also hired by big businesses to break up the formation of unions – with varying degrees of success, as those of you familiar with the Homestead Strike of 1892 know.  The Pinkertons were highly disciplined.  They were on 24-hr call, were required to keep meticulous reports, and had to be able to successfully watch a house for days at a time without being detected.  Their work took them all over the country:  Hammett went to Idaho, Utah, Montana, and San Francisco for assignments.
  • Hammett joined the Army during WWI, but became disabled with tuberculosis and was discharged.  For the rest of his life, he would be plagued with respiratory problems.  He also smoked and drank alot, which of course didn’t help.  He worked off and on as a Pinkerton for a number of years.
  • During one of his rehabilitations at a hospital, he started dating one of the nurses and got her pregnant; he married her, moved to San Francisco, and eventually they had two children but later divorced.
  • After another stint as a Pinkerton in San Francisco, Hammett got sick again, and they couldn’t get by on his disability pension.
  • At this point he was too ill to do the physically demanding detective work, so he began writing detective stories, and then novels.  The Maltese Falcon was his most successful, and the one for which he’s best known.  His Pinkerton experiences gave him a unique inside view of his detective creation.  Hammett, in one edition of the novel, describes Spade as his ideal of the hard-boiled detective:

“He is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached.  For your private detective does not want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”

  •  Hammett also wrote the Nick and Nora Charles detective series for the screen: The Thin Man (1934) and After the Thin Man (1936).
  • Even with all the money he was making at the time, he couldn’t hang onto it; his drinking problem became serious and he was hospitalized at age 42.
  • Hammett also became involved in Communist party activities, and was named chairman of the Committee on Election Rights, a group allied with the Communist Party.
  • Somehow, he managed to join the Army again in 1942 (at age 48, with TB!).  The Army was aware of his communist affiliations and kept a close eye on him.
  • He was sent to jail in 1951 for refusing to testify about the Civil Rights Congress bail fund, which had helped put up bail for people arrested for Communist activities, who then turned right around and jumped bail.
  • Hammett was also interrogated by the McCarthy Committee in 1953.
  • He died of lung cancer in 1961.  As a veteran of two wars, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Publication and response to The Maltese Falcon:

Serialized in Black Mask Magazine the year before it was published as a novel in 1930.

image via

The third film version of The Maltese Falcon in 1941 (directed by John Huston, with the fabulous cast of Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre) became the definitive version of the novel.

Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway praised Hammett’s story.  When Gertrude Stein came back to the U.S., Hammett was the writer she wanted to meet.  Eleanor Roosevelt loved the book, and wouldn’t let it be pulled from the shelves when the anti-communist movement blackballed Hammett.


Raymond Chandler said: “[Hammett] took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it looked like a good idea to get as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken-wing.”

image via wikipedia

Have you read The Maltese Falcon?  Do you enjoy the hard-boiled detective genre?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,



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Ellery Queen, Master of Mystery

Welcome to Masters of Mystery, an ongoing series which features a fictional detective and examines his or her unique contribution to mystery fiction.  This month:

Ellery Queen

Some interesting facts about Ellery Queen and his creators:

1. Ellery Queen is both the name of the fictional detective and the nom de plume for the writing team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee.  They were cousins from Brooklyn, NY.

2. Dannay and Lee wrote the first Ellery Queen novel for a “Best First Mystery Novel” contest in McClure’s Magazine.  Although they won, the magazine changed owners (or sponsors, according to one site), with the first place prize going to a different contestant (I don’t think that would fly in our day and age, do you?).

3. Obviously, that little setback didn’t stop them: the Ellery Queen canon of novels and short stories is immense, spanning forty-two years, from The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) to A Fine and Private Place (1971), with more than three dozen novels, and innumerable short stories and radio scripts.

4. The series popularity prompted the founding of The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1941, a mystery short fiction magazine which has been in print ever since (making it the longest-running mystery fiction magazine ever).  The publication features some of the best mystery writers around, including Ed Hoch, Ruth Rendell, Jeffery Deaver, and Peter Lovesey, among others.

Why we like Ellery Queen:

1. The series is intricately plotted in the grand “golden age” fair-play tradition of detective fiction; lots of clues, twists, turns, and surprises.  Other golden age mystery writers include Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, and Josephine Tey.  For more about the “rules” of golden age detective fiction, check here.

2. Ellery is a Harvard-trained, rather snobbish, ratiocinative amateur detective.  He “dabbles” in amateur detection.  He is the kind of eccentric that Golden Age mystery fans came to expect of their detective hero.  While he is of independent means, he writes novels and edits a fiction magazine.  He’s a bachelor and lives with his dad, Richard Queen, a down-to-earth former New York City police inspector.  The father keeps the son in the real world, and affords him contacts within the NYPD that the son ordinarily wouldn’t have had.  So we get the best of both worlds: amateur and professional, the wealthy of the East Side contrasted with the bums of the Bowery.

3. During the course of the novels, Ellery becomes more humanized and develops more heart, to the point of doubting himself in some of the stories, falling in love, and quitting detection (temporarily).  This is one of the benefits of a long-standing series.  Another is that it provides ample material for the detective to cross over to other media.

Beyond print –  Ellery Queen on radio, film and television:

  •  Radio: The Adventures of Ellery Queen was broadcast on the three major network radio stations from 1939 to 1948.  The Dannay/Lee writer team wrote many of the radio scripts during those years, even though doing so wasn’t the norm of the time.  For those interested, here’s a link to a catalog of MP3s of the radio broadcasts, via  I still remember the Ellery Queen 1-Minute Mysteries being broadcast on radio in the 1970s.  (Yeah, I’m old.)
  • Film:  Ellery Queen didn’t really break out on the silver screen, unfortunately.  There were some films made in the 30s and 40s, most notably with Ralph Bellamy (who played the insurance salesman in His Girl Friday, which I discussed in last Friday’s post – check the link in the post to view the film and you’ll see who I mean).   And going even farther back, here’s an Ellery Queen film called The Mandarin Mystery (1936), available via
  • Television:  most folks who have encountered the Ellery Queen character have seen him here.  Although there was a series in the 50s, the most recent version of the detective comes from the 1975-76 series, starring Jim Hutton (father of Timothy Hutton) as Ellery Queen.  David Wayne played his father, Inspector Queen.

image via

Great sites for more info:

So, have you read any Ellery Queen?  What about Golden Age mystery fiction generally? I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


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The Hound of the Baskervilles: a must-read for mystery fans



Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-02) has been regarded by current and contemporary Sherlockians as the best of the four Sherlock Holmes novels.  Since its publication, it has been adapted dozens of times for radio, film, and television.  It’s a mystery classic that I hope you’ll try!

Here’s some background and information which may convince you.


How The Hound of the Baskervilles came about:

The year 1901 marked the death of Queen Victoria and saw Doyle well-established in his career: he had achieved many of his personal goals, and was considered a serious writer and popular public speaker.  That year, Doyle went on a golfing holiday in Norfolk with his friend Fletcher Robinson.  On a dreary, rainy day, when golfing was out of the question, Robinson passed the time by recounting to Doyle the West Country legend of a spectral hound, which gave Doyle the idea for his story.  Blogger and writer Gene Lempp wrote a fascinating post on the Legend of Black Shuck which gives more detail.

Doyle subsequently travelled to the Dartmoor area to get local color for the story, which was originally not intended to feature Holmes (he had already killed off Holmes in “The Final Problem” – pitching him over the Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty).  According to the author, Holmes sort of worked his way into the story; so, rather than resurrect Holmes (although he did later, in 1903), Doyle made the story a reminiscence by Watson of an earlier undocumented case.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialized in The Strand Magazine (where most of the stories were serialized) over a nine-month period, from August 1901 to April 1902.  It was eagerly received, and long lines formed at the publisher’s office when the next installment was due out.

Narrative strategies:

Doyle certainly knew how to break up the segments to keep the readers hooked.  For example, the first installment ends Watson’s sleep being disturbed by the “sob  of a woman, the muffled, strangling gasp of one who is torn by uncontrollable sorrow.”  He also used cliff-hangers involving a dead body, a mysterious stranger, and mysterious noises in the night.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle was able to resolve the narrative difficulty he had in two earlier full-length Holmes novels:  how to explain the complex and lengthy series of events that lead up to the crime without the use of long flashbacks or tedious explanations that interrupt the story.  Instead, he told the story using several different narrative voices: Watson, Holmes (who has his own account of a portion of the adventure when he and Watson are apart), the client Dr. Mortimer, and a 17th century manuscript.

Another effect of the narrative structure is that Holmes absents himself from the story for a period of time, giving Watson his chance in the limelight as a detective, a role which weighs heavily on him.  The reader shares the feeling of vulnerability in Holmes’s absence, making it more of an impact when Holmes reappears (one of the climactic serial divisions at the time of publication).

Gothic elements:



The novel’s Gothic horror story trappings  make it an unusual setting for a detective story:  a family curse, a dark, primitive moor, a seemingly-supernatural hound, a black-hearted villain.  There are lots of “thrills and chillls.”  But it’s a detective story through and through, because the gothic is not its solution.  There is a rational explanation for everything.  Some scholars posit that this is why Doyle instinctively felt that Holmes belonged in the story.

Psychoanalytic facets of the novel:

During the time that Doyle was writing the Holmes stories, Freud was developing his theories of the unconscious mind and repression.  Writers such as Conrad, Stevenson and James wrote symbolic stories in which the source of evil existed within the mad soul and had to be restrained by the intellect.  The Hound of the Baskervilles treats the problem of human evil from a psychological perspective rather than a metaphysical/ supernatural one.  Scholars like to read the wild, lonely, treacherous moors as symbolic of the repressed unknown unconscious mind, uncivilized and barbaric.  Using this interpretation, the moor would act in conjunction with characters in the story (including the neolithic savages, the original inhabitants of the moor) to depict the unconscious, dark side of the human soul, or the primitive part of man existing beneath the civilized veneer, if you will.

There’s more I could say about this (we haven’t even touched Jungian theory), but you have your lives to get back to.  If you haven’t read The Hound of the Baskervilles, I hope you’ll give it a look!


Have you ever read a Holmes story?  What do you think of this Sherlock Holmes novel?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,



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For Mystery Lovers: The Real Professor Moriarty, by Bruce Rosen

We have a real treat today for you mystery and history lovers: an exploration of one of the most famous fictional villains, Professor Moriarty.  He’s the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, and bad boy of stage and screen, most recently rendered in the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

It’s particularly appropriate that Victorian scholar and retired professor Bruce Rosen is the one to out the real Professor Moriarty: one professor taking on another, so to speak.  Although retired, Dr. Rosen is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of History and Classics at the University of Tasmania, has multiple blogs, and travels extensively.  He has graciously agreed to allow me to post a portion of his post here.  Thank you!


The Real Professor Moriarty

Professor Moriarty
In January of 1902, a little less than a year after the death of Queen Victoria or, as she was properly titled and styled, “Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India,” Henry J. Raymond was buried in a mass paupers’ grave in Highgate Cemetery. Although buried as Raymond, his real name was Adam Worth, and just as Victoria sits in the background of so many of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, so too, we find Adam Worth, better known to the world as Professor Moriarty.


There is some evidence to suggest that Doyle modelled his arch-villain on the German-American who, in the mid-1870s, moved to London where he set up a criminal network. True or not, there is no doubt that Sir Robert Anderson referred to Worth as “the Napoleon of the criminal world”.  Had this nickname come from the sensational press, it would, in all probability, be wise to discount it.  But Robert Anderson was, possibly, the most famous policeman of his day. Anderson was a spy-master and a chief of detectives at Scotland Yard, having been appointed, in 1888, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner in charge of the CID. Coming from him, the title “Napoleon of the criminal world” was no small accolade.

Adam Worth was born in Germany but raised in the United States.  He began his criminal career during the American Civil War when he became a “bounty jumper,” joining a New York regiment to gain the enlistment bounty of $1,000 offered before deserting and enlisting in another regiment.  According to Ben Macintyre, Worth’s biographer,  he developed the technique to new heights “by faking his own death at the second battle of Bull Run before re-enlisting under an assumed name.”

Adam Worth

Following the war, Worth turned to crime.  Here he was quite successful. The detective William Pinkerton described Worth in a posthumous pamphlet (Adam Worth, alias ‘Little Adam’, 1904)  “As in everything else that he undertook, he very rapidly went to the front among the crooks, starting first as a pickpocket, and later on associating with an expert gang of bank sneaks.”  Pinkerton went on to note that  “he became an active participant, and still later furnished not only the money but the brains and plans with which to do the work.” However, after breaking into a Boston bank from an ajoining shop and stealing cash and securities valued at around $200,000 from its safe, and with the Pinkerton in hot pursuit, he, and his partner,fled to England.

After several short interludes in Liverpool and Paris, Worth, having now adopted the name Henry J. Raymond, settled in London living in a lavish style which included running a string of racehorses and sailing in his steam yacht. According to Pinkerton, his home

became the meeting place of leading thieves of America and Europe. … the rendezvous for noted crooks all over the world, .. a clearing house or “receiver” for most of the big robberies perpetrated in Europe. In the latter 70’s, and all during the 80’s, one big robbery followed another; the fine “Italian hand” of Adam Worth could be traced, but not proven, to almost every one of them.

Sherlock Holmes, described Professor Moriarty in similar, albeit somewhat more fanciful, terms.  He was, for the great detective “the greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld…”

Worth’s greatest crime, and one which Holmes could hardly have failed to admire for its sheer audacity, was the theft of Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, which he painted in the mid-1780s. The portrait itself has a fascinating history, having disappeared for many years before surfacing in the 1830s in private hands.  After passing through several hands, it was purchased in 1876 for the then unheard of price of 10,000 guineas. The new owner, art dealer William Agnew put it on display in his gallery from where it was stolen by Worth and some of his henchmen on the night of Thursday, the 25th of May 1876.

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire


So why steal this particular painting?  What happened to it?  For the rest of the story, and what happened to Adam Worth (did Pinkerton ever catch him?), go to Bruce’s post at: Victorian History.  While you’re over there, show him some comment love!  Thanks again, Bruce, for a fascinating account.


Are you familiar with “the Napoleon of Crime”?  Who is your favorite fictional villain?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,



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Fan Fri (for mystery lovers): “The Saint” by Leslie Charteris


It’s Fan Friday for mystery lovers, when we take a look at a favorite detective or mystery-related subject.  Today’s detective:

Leslie Charteris’ “The Saint” – Simon Templar


Some interesting facts about Leslie Charteris and The Saint series:

1.  Charteris was born to an English mother and Chinese father in Singapore in 1907.  (His real surname was Bowyer-Yin; he had it legally changed in early adulthood).

2.  Charteris grew up in England, and left Kings’ College to start a writing career.  According to a Wikipedia article (which I haven’t been able to verify with a second source, so take it for what you will) Charteris had lots of other interesting jobs and activities, such as prospecting for gold and pearl-diving.

3.  He moved to New York, which he called “a case of love at first sight.”  Unfortunately, he had to keep renewing his 6-month visas because of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), which did not allow immigrants with “50% or greater of Oriental blood” to permanently reside in the U.S.  Later, a Senate bill signed by FDR allowed Charteris and his daughter to go through the citizenship process and become American citizens.

4.  The first appearance of The Saint was in Meet the Tiger (1928), and continued through more than 50 novels (until 1983).  Charteris also worked as scriptwriter for Paramount Studios on several Saint films in the mid-1930s.


The appeal of The Saint:

1.  One man, righting wrongs.  No committee, no jury polling, no Miranda rights.  And he isn’t above a little law-breaking in the cause of justice.

2.  He’s elegant, handsome, sophisticated (and British – American women get all swoony over suave British men).  In the novels, all sorts of dames fling themselves at him.

3.  He’s rich and mysterious; no one knows where he or his money comes from.

4.  He lives up to his “knightly” name of Templar:  chivalrous, brave, putting himself in danger to fight evil – sort of a super-hero detective.


Beyond the books:

The Saint is everywhere!

Radio (yep, that’s Vincent Price, who was the voice of The Saint): 1944-51 (click here for the archive of free audio files):

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Television and film:

Above, from left to right: two of the films from the 1930s; the popular television series starring Roger Moore, which ran 118 episodes from 1962-69; the 1997 film starring Val Kilmer.

But wait!  The Saint keeps coming back…

The Saint Goes to New Orleans, starring James Purefoy, went into production this past summer.  No release date yet.

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Great sites for more info:

Bio of Charteris

IMDb – The Saint

Site for Simon Templar fans – a very comprehensive resource


Do you remember The Saint series on television?  Have you read any of the books by Charteris?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,




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Dr. Watson: narrator, buffoon, or crime-fighting partner?

Sidney Paget, artist, via

Sherlock Holmes would be nothing without Dr. Watson.  Yes, John H. Watson – medical doctor, wounded veteran of the second Anglo-Afghan War, congenial companion, capable chronicler – the 19th century British Everyman.  He’s the ideal foil for the brilliance of Holmes, and tells the story in a way that Holmes never could.  He also makes the Great Detective more approachable.  After all, we readers are more like Watson than Holmes, even if we don’t always like admitting it.

With the new Sherlock Holmes movie, Game of Shadows (starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson), now out in theaters, the different on-screen portrayals of Dr. Watson have been on my mind lately.



And there have been plenty.  Since its 1930s large-screen popularity, the Holmes/Watson duo has been adapted over the decades to appeal to the changing demographics and expectations of audiences, and some of the differences are striking.

So let’s take a brief tour of some of the changes in Dr. Watson, as he relates to Holmes, and perhaps get at some of the reasons why.  Next week, we can look at the changes Holmes has undergone, too.

It starts with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.  Although not the very first film appearance as Holmes and Watson, theirs was the most popular and definitive early portrayal.  Rathbone and Bruce made 14 Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946, along with lending their voice talents to Sherlock Holmes radio shows (also broadcast to overseas troops during WWII).  They set the tone for the on-screen interaction between the Great Detective and his sidekick, a relationship that other actors and directors who came after would strongly react to.

Take a look at the following clip of Rathbone and Bruce, from the climax of Dressed to Kill:

You’ll note that Watson is not part of the key conflict or tension, where Holmes comes within inches of a knife plunged through his chest.  Instead, Watson is two flights down the stairs, with the equally ineffectual police.  Holmes gets the single-handed glory of the capture; Watson provides clean-up and comedic relief.  The good doctor pays no attention to the man Holmes has shot until Holmes points him out.

There are many other examples in the Rathbone/Bruce canon of Watson as well-meaning, loyal, clueless bumbler, but that would be a separate post.

The consensus of opinion as to the reasons for this type of portrayal is that it provides a bright spot of comedy to have Watson portrayed in this way, thereby appealing to a broader audience.  Perhaps, but it’s a far cry from Conan Doyle’s rendition of Watson.  His Watson has his own keen powers of observation, even if he draws the wrong conclusions from them.  In the stories, he’s also handy in an emergency, something that he is not in the films of the 30s and 40s.

I think another purpose was served in having Watson be a bumbler.  Holmes as single-handed hero would be quite appealing to a war-weary audience.  One can never have too many calm, cool, rational, brave heroes in such a world of craziness and destruction.  In another film in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Holmes beats the Nazis to a weapon that can win the war, and help preserve “this blessed plot, this realm, this earth, this England.”  (The final lines of the film, spoken by Rathbone).


Other Holmes/Watson portrayals after Rathbone/Bruce:

Peter Cushing andAndre Morell:  The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)


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Wikipedia gives a nice condensed explanation of Morell’s approach to the role of Dr. Watson:

“This was the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation ever to be shot in colour.[12] Morell was particularly keen that his portrayal of Watson should be closer to that originally depicted in Conan Doyle’s stories, and away from the bumbling stereotype established by Nigel Bruce’s interpretation of the role.”

Citation: Kinsey, Wayne (2002). Hammer Films – The Bray Studios Years. Richmond: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. pp. 133. ISBN 1-903111-11-0.


Jeremy Brett and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke (Granada Television series, 1984-94)

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Burke played Watson until 1986; Hardwicke stepped in as Watson for the majority of the series, 1986-94.  For both actors, the role of Dr. Watson was that of faithful friend and companion, operating smoothly together, often with comedic moments.

It looks as if Watson as buffoon has been left behind forever.






Richard Roxburgh and Ian Hart: The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)

Take a look at the following video.  This particular rendition strikes me as another turning point in the modern portrayal of Dr. Watson:

Notice that not all goes smoothly with the two.  Watson is angry. He’s frustrated with Holmes for holding back information; keeping the upper hand, and not treating Watson as an equal.  However, in the stories of Conan Doyle, Watson seldom loses his temper; when he admonishes Holmes, it’s usually about some eccentricity of Holmes’ that affects their living conditions.

So why has Dr. Watson morphed into a pouty side-kick, yelling at Holmes and trying to be on equal terms with him?  This is in the realm of conjecture, of course, but I think audiences were moving away from hero-worship, from a fascination with mega-minds and infallible heroes, and moving towards more egalitarian, cooperative, Everyman-pushed-to-extreme-circumstances tropes.  Our society values openness rather than secrecy.  We still love bigger-than-life heroes, sure, but we want more.  That’s where the next duo comes in, the most recent permutation of Holmes and Watson.


Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law: Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Take a look at the trailer for the most recent Sherlock Holmes film:


There are noteworthy features about Watson in this trailer, and even more in the film, of course.  Holmes actively solicits Watson’s help (if you call shoving Watson’s new bride off the train “soliciting”); Watson is affectionately condescending to Holmes, and Holmes takes it; Watson goes all-Rambo with weaponry, and saves Holmes’ keester more than once.

Huh?  Where did this come from?  This doesn’t seem at all like the stories Conan Doyle wrote, does it?

But you know what?  I love it.  And it makes perfect sense to me that the Holmes/Watson pair would have evolved into this.  In fact, I think that if Conan Doyle were still writing the Holmes stories, this would be an adventure style he would approve for his heroes.  If you read all of the Conan Doyle stories/novels, you get a collective sense of the adventurous heart Holmes and Watson had: the thrill in Holmes’ voice when he first spots a deadly snake or uncovers a dangerous cult; Holmes’ confidence that Watson will always bring his revolver with him on perilous expeditions, and that he won’t be averse to a little B&E for the sake of a good cause; the wistfulness in Watson’s voice as he recounts the outre cases of the old days.  It’s all there.

So, what do you think of how Watson has changed over the years?  Do you like the new Watson, or feel the canon has been corrupted from the original?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


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