Showing posts with label Sherlock Holmes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sherlock Holmes. Show all posts

29 June 2016

Sherlock Holmes by the Numbers



Recently I discovered a Sherlock Holmes story, previously unknown to me, in the government documents collection of the library where I work. No, this is not one of those rare-but-real incidents of someone opening an ancient box of manuscripts and finding an unknown treasure - like this one I read about yesterday. In fact, the story I discovered was not even by Arthur Conan Doyle.

It appeared, of all places in a book published in 1980 by the Census Bureau: Reflections of America: Commemorating the Statistical Abstract Centennial. As you can probably deduce, the book was intended to celebrate the 100th edition of Statistical Abstract of the United States. If you aren't familiar with these books, they are a type of almanac of varied data, covering whatever the Census Bureau thought was most important about life in the United States that year.

Just for kicks, here are some of the tables in Statistical Abstract, and the first year they appeared.  It gives you some idea when the public - or at least the government - got particularly interested in a topic.
Immigrants of each nationality. 1878.
Public schools in the U.S. 1879.
Vessels wrecked. 1885.
Area of Indian Reservations. 1888.
Telephones, number of. 1889.
Civil Service, number of positions. 1910.
Homicides in selected cities. 1922.
Accidents and fatalities, aircraft. 1944/5. 
Population using fluoridated water. 1965.
Motor Vehicle Safety Defect Recalls. 1978.
Firearm mortality among children, youth, and young adults. 1992.
Student use of computers. 1995.
Internet publishing and broadcasting. 2008.

Reflections of America features essays by distinguished authors discussing many different aspects of Statistical Abstract: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Michener, John Kenneth Galbraith,and Jeane Kirkpatrick, to name a few.

The essay on international trade, cleverly titled "A Case of International Trade," was written by business journalist J.A. Livingston,.  It begins as you see on the right over there.

It goes on for many pages.  You can read it all here if you wish.  But what I am pondering is: why would anyone think that's a good idea?

I'm not talking about parodies, or what I call fan fiction (creating a new case for your favorite detective).  I understand those impulses. But I think it is a bit weird to use a character for a completely different purpose than what made that character famous.

So, for instance, here are a few books about (or "about") Sherlock Holmes:

The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes



 Conned Again, Watson!: Cautionary Tales of Logic, Maths and Probability

What other fictional characters have become cats's paws for authors who wanted to teach a subject painlessly?  I knew without looking that one young lady must be on the list and sure enough:

Alice in Quantumland

I even thought of one book in which the author himself  did this to his character.  Harry Kemelman's Conversations With Rabbi Small is an introduction to Judaism thinly disguised as a non-mystery novel about the amateur sleuth.

I still say the instinct to do this is an odd one.

And as long as we are tying government publications to mysteries, let me point out an old federal document that is not available for free on the web: The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History 1942-1943.   What's the mystery connection?  It was co-authored by a rather superannuated corporal who served in that frozen wilderness: Dashiell Hammett.




11 June 2016

One More Thing: Is Columbo America's Sherlock?


by B.K. Stevens

If we were asked to name the quintessential fictional detective, most of us would probably reply, "Sherlock Holmes." Poe's Dupin came before him, and some fictional detectives who came after him may have greater psychological depth. Even so, Holmes' dazzling deductions and indelibly distinctive personality have given him enduring worldwide appeal. He's the icon who set the standard for the Golden Age, the epitome of the cerebral detective. And, as I'm about to argue, he's very, very English.


Does America have its own Sherlock? We definitely have iconic fictional detectives. The first names to come to mind might be Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Kinsey Millhone or V.I. Warshawski--tough-talking, life-hardened private investigators who walk the mean streets with both guns and cynical quips at the ready. They're smart, no doubt about it. But their appeal may be based on their attitudes, as much as on their intellects. And their success at solving crimes may depend on their ability to intimidate witnesses and outfight bad guys as much as on their deductive powers. America does have some memorable cerebral detectives--Nero Wolfe, for example, and Ellery Queen. Much as their fans might disagree, though, I'd hesitate to call them distinctively American. In some ways, they're almost too much like Sherlock Holmes--arrogant manners, aristocratic tastes. For me, at least, an American Sherlock ought to embody more democratic traits and attitudes.

Let me propose another candidate. Like Holmes, Lieutenant Columbo relies on his wits to solve cases, not on a gun or his fists. (In fact, while Holmes often carries a gun and sometimes throws a punch, I can't think of a single time when Columbo does either.) Both detectives are incredibly observant, and both excel at sizing up suspects. But there are significant differences, too, and I'd say these differences stem from the fact that Holmes is English and Columbo American.

Let's start with names. A name can't get much more thoroughly English than Sherlock Holmes--unless it's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even most of the actors who have played Holmes have had distinctively English names, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch. (And all right, once in a while a Robert Downey, Jr., will sneak in, or even--good grief!--an Igor Petrenko, in a Russian television series. The general point still holds.)

America's Sherlock, by contrast, has an Italian last name. Was it inspired by the explorer credited with discovering the new world? When asked in 1986, one of the writers who created the character said he couldn't remember how they came up with the name--maybe they were thinking of Columbus, or maybe they were thinking of a restaurant called Palumbo's. Those writers, by the way, were Richard Levinson (Jewish) and William Link (mixed German Hugenot and Jewish descent). The actor who portrayed Columbo was Peter Falk (also Jewish, from families that immigrated from Eastern Europe). So Columbo emerged from a hodgepodge of nationalities and ethnicities, from the descendants of a bunch of immigrants. What could be more American?

The fact that so many people contributed to the creation of Columbo also seems appropriately American. Sherlock Holmes was the brainchild of one writer and made his debut, of course, in print, in the pages of a series of short stories and novels. Columbo emerged from what might be considered the more democratic medium of television. Whatever its shortcomings, television depends upon a group of people working together--writers, actors, directors, producers, musicians, technicians, and so on and so on--and it aims for a wide audience. At its best, television also offers opportunities to talented newcomers--such as a twenty-one-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg, who got one of his first big breaks when he directed "Murder by the Book," which many people consider one of the stand-out episodes of Columbo's first season, perhaps of the series as a whole. Whether you love television or hate it, it seems hard to deny that it embodies central democratic ideals--many people from diverse backgrounds working together toward a common goal, encouraging those just starting out to fulfill their dreams by going as far as their abilities will take them.

What about Columbo himself? He's definitely not an aristocrat. The way he talks, the way he carries himself, the car he drives, the chili he eats--everything tells us he's from a middle-class or working-class background. His appearance confirms it. Like Sherlock Holmes, he has a distinctive style of dress. But Sherlock's clothes set him apart--the deerstalker hat, the caped coat. Columbo wears a rumpled suit and a shabby raincoat (almost always the same ones, from Falk's own closet). If his clothes set him apart, it's because he looks less imposing than other people, certainly far less imposing than the high-class types involved in the cases he investigates. In an interview with David Fantle and Tom Johnson, Peter Falk commented on the contrast: "Columbo is an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Columbo has no neck; Holmes smoked a pipe, Columbo chews up six cigars a day."

In an interview with Mark Dawidziak, Falk made another comment about the contrast between Holmes and Columbo, this one focusing on the way others perceive the two detectives. He's talking about the second episode in the series, which centers on a faked kidnapping: "I'm not a mystery fan, but as a kid I read Sherlock Holmes. I remember being very impressed by Sherlock Holmes. He'd show up, and everybody would turn to him for the answer. I thought it was important in the opening of Ransom for a Dead Man that no one turn to me for anything. I was just a local. All these FBI agents had their job to do. I couldn't know anything except maybe he name of a certain street. I wanted to be ignored. . . . . Nobody wanted to know this guy's opinion, There's a lack of pretension. You expect something quite different from a great detective."

We definitely get something quite different from most great fictional detectives, definitely including Holmes. I don't know if it's accurate to call Holmes pretentious: He is, in fact, superior to everyone else, so there's no pretension involved. But he certainly doesn't try to hide his superiority. Apparently, in Conan Doyle's stories and novels, Holmes never actually says, "Elementary, my dear Watson." He does, however, sometimes say "elementary"--or something along the same lines, such as "it is simplicity itself"--to make it clear he can easily figure out something that baffles others. Some might call his manner arrogant; others might say he treats most of the people he encounters with disdain; still others might protest that he's simply being straightforward. But I don't think words such as "humble" or "self-effacing" come readily to mind when we think of Sherlock Holmes.

Columbo, on the other hand, is extremely humble and self-effacing. He constantly expresses admiration for other people's expertise and accomplishments, constantly acts as if he thinks they're much sharper than he is, constantly seems awed thy their jobs, their houses, their cars, their shoes. Part of it, of course, is shtick: Columbo throws suspects off guard by pretending to be dumb, so they'll relax too much and tumble into the traps he sets for them. But part of it, I think, is sincere. Even when he suspects people of murder, I think he's often genuinely impressed by their knowledge and talents.

Clearly, he doesn't mind letting people underestimate him, doesn't mind letting them think they're more important than he is. Even his trademark "one more thing" seems like an acknowledgment of his inferior status: The people he's pestering are so superior that he hates to take up their valuable time. The most he can hope for is that they'll indulge him for just a few moments more. Would Holmes be so comfortable about letting others regard him as inferior? I don't think so. I think it would drive him crazy. But Columbo has more democratic attitudes. He doesn't need to have everybody see him as the smartest person in the room. If they see him as no more than a regular guy, or even as less than that, that's fine with him.

What's more, I think Columbo honestly sees himself as a regular guy. When he describes his approach to detection, he doesn't talk about his brilliance. He's not so taken with his deductive powers that he thinks he can rely on those alone. No, he attributes his success to things Americans traditionally value, such as hard work. In "The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case," Columbo talks to a man (the murderer, as Columbo already suspects) who belongs to a Mensa-type organization:

You know, sir, it's a funny thing, All my life I kept running into smart people. I don't just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away that it wasn't gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir.

I may be wrong, but I don't think Columbo is being falsely modest here, and I don't think he's just trying to throw the murderer off guard. In fact, I think he may be giving the murderer a kind of warning: Even if the murderer is smarter, Columbo may still catch him, because Columbo works harder. And hard work is a distinguishing feature of Columbo's approach. Even after the other police personnel are packing up and getting ready to leave a crime scene, Columbo is still crawling around on the floor, pawing through the carpet, searching for any shred of evidence that might help him understand what happened. Like Holmes, he's observant--he keeps his eyes open, as he says--but that's partly because he keeps looking after others have decided there's nothing more to see. Suspects complain about how often he keeps showing up, how long he hangs around. And he reads the books, learning whatever he can about the suspects and their areas of expertise. If he suspects a winemaker killed his brother, Columbo studies up on wine. If he thinks an expert on subliminal suggestion committed murder, Columbo reads the books the expert wrote and uses subliminal suggestions to lure him into incriminating himself. So Columbo embodies a fundamental American belief. You don't have to be born rich and powerful to succeed. You don't even have to be extraordinarily talented. As long as you're willing to work hard and never give up, you can get ahead.

Columbo also talks about his approach to detection in one of the more recent episodes, "Columbo Goes to College." He's a guest lecturer in a criminology class, and a student asks what advice he'd give a young detective. Columbo's advice is simple: "Don't talk too much." When the student is surprised, Columbo explains:
Well, sometimes, when you know something, it's better to keep it to yourself. You don't have to blab everything right away. Wait. Who knows what will happen? Timing. That's important, And lucky. You got to be lucky.
 This statement definitely isn't just shtick. The murder hasn't been committed yet--Columbo has no reason to suspect these students of anything. I think he's being completely open, genuinely modest. Don't show off by broadcasting everything you know, he says. Wait, even if it means people don't realize how smart you are. That's something anyone can do, regardless of wealth or power or anything else. Waiting may help you succeed--but if you do succeed, remember that it's partly because of luck, not because of any merit you can claim. How much more democratic can a statement about detection get?

It's also worth noting that when Columbo gives the class this advice, two of the students--smart students from wealthy, prominent families, students who are about to murder a professor by using a remarkably clever method that requires both technical know-how and a fair amount of money--don't pay attention. Instead, one turns to the other and whispers, "I wonder who his tailor is." These smug, aristocratic students underestimate Columbo because he looks so low class. They should have listened. After they commit their clever murder, Columbo suspects them almost immediately.

Columbo tends to suspect smug, aristocratic types. In "Columbo Goes to College," the upper-class students try to frame a heavy-drinking ex-con, but Columbo doesn't fall for it. Instead, he keeps zeroing in on the students. Jeff Greenfield comments on that feature of the series in a 1973 article called "Columbo Knows the Butler Didn't Do It." (It's available online--you have to squint to read the tiny print in the PDF, but it's worth it.) As Greenfield notes, "The one constant in Columbo is that, with every episode, a working-class hero brings to justice a member of America's social and economic elite." By doing so, Columbo proves that his opponents often don't deserve the privileges they enjoy, that he can best them by being more diligent, more determined. And with every victory, he affirms our faith in democratic ideals.

If we share those ideals, should we embrace Columbo and reject Sherlock Holmes? Of course not. America, at its best, also values diversity. There's room for everyone, even for a moody loner who thinks he's better than the rest of us. If Holmes and Columbo met, I think they'd get along fine. Holmes might look down on Columbo at first, but he's smart enough to learn to respect him. Columbo might be amused by Holmes's haughty ways, but I think he'd also admire him. Unlike some of the snooty types Columbo encounters, Holmes works hard, and he's earned the distinction he enjoys. And both Holmes and Columbo are devoted to justice, to seeing that the truth is ferreted out, to making sure the guilty are punished and the innocent exonerated. Those are qualities all of our great fictional detectives share, regardless of nationality, manner, or attitude. Once Holmes and Columbo got past any initial disdain or distrust, I think they'd like each other. I think they'd enjoy sitting down to compare their investigative techniques and discuss their greatest successes, perhaps over a lovely cup of tea and a savory bowl of chili.












One More Thing

Wildside Press has released a collection of my short stories. Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime includes eleven stories of various lengths, types, and tones, from humorous novella-length whodunits to a dark flash fiction suspense story. Most were first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Some of the women featured in these stories are detectives, and some are victims; some inspire crimes, and some commit them. After over twenty-five years of writing mystery stories, I'm delighted to see these stories get out in the world for a second time.
Available at: Amazon Wildside Press

"What a great collection of mysteries! B.K. Stevens does everything right in this book of stories: plot, characters, setting, dialogue--it all rings true. It's easy to see why she's considered one of the best writers in the genre."--John Floyd, Edgar-nominated author of Clockwork and Deception

"These finely crafted stories have it all--psychological heft, suspense, subtle humor--and the author's notes on each story are especially illuminating. A treat for lovers of the short story form and students of the craft of writing."--Linda Landrigan, Editor, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

"Stevens' irresistible sparkling wit and style start on the first page and never let up."--Kaye George, national bestselling mystery author 


19 March 2016

Let's Hear It for MMs


No, not mss (the plural of "manuscript").  MMs (the plural of "mystery magazine").  In fact, let's hear it for MM mss.

Several years ago I was Googling markets for short mystery stories (I do that from time to time) and stumbled upon a site called, believe it or not, Better Holmes and Gardens. When I investigated, I found submission guidelines for a publication I hadn't heard of before: Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. That's right--yet another MM.

Like all mystery writers, I love AHMM and EQMM, and I also submit a lot of stories to other current magazines that regularly feature mystery fiction, like The StrandWoman's WorldOver My Dead BodyCrimespreeMysterical-E, BJ Bourg's Flash Bang Mysteries, etc. But the truth is, there aren't a lot of markets out there anymore--paying or non-paying--that specialize in mystery shorts.

Holmes Sweet Holmes

Back to my discovery. Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine is a product of Wildside Press, which I believe also publishes the iconic Weird Tales. As soon as I found SHMM I sent them a story, a little mystery called "Traveling Light," and was pleased and surprised when they accepted it. They paid me promptly, and when the piece was published they mailed me several copies of what turned out to be a smart-looking magazine, with an attractive cover and a wealth of interesting stories inside. Since then they've been kind enough to publish four more of my mysteries, all of them installments in a series featuring a female sheriff and her crime-solving mother.

My latest is in Issue #19, and appears alongside tales by my friend Jacqueline Seewald and my fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law. I've not yet read all the stories in the issue, but I've read Jacqueline's ("The Letter of the Law") and Janice's ("A Business Proposition") and they're excellent as usual.

Anytime mystery magazines are the topic, I find myself thinking about those that have come and gone, over the years. A few were receptive to my stories and a few rejected everything I sent them (sort of like some of the magazines that are still around), but I think I tried them all. And I thought it might be fun to take a quick trip down MM-memory lane:

Mystery mags of the past

Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine -- One of my favorites. Margo Power, editor.

Crimestalker Casebook -- Andrew McAleer, editor. Boston-based.

Mystery Time -- a small but wonderful little magazine. Linda Hutton, editor.

Blue Murder -- I think I remember trying these folks and getting rejected every time.

Red Herring Mystery Magazine -- RHMM published two of my stories, accepted another, and disappeared.

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine -- Sadly, before my time.

Mouth Full of Bullets -- BJ Bourg, editor. Loved this magazine.

Whispering Willows Mystery Magazine -- Short-lived. I barely remember this one.

Heist Magazine -- Australian, featured stories only on CD-ROM.

Crime and Suspense -- This had some fine stories during its short run. Tony Burton, editor.

Nefarious -- Online-only, if I remember correctly. One of the first e-zines.

Black Mask -- Again, before my time.

Raconteur -- Like RHMM, this one accepted one of my stories and then put all four feet in the air.

Detective Mystery Stories -- Print publication, editors Tom and Ginger Johnson.

Orchard Press Mysteries -- This was an early e-zine as well. I had only one story there.

The Rex Stout Journal -- Another short-lived print magazine.

Futures -- Babs Lakey, editor. Later became Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine.

NOTE: Please let me know if you remember some of the many that I've overlooked--or if any of these I've listed have taken on new life.

Square pegs, round holes

Besides the obvious choices, I also continue to try to sell my mystery/crime shorts to places that don't specialize in mysteries but that occasionally publish them anyway--and there are more of those than one might think. Here are some, from both now and long ago: GritDogwood Tales, Spinetingler Magazine, Untreed Reads, Writers on the RiverYellow Sticky NotesPrairie TimesMindprintsSniplitsPages of Stories, Amazon Shorts, Just a Moment, Kings River LifeReader's BreakWriters' Post JournalShort Stuff for GrownupsChampagne Shivers, and The Saturday Evening Post. (Remember, it's generally accepted that a mystery is any story in which a crime is central to the plot. It doesn't have to be a whodunit.)

Now and then, even so-called literary magazines will feature a mystery story: Pleiades, Thema, Glimmer TrainPhoebe, some of the college lit journals, etc. Tom Franklin's short story "Poachers," which won an Edgar and appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, was first published in The Texas Review.

Anthopology

Finally, any discussion of mystery markets should include a mention of anthologies. I usually find them by Googling "anthology calls for submission" and checking Ralan's Webstravaganza, which is advertised as a science-fiction site but doesn't limit itself to that. The two advantages of anthologies over magazines, I think, are that (1) anthos usually request submissions in a fixed window of time, which can be a plus if you hop in right away, and (2) they are often "themed." If you happen to have a finished story that fits their theme--or can write one quickly--you'll already have a leg up on the competition. Another excellent site to check, for mags as well as anthos, is Sandra Seamans's My Little Corner.

Anthologies that I've been associated with, all of which contained some mystery stories and most of which you've never heard of, include Seven by SevenTrust and TreacheryMagnolia Blossoms and Afternoon TalesAfter DeathFlash and BangCrime and Suspense IMad Dogs and MoonshineThe Gift of MurderQuakes and StormsShort TalesFireflies in Fruit JarsSweet Tea and Afternoon Tales, Ten for TenThou Shalt NotA Criminal Brief ChristmasRocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales, and Short Attention Span Mysteries.

A leading anthology for mystery writers is of course the "noir" series produced by Akashic Books, in Brooklyn. Several of my SleuthSayers colleagues have graced those pages, and one of my stories will be in the upcoming Mississippi Noir. Other anthology possibilities are the annual "best of" editions that feature stories published during the previous year, like Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories series.

And that's it--I'm out of examples. I'll end with a question: What are some of your favorite short mystery markets, past and present?

May the ones we have now last forever.

26 December 2015

Blame it on Barbie (in which we cry foul on Hollywood writers for always making the bad girls brunettes)


It's Christmas week!  Time for a fun post.  How many people will be going to movies over the holidays?  Maybe even something by Disney?  Watch out for those dark haired babes...

Here it is, the fifty-something anniversary of the birth of the Barbie doll, and I’m uncomfortable.  Coincidentally, it is also the fifty-something anniversary of me, and I’ve got to ask: is Barbie having more fun than I am?  Am I missing something by not being blond?

Okay, okay, so this smacks of insecurity.  But who wouldn’t be insecure, being brunette these days?  Did the Prince go looking for a dark-haired Sleeping Beauty?  Did Charming find a gorgeous black-haired scullery maid at the end of the glass slipper?  Face it, scullery types:  if you’re brunette, you’re going to have to find your own prince.

I blame it on Barbie.  Three quatrillion blond Barbies with bunny bodies since 1959, and no brunette bimbo in sight.   It’s enough to make you go for botox.

So what is it about us dark-haired babes?  Why are we constantly being portrayed as witches in Hollywood?  In Westerns, you can tell the bad guys from the good guys by their black hats.  In Disney, you can tell the bad girls by their dark hair.

It’s not only Disney.  The Networks are no better.  Remember Dynasty?  Sweet Linda Evans, with her blond bob.  And then there was scheming Joan Collins…

Witchy women, evil women – all of them brunette, you can bet your peroxide.  It’s a fact; a witchy brunette nearly butchered 101 darling Dalmatians for their spotted fur.  And in The Wizard of OZ, Glinda the good witch was blondie-blond.  The nasty old Witch of the West was as brunette as they come. 

That’s us – nasty.  And no wonder, the way we are always portrayed.

What can you expect, when the best role model we-of-dark-tresses had as young kids was Natasha Fatale (“Whatever you think, Darlink”) of Boris and Natasha fame on Bullwinkle.  Good Ole Bullwinkle.  I used to imagine he had a raging animal crush on the sexy, dark-haired Natasha. And who wouldn’t?  Sexy and savvy.  She was my role model.  It’s taken me years to kick the “Darlink” habit and start pronouncing Gs.

Things got better when Morticia came along.  Now, she was a classy role model.  Granted, my parents got a bit upset when I dyed my confirmation dress black and started writing poetry about graveyards. But more than one male (prince or frog) has mentioned to me that Caroline Jones was the object of many adolescent daydreams.

Well, at least they call us sexy.  In fact, “sultry” was the word Commander Riker used in a Next Generation episode on the holodeck.  “Give me sultry,” he said, and when a blonde vision popped up in the New Orleans jazz bar, “No, she’s got to be brunette.”
Thank you, Commander Riker!

Fast forward to SHERLOCK with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. A man who has no interest in women.  Except for one: THE Woman.  Irene Adler.  In the books by Arthur Conan Doyle, she may have been blond.  In the television show, she is a brunette siren.  And Nemesis for poor Sherlock.

So far we can chalk up nasty, sexy, sultry and bad.  Clever but cruel.  Usually foreign and sneaky.  Throw in green eyes, and you’ve got the classic Hollywood Evil Woman.

Evil, evil, evil.

So be a little careful before you start to criticize this column.  I might put a hex on you. 

Melodie Campbell writes funny books, like the award-winning mob Goddaughter series, starting with The Goddaughter.  She is a natural brunette, so I suggest you buy them.
On sale for $2.25!  Amazon

13 December 2015

Sherlock Holmes meets O Henry, 2


O Henry
If you thought last week’s story featuring O Henry’s Shamrock Jolnes was dull, er, droll, wait until you read this week’s clunker.

I admire O Henry’s stories, I really do, but his heavy drinking shows, drinking that led to an early death by liver failure. But that’s just my opinion. These turkeys managed to get published posthumously.

The ‘O’ in William Sydney Porter’s O Henry pseudonym originally stood for Olivier. He used that pen name only once and changed it to simply ‘O’ to disguise the fact he was writing while in federal prison for bank embezzlement. A friend forwarded manuscripts to publishers to further obscure Porter’s whereabouts.

Athol, Margaret, William Porter, 1895
Without doubt, he loved his wife, Athol. Porter married her knowing she suffered from consumption, the disease tuberculosis that would eventually take her life.

Athol encouraged her husband to write, which he began while working in Austin and Houston. After a boy who died in childbirth, Athol bore a daughter, Margaret.

After Porter’s indictment for bank fraud, he fled the country, arriving in Trujillo, Honduras. Porter planned for his wife and daughter to join him, but upon learning she was dying of tuberculosis, Porter returned and gave himself up. While serving three years of a five-year sentence in an Ohio federal prison, he wrote short stories to help support his young daughter, Margaret.

After prison, Porter moved to New York where he commenced his literary career in earnest. These Shamrock Jolnes stories were written shortly before his 1910 death at age 47.

The Sleuths

by O Henry
(© 1911)


In the Big City a man will disappear with the suddenness and completeness of the flame of a candle that is blown out. All the agencies of inquisition – the hounds of the trail, the sleuths of the city’s labyrinths, the closet detectives of theory and induction – will be invoked to the search. Most often the man’s face will be seen no more. Sometimes he will re-appear in Sheboygan or in the wilds of Terre Haute, calling himself one of the synonyms of ‘Smith’, and without memory of events up to a certain time, including his grocer’s bill. Sometimes it will be found, after dragging the rivers, and polling the restaurants to see if he may be waitng for a well-done sirloin, that he has moved next door.

This snuffing out of a human being like the erasure of a chalk man from a blackboard is one of the most impressive themes in dramaturgy

The case of Mary Snyder, in point, should not be without interest.

A man of middle age, of the name of Meeks, came from the West to New York to find his sister, Mrs. Mary Snyder, a widow, aged fifty-two who had been living for a year in a tenement house in a crowded neighborhood.

At her address he was told that Mary Snyder had moved away longer than a month before. No one could tell him the new address.

On coming out Mr. Meeks addressed a policeman who was standing on the corner, and explained his dilemma.

“My sister is very poor,” he said, “and I am anxious to find her. I have recently made quite a lot of money in a lead mine, and I want her to share my prosperity. There is no use in advertising her, because she cannot read.”

The policeman pulled his mustache and looked so thoughtful and mighty that Meeks could almost feel the joyful tears of his sister Mary drooping upon his bright blue tie.

“You go down in the Canal Street neighborhood,” said the policeman, “and get a job drivin’ the biggest dray you can find. There’s old women always getting’ knocked over by drays down there. You might see ‘er among ‘em. If you don’t want to do that you better go ‘round to headquarters and get ‘em to put a fly cop onto the dame.”

At police headquarters, Meeks received ready assistance. A general alarm was sent out and copies of a photograph of Mary Snyder that her brother had were distributed among the stations. In Mulberry Street the chief assigned Detective Mullins to the case.

The detective took Meeks aside and said:

“This is not a very difficult case to unravel. Shave off your whiskers, fill your pockets with good cigars, and meet me in the cafĂ© of the Waldorf at three o’clock this afternoon.”

Meeks obeyed. He found Mullins there. They had a bottle of wine, while the detective asked questions concerning the missing woman.

“Now,” said Mullins, “New York is a big city, but we’ve got the detective business systematized. There are two ways we can go about finding your sister. We will try one of ‘em first. You say she’s fifty-two?”

“A little past,” said Meeks.

The detective conducted the Westerner to a branch advertising office of one of the largest dailies. There he wrote the following “ad” and submitted it to Meeks.

“Wanted, at once – one hundred attractive chorus girls for a new musical comedy. Apply all day at No.–- Broadway.”

Meeks was indignant.

“My sister,” said he, “is a poor, hard-working, elderly woman. I do not see what aid an advertisement of this kind would be toward finding her.”

“All right,” said the detective. “I guess you don’t know New York. But if you’ve got a grouch against this scheme we’ll try the other one. It’s a sure thing. But it’ll cost you more.”

“Never mind the expense,” said Meeks; “we’ll try it.”

The sleuth led him back to the Waldorf. “Engage a couple of bedrooms and a parlor,” he advised, “and let’s go up.”

This was done, and the two were shown to a superb suite on the fourth floor. Meeks looked puzzled. The detective sank into a velvet armchair, and pulled out his cigar case.

“I forgot to suggest, old man,” he said, “that you should have taken the rooms by the month. They wouldn’t have stuck you so much for em.”

“By the month!” exclaimed Meeks. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’ll take time to work the game this way. I told you it would cost you more. We’ll have to wait till spring. There’ll be a new city directory out then. Very likely your sister’s name and address will be in it.”

Meeks rid himself of the city detective at once. On the next day some one advised him to consult Shamrock Jolnes, New York’s famous private detective, who demanded fabulous fees, but performed miracles in the way of solving mysteries and crimes.

After waiting for two hours in the anteroom of the great detective’s apartment, Meeks was shown into his presence. Jolnes sat in a purple dressing gown at an inlaid ivory chess table, with a magazine before him, trying to solve the mystery of “They.” The famous sleuth’s thin, intellectual face, piercing eyes, and rate per word are too well known to need description.

Meeks set forth his errand. “My fee, if successful, will be $500,” said Shamrock Jolnes.

Meeks bowed his agreement to the price.

“I will undertake your case, Mr. Meeks,” said Jones, finally. “The disappearance of people in this city has always been an interesting problem to me. I remember a case that I brought to a successful outcome a year ago. A family bearing the name of Clark disappeared suddenly from a small flat in which they were living I watched the flat building for two months for a clue. One day it struck me that a certain milkman and a grocer’s boy always walked backward when they carried their wares upstairs. Following out by induction the idea that this observation gave me, I at once located the missing family. They had moved into the flat across the hall and changed their name to Kralc.”

Shamrock Jolnes and his client went to the tenement house where Mary Snyder had lived, and the detective demanded to be shown the room in which she had lived. It had been occupied by no tenant since her disappearance.

The room was small, dingy, and poorly furnished. Meeks seated himself dejectedly on a broken chair, while the great detective searched the walls and floors and the few sticks of old, rickety furniture for a clue.

At the end of half an hour Jolnes had collected a few seemingly umintelligible articles – a cheap black hatpin, a piece torn off a theatre programme, and the end of a small torn card on which was the word “Left” and the characters “C 12.”

Shamrock Jolnes leaned against the mantel for ten minutes, with his head resting upon his hand, and an absorbed look upon his intellectual face. At the end of that time he exclaimed, with animation:

“Come, Mr. Meeks; the problem is solved. I can take you directly to the house where your sister is living. And you may have no fears concerning her welfare, for she is amply provided with funds – for the present at least.”

Meeks felt joy and wonder in equal proportions.

“How did you manage it?” he asked, with admiration in his tones.

Perhaps Jolnes’s only weakness was a professional pride in his wonderful achievements in induction. He was ever ready to astound and charm his listeners by describing his methods.

“By elimination,” said Jolnes, spreading his clues upon a little table, “I got rid of certain parts of the city to which Mrs. Snyder might have removed. You see this hatpin? That eliminates Brooklyn. No woman attempts to board a car at the Brooklyn Bridge without being sure that she carries a hatpin with which to fight her way into a seat. And now I will demonstrate to you that she could not have gone to Harlem. Behind this door are two hooks in the wall. Upon one of these Mrs. Snyder has hung her bonnet, and upon the other her shawl. You will observe that the bottom the hanging shawl has gradually made a soiled streak against the plastered wall. The mark is clean-out, proving that there is no fringe on the shawl. Now, was there ever a case where a middle-aged woman, wearing a shawl, boarded a Harlem train without there being a fringe on the shawl to catch in the gate and delay the passengers behind her? So we eliminate Harlem.

“Therefore I conclude that Mrs. Snyder has not moved very far away. On this torn piece of card you see the word ‘Left, the letter ‘C,’ and the number ‘12.’ Now, I happen to know that No. 12 Avenue C is a first-class boarding house, far beyond your sister’s means – as we suppose. But then I find this piece of a theatre programme, crumpled into an odd shape. What meaning does it convey? None to you, very likely, Mr. Meeks; but it is eloquent to one whose habits and training take cognizance of the smallest things.

“You have told me that your sister was a scrub woman. She scrubbed the floors of offices and hallways. Let us assume that she procured such work to perform in a theatre. Where is valuable jewellery lost the oftenest, Mr. Meeks? In the theatres, of course. Look at that piece of programme, Mr. Meeks. Observe the round impression in it. It has been wrapped around a ring – perhaps a ring of great value. Mrs. Snyder found the ring while at work in the theatre. She hastily tore off a piece of a programme, wrapped the ring carefully, and thrust it into her bosom. The next day she disposed of it, and with her increased means, looked about her for a more comfortable place in which to live. When I reach thus far in the chain I see nothing impossible about No. 12 Avenue C. It is there we will find your sister, Mr. Meeks.”

Shamrock Jolnes concluded his convincing speech with the smile of a successful artist. Meeks’s admiration was too great for words. Together they went to No. 12 Avenue C. It was an old-fashioned brownstone house in a prosperous and respectable neighborhood.

They rang the bell, and on inquiry were told that no Mrs. Snyder was known there, and that not within six months had a new occupant come to the house.

When they reached the sidewalk again, Meeks examined the clues which he had brought away from his sister’s old room.

“I am no detective,” he remarked to Jolnes as he raised the piece of theatre programme to his nose, “but it seems to me that instead of a ring having been wrapped in this paper it was one of those round peppermint drops. And this piece with the address on it looks to me like the end of a seat coupon – No. 12, row C, left aisle.”

Shamrock Jolnes had a far-away look in his eyes.

“I think you would do well to consult Juggins,” said he.

“Who is Juggins?” asked Meeks.

“He is the leader,” said Jolnes, “of a new modern school of detectives. Their methods are different from ours, but it is said that Juggins has solved some extremely puzzling cases. I will take you to him.”

They found the greater Juggins in his office. He was a small man with light hair, deeply absorbed in reading one of the bourgeois works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The two great detectives of different schools shook hands with ceremony, and Meeks was introduced.

“State the facts,” said Juggins, going on with his reading.

When Meeks ceased, the greater one closed his book and said:

“Do I understand that your sister is fifty-two years of age, with a large mole on the side of her nose, and that she is a very poor widow, making a scanty living by scrubbing, and with a very homely face and figure?”

“That describes her exactly,” admitted Meeks. Juggins rose and put on his hat.

“In fifteen minutes,” he said, “I will return, bringing you her present address.”

Shamrock Jolnes turned pale, but forced a smile.

Within the specified time Juggins returned and consulted a little slip of paper held in his hand.

“Your sister, Mary Snyder,” he announced calmly, “will be found at No. 162 Chilton Street. She is living in the back hall bedroom, five flights up. The house is only four blocks from here,” he continued addressing Meeks. Suppose you go and verify the statement and then return here. Mr Jolnes will await you, I dare say.”

Meeks hurried away. In twenty minutes he was back again, with a beaming face.

“She is there and well!” he cried. “Name your fee!”

“Two dollars,” said Juggins.

When Meeks had settled his bill and departed, Shamrock Jolnes stood with his hat in his hand before Juggins.

“If it would not be asking too much,” he stammered , “if you would favor me so far – would you object to ––”

“Certainly not,” said Juggins, pleasantly. “I will tell you how I did it. You remember the description of Mrs. Snyder? Did you ever know a woman like that who wasn’t paying weekly instalments on an enlarged crayon portrait of herself? The biggest factory of that kind in the country is just around the corner. I went there and got her address off the books. That’s all.”


Trivia: Kids of yesteryear might remember The Cisco Kid, a popular movie and western television series. The name, although not the plot, was taken from a short story by… O Henry.

06 December 2015

Sherlock Holmes meets O Henry, 1


Last month, we brought you a Sherlock Holmes parody by the author of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie. A number of famous writers have penned takeoffs on Holmes. Today, we bring you a Holmesian tale from one of America’s best known authors.

O Henry
You might not recognize the name William Sydney Porter (spelled Sidney on his birth record) because he’s much more famous under his pen name, O Henry.

The author is known for his contemporary humor and twist endings. He wrote at least two Sherlock Holmes parodies featuring the characters Shamrock Jolnes and Dr. Whatsup. Not O Henry’s best works, the stories contain tepid joke endings. A number of jests and witticisms of the time can be found in this story, such as a comment on the price of gas for heating in New York City where O Henry’s characters reside.

We see here another example of British spellings still in use, much as we found in the works of Horatio Alger, Jr in post-Civil War America. Here the publish date is 1911, the eve of World War I, a year after O Henry's death.

After reading this, you’ll probably head to the bar for a stiff one, muttering, “Oh, man. O Henry gets this trash published and I can’t get an editor to look at my Sherlock in Love opus?”

You’ve been warned.

The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes

by O Henry
(© 1911)


I am so fortunate as to count Shamrock Jolnes, the great New York detective, among my muster of friends. Jolnes is what is called the “inside man” of the city detective force. He is an expert in the use of the typewriter, and it is his duty, whenever there is a “murder mystery” to be solved, to sit at a desk telephone at headquarters and take down the messages of “cranks” who ’phone in their confessions to having committed the crime.

But on certain “off” days when confessions are coming in slowly and three or four newspapers have run to earth as many different guilty persons, Jolnes will knock about the town with me, exhibiting, to my great delight and instruction, his marvellous powers of observation and deduction.

The other day I dropped in at Headquarters and found the great detective gazing thoughtfully at a string that was tied tightly around his little finger.

“Good morning, Whatsup,” he said, without turning his head. “I’m glad to notice that you’ve had your house fitted up with electric lights at last.”

“Will you please tell me,” I said, in surprise, “how you knew that? I am sure that I never mentioned the fact to any one, and the wiring was a rush order not completed until this morning.”

“Nothing easier,” said Jolnes, genially. “As you came in I caught the odour of the cigar you are smoking. I know an expensive cigar; and I know that not more than three men in New York can afford to smoke cigars and pay gas bills too at the present time. That was an easy one. But I am working just now on a little problem of my own.”

“Why have you that string on your finger?” I asked.

“That’s the problem,” said Jolnes. “My wife tied that on this morning to remind me of something I was to send up to the house. Sit down, Whatsup, and excuse me for a few moments.”

The distinguished detective went to a wall telephone, and stood with the receiver to his ear for probably ten minutes.

“Were you listening to a confession?” I asked, when he had returned to his chair.

“Perhaps,” said Jolnes, with a smile, “it might be called something of the sort. To be frank with you, Whatsup, I’ve cut out the dope. I’ve been increasing the quantity for so long that morphine doesn’t have much effect on me any more. I’ve got to have something more powerful. That telephone I just went to is connected with a room in the Waldorf where there’s an author’s reading in progress. Now, to get at the solution of this string.”

After five minutes of silent pondering, Jolnes looked at me, with a smile, and nodded his head.

“Wonderful man!” I exclaimed; “already?”

“It is quite simple,” he said, holding up his finger. “You see that knot? That is to prevent my forgetting. It is, therefore, a forget-me-knot. A forget-me-not is a flower. It was a sack of flour that I was to send home!”

“Beautiful!” I could not help crying out in admiration.

“Suppose we go out for a ramble,” suggested Jolnes.

“There is only one case of importance on hand just now. Old man McCarty, one hundred and four years old, died from eating too many bananas. The evidence points so strongly to the Mafia that the police have surrounded the Second Avenue Katzenjammer Gambrinus Club No. 2, and the capture of the assassin is only the matter of a few hours. The detective force has not yet been called on for assistance.”

Jolnes and I went out and up the street toward the corner, where we were to catch a surface car.

Half-way up the block we met Rheingelder, an acquaintance of ours, who held a City Hall position.

“Good morning, Rheingelder,” said Jolnes, halting.

“Nice breakfast that was you had this morning.” Always on the lookout for the detective’s remarkable feats of deduction, I saw Jolnes’s eye flash for an instant upon a long yellow splash on the shirt bosom and a smaller one upon the chin of Rheingelder -- both undoubtedly made by the yolk of an egg.

“Oh, dot is some of your detectiveness,” said Rheingelder, shaking all over with a smile. “Vell, I pet you trinks und cigars all round dot you cannot tell vot I haf eaten for breakfast.”

“Done,” said Jolnes. “Sausage, pumpernickel and coffee.”

Rheingelder admitted the correctness of the surmise and paid the bet. When we had proceeded on our way I said to Jolnes:

“I thought you looked at the egg spilled on his chin and shirt front.”

“I did,” said Jolnes. “That is where I began my deduction. Rheingelder is a very economical, saving man. Yesterday eggs dropped in the market to twenty-eight cents per dozen. To-day they are quoted at forty-two. Rheingelder ate eggs yesterday, and to-day he went back to his usual fare. A little thing like this isn’t anything, Whatsup; it belongs to the primary arithmetic class.”

When we boarded the street car we found the seats all occupied -- principally by ladies. Jolnes and I stood on the rear platform.

About the middle of the car there sat an elderly man with a short, gray beard, who looked to be the typical, well-dressed New Yorker. At successive corners other ladies climbed aboard, and soon three or four of them were standing over the man, clinging to straps and glaring meaningly at the man who occupied the coveted seat. But he resolutely retained his place.

“We New Yorkers,” I remarked to Jolnes, “have about lost our manners, as far as the exercise of them in public goes.”

“Perhaps so,” said Jolnes, lightly; “but the man you evidently refer to happens to be a very chivalrous and courteous gentleman from Old Virginia. He is spending a few days in New York with his wife and two daughters, and he leaves for the South to-night.”

“You know him, then?” I said, in amazement.

“I never saw him before we stepped on the car,” declared the detective, smilingly.

“By the gold tooth of the Witch of Endor!” I cried, “if you can construe all that from his appearance you are dealing in nothing else than black art.”

“The habit of observation -- nothing more,” said Jolnes. “If the old gentleman gets off the car before we do, I think I can demonstrate to you the accuracy of my deduction.”

Three blocks farther along the gentleman rose to leave the car. Jolnes addressed him at the door: “Pardon me, sir, but are you not Colonel Hunter, of Norfolk, Virginia?”

“No, suh,” was the extremely courteous answer. “My name, suh, is Ellison -- Major Winfield R. Ellison, from Fairfax County, in the same state. I know a good many people, suh, in Norfolk -- the Goodriches, the Tollivers, and the Crabtrees, suh, but I never had the pleasure of meeting yo’ friend, Colonel Hunter. I am happy to say, suh, that I am going back to Virginia to-night, after having spent a week in yo’ city with my wife and three daughters. I shall be in Norfolk in about ten days, and if you will give me yo’ name, suh, I will take pleasure in looking up Colonel Hunter and telling him that you inquired after him, suh.”

“Thank you,” said Jolnes; “tell him that Reynolds sent his regards, if you will be so kind.”

I glanced at the great New York detective and saw that a look of intense chagrin had come upon his clear-cut features. Failure in the slightest point always galled Shamrock Jolnes.

“Did you say your _three_ daughters?” he asked of the Virginia gentleman.

“Yes, suh, my three daughters, all as fine girls as there are in Fairfax County,” was the answer.

With that Major Ellison stopped the car and began to descend the step.

Shamrock Jolnes clutched his arm.

“One moment, sir,” he begged, in an urbane voice in which I alone detected the anxiety -- “am I not right in believing that one of the young ladies is an _adopted_ daughter?”

“You are, suh,” admitted the major, from the ground, “but how the devil you knew it, suh, is mo’ than I can tell.”

“And mo’ than I can tell, too,” I said, as the car went on.

Jolnes was restored to his calm, observant serenity by having wrested victory from his apparent failure; so after we got off the car he invited me into a cafe, promising to reveal the process of his latest wonderful feat.

“In the first place,” he began after we were comfortably seated, “I knew the gentleman was no New Yorker because he was flushed and uneasy and restless on account of the ladies that were standing, although he did not rise and give them his seat. I decided from his appearance that he was a Southerner rather than a Westerner.

“Next I began to figure out his reason for not relinquishing his seat to a lady when he evidently felt strongly, but not overpoweringly, impelled to do so. I very quickly decided upon that. I noticed that one of his eyes had received a severe jab in one corner, which was red and inflamed, and that all over his face were tiny round marks about the size of the end of an uncut lead pencil. Also upon both of his patent leather shoes were a number of deep imprints shaped like ovals cut off square at one end.

“Now, there is only one district in New York City where a man is bound to receive scars and wounds and indentations of that sort -- and that is along the sidewalks of Twenty-third Street and a portion of Sixth Avenue south of there. I knew from the imprints of trampling French heels on his feet and the marks of countless jabs in the face from umbrellas and parasols carried by women in the shopping district that he had been in conflict with the amazonian troops. And as he was a man of intelligent appearance, I knew he would not have braved such dangers unless he had been dragged thither by his own women folk. Therefore, when he got on the car his anger at the treatment he had received was sufficient to make him keep his seat in spite of his traditions of Southern chivalry.”

“That is all very well,” I said, “but why did you insist upon daughters -- and especially two daughters? Why couldn’t a wife alone have taken him shopping?”

“There had to be daughters,” said Jolnes, calmly. “If he had only a wife, and she near his own age, he could have bluffed her into going alone. If he had a young wife she would prefer to go alone. So there you are.”

“I’ll admit that,” I said; “but, now, why two daughters? And how, in the name of all the prophets, did you guess that one was adopted when he told you he had three?”

“Don’t say guess,” said Jolnes, with a touch of pride in his air; “there is no such word in the lexicon of ratiocination. In Major Ellison’s buttonhole there was a carnation and a rosebud backed by a geranium leaf. No woman ever combined a carnation and a rosebud into a boutonniere. Close your eyes, Whatsup, and give the logic of your imagination a chance. Cannot you see the lovely Adele fastening the carnation to the lapel so that papa may be gay upon the street? And then the romping Edith May dancing up with sisterly jealousy to add her rosebud to the adornment?”

“And then,” I cried, beginning to feel enthusiasm, “when he declared that he had three daughters” --

“I could see,” said Jolnes, “one in the background who added no flower; and I knew that she must be --”

“Adopted!” I broke in. “I give you every credit; but how did you know he was leaving for the South to-night?”

“In his breast pocket,” said the great detective, “something large and oval made a protuberance. Good liquor is scarce on trains, and it is a long journey from New York to Fairfax County.”

“Again, I must bow to you,” I said. “And tell me this, so that my last shred of doubt will be cleared away; why did you decide that he was from Virginia?”

“It was very faint, I admit,” answered Shamrock Jolnes, “but no trained observer could have failed to detect the odour of mint in the car.”



Coming next week, another painful classic.