Mr. Whicher, the Prequel

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 5, 2013

Last night I finished up The Dagenham Murder, the story of a Victorian police constable’s mysterious and violent death and its investigation by, among others, our estimable Mr. Whicher. Quite enjoyed the work. I’ve posted a book review at Goodreads, but I also want to note a few things from the perspective of my own little project.

First, commendable research by the authors. Having performed a limited amount of real, primary-source Victorian-era archival research for Brilliant Deduction—mostly in trying to reconstruct the life of Whicher’s contemporary “Paddington” Pollaky—I have a deep appreciation and respect for what Rhodes, Shelden and Abnett accomplished. They bring to life more than a dozen people, most of them humble figures without anything like the press coverage trail available for Pollaky, aside from their involvement in this one sensational crime and its aftermath.

Meanwhile, I was nonetheless especially interested in one of the few individuals with notoriety beyond the context of the Dagenham case, i.e. Jack Whicher. For those who share my interest, The Dagenham Murder is a must-read. Whicher’s role in the story is limited, but significant, certainly in the context of his own career. His investigation into George Clark’s murder, with its many similarities and curious differences compared to the Road Murder investigation that rerouted his career years later, offers almost limitless material for interpretation and speculation. Other little details also enrich the picture of Whicher and his work, including contextual history such as how detection in Australia (relevant to The Tichborne Affair, the great case of Whicher’s PI career) compared with the British analogue, as well as personal notes such as those revealed by Whicher’s last will. (For those interested, The Dagenham Murder is available via Amazon.)

Read more…

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Celebrities as detectives

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 15, 2013

I’ve written a whole book about a time when real detectives became celebrities. In recent years I’ve been bemused by what might be considered an inverse phenomenon: celebrities becoming fictional detectives. Just off the top of my head, I can recall coming across mystery novels featuring:

Naturally, all of these are series as well, not simply one-offs. And this is, furthermore, the mere tip of the iceberg; in just a few minutes searching I came across a whole list of other such series, which is also by no means exhaustive given that none of the above appear on it.

Curiously, I didn’t find any Abraham Lincoln mystery novels; given that he has been cast as nearly every other kind of adventurer and hero from time traveler to vampire slayer, this seems a remarkable gap. Still, if it genuinely is unfilled at this writing, I expect it’s only a matter of time before that changes.

Frankly, I can’t help thinking that it may be time to update the famed maxim of Andy Warhol (also not yet the subject of a mystery novel):

“In the future, everyone will be the subject of at least one historical mystery novel.”

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The Kuhns library of mystery

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 12, 2013

My last name is not incredibly common. Growing up, other than my father’s few living relatives, I knew of one other family with the same name, though strangely enough I was not even the only Matt Kuhns at Iowa State University upon entering college. Still, it’s rare enough that people encountering it as text have to guess pronunciation more often than not, let’s put it that way.

Thus I was immediately intrigued, last year, when I encountered it in the new book area at the library. One Eleanor Kuhns had written a historical mystery, A Simple Murder, set in a Shaker community. I checked it out just for the novelty—I don’t believe I had ever encountered a book by another Kuhns before—though I quite enjoyed the story and can certainly recommend it.

This was, meanwhile, amusing enough given that I had recently completed the manuscript for my own (nonfiction) work on detection and mysteries in times past. Imagine my surprise, however, when some months later I conducted an online search to see what information might be turning up about my own book and discovered another Kuhns writing on the subject of detectives.

Luke Benjamin Kuhns, born like myself in one of the Midwestern “I” states, apparently now lives in London and has written a number of Sherlock Holmes stories among other works. Given that I love London, and collect Sherlock Holmes books, I’m envious. I’ve not read any of his writing, yet, but I hope to remedy that soon. Likewise I see that Eleanor Kuhns’s amateur investigator Will Rees has returned and will have to search out the further installments of his series. (As a sidenote, the way that Rees is drawn into the role of detective by chance but gradually develops a reputation as something of an informal expert has a surprising basis in history; another tradesman in the young United States started his eventual professional detective career in much the same way.)

Perhaps some day we can all have a very exclusive authors’ conference. 😉

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Received goods: The Dagenham Murder

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 4, 2013

Since publishing my book, I have made the wonderful discovery that a project that started with what I could find has also become about what finds me. Already, a couple of correspondents have found their way to this site and shared related material. One example is The Dagenham Murder.

Copies of The Dagenham Murder, plus brochure

Recently arrived via Royal Mail

One of the authors contacted me, prompted by my inclusion of Jonathan Whicher in Brilliant Deduction, to tell me about this book; it recounts the story of an 1840s murder investigation, still unsolved. Then-Sergeant Whicher was part of the small, early Scotland Yard force that tried to resolve the mystery.

I do wish I had known about this six months or a year ago, but obviously one is going to miss some things. And then, it seems, learn of a few of them after one publishes. One good reason for having a companion site with a blog, then; at least I have a good way of making further discoveries like this available.

I hope to get started reading The Dagenham Murder, soon, and once I’ve finished I will post some additional notes here. In the meantime, for those interested, it seems to be available through Amazon UK; the author is also selling some remaining copies and, if all else fails, you can contact me and I will get you in touch.

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Detectives off their patch

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 23, 2013

Recently finished reading The Neruda Case, a fine novel by Roberto Ampuero. The author’s Cuban-American-Chilean protagonist, Cayetano Brulé, spends the book learning on the job (and from Maigret novels) how to be a detective. At one point, he muses at some length on how Maigret and other (fictional) detectives who are his primary reference points could ultimately offer him few practical lessons, not because they are fictional but because they are from an entirely different society:

Even if he braved the underworld and greased his relationships with informants, Miagret could never accomplish anything in a region as chaotic, improvised, and unpredictable as Latin America. Just like the gentleman Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, Maigret could investigate his heart out in stable and organized nations like the United States and France, where a rational philosophy reigned over the people, rules and clear laws prevailed, logic shaped daily life, and solid, prestigious institutions and an efficient police force worked to ensure respect for the law. On the other hand, in Latin America—where improvisation, randomness, corruption, and venality were the order of the day—everything was possible.

In a place where a communist nation coexisted with modern capitalist cities, feudally exploitative if not enslaving plantations, and jungles where history had frozen in the times of the cavemen, European detectives weren’t worth a thing. It was that brutally simple. In those Amazonian, Andean, or Caribbean worlds, detective such as Dupin, Holmes, or Poirot would find their dazzling deductive powers failing to clear matters up. The crux of the problem was that the North’s logic simply didn’t apply in Latin America.

I find this interesting for a number of reasons.

Read more…

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Ellis Parker gets an update

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 7, 2013

I only discovered this as I was going through the final steps of publishing my own book’s first edition, but John Reisinger has an updated edition of his masterful biography of Ellis Parker, Master Detective.

I already have a print copy of Master Detective, but I purchased the updated ebook right away, and I’m more than happy to call it out here even though I’ve got my own book to flog. Mr. Reisinger was a courteous source of help with Brilliant Deduction more than once, and I greatly appreciate that as well as his fine work recovering the story of Ellis Parker in the first place. I also commend the fact that he has continued that work. The fascinating, forgotten story of amazing detection in real life tends to get under one’s skin, though…

The new edition seems to be available at Amazon in paperback and ebook formats. I also recommend taking a moment to browse around the author’s own web site, though; a lot of nifty little notes, including how Master Detective has ended up being licensed for Chinese and Taiwanese editions.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to discuss a foreign-language edition of Brilliant Deduction, step right up

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The Butcher of Wapping

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 5, 2013

File this one under “I get no respect,” perhaps. A little while ago I picked up a cute little volume at the Lakewood Library titled I Never Knew That About London. (The cover is delightfully restrained.)

Christopher Winn’s geographically organized tour of relatively little-noted features and historical associations of the London landscape includes, among tidbits like “where London’s first nude statue is” and “the house where Handel and Jimi Hendrix both lived,” a small connection to one of the city’s great real-life detectives—kind of.

In strolling through Wapping, Winn notes its connection to the Tichborne Claimant case., which held the British public spellbound for years in the 1870s and which detective Jonathan Whicher played a key role in resolving. (Skeptics of The Claimant to the Tichborne fortune accused him, in time, of being in fact an ordinary butcher originally from Wapping.) In a double-dissing, however, Winn not only makes no mention of Whicher, but also trivializes his achievement itself by suggesting that the Claimant’s alleged imposture was obviously ludicrous the entire time. This verdict is, I will note, considerably at variance with both the case’s proceedings themselves and with most of those who have looked back upon it, since, including recent works such as Kate Summerscale’s.

On the other hand, however, overlooking Whicher is (with occasional exceptions like Ms. Summerscale) much more in keeping with tradition. Neither the link I’ve posted above nor the Wikipedia article on the case include any mention of Mr. Whicher.

Ah well. There is a silver lining, at least: if everyone were already giving the great detectives their due, I would have much less of a story to tell…

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