FICTION REVIEW: "The Dead Witness"

  • Article by: KEVIN CANFIELD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2011 - 6:17 PM

A compendium of Victorian detective stories, from true crime to Mark Twain to Conan Doyle

THE DEAD WITNESS Edited by Michael Sims

Stories by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Alexandre Dumas appear in these pages. This stacked deck, of course, is one of the book's main selling points. But "The Dead Witness," smartly assembled by Michael Sims (author of "The Story of Charlotte's Web," roundly praised when published last June), is also a better-late-than-never showcase for some of the unsung genre storytellers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is a generous, entertaining and enlightening collection.

The book features what Sims describes as "the first known detective story written by a woman." Penned by Mary Fortune, it's a tale about a promising photographer who has vanished near the home of a nasty shepherd. Suggestive of future trends in popular crime fiction -- a century before TV detective Joe Friday adopted his "Just the facts, ma'am" style, Fortune finishes her narrative by noting that the guilty party was "punished for his crime, but where and when, it is unnecessary for me to state" -- the story is also rife with colorful period slang. In Fortune's parlance, a person isn't agitated, he's "in a blessed pelter." Fittingly, Sims has named his book after the story, which first appeared in 1866 under the title "The Dead Witness; or, The Bush Waterhole."

Sims' selections aren't limited to fiction. The book includes two bits of journalism published in 1888 -- one in the London Evening News, the other the Daily Telegraph -- about the terrible crimes committed by Jack the Ripper. Both pieces contain graphic details of a kind that almost certainly wouldn't appear in mainstream British (or American, for that matter) newspapers of the 21st century. There's also what amounts to a trifle from the desk of Charles Dickens, a stylish and moving 1851 account of a beat cop's interactions with London's poor.

Elsewhere, Chesterton's Father Brown makes quick work of a murder near a blacksmith's workshop in "The Hammer of God"; Twain's David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson uses an embryonic form of fingerprint analysis to solve a mystery in "The Assassin's Natal Autograph"; and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, in "The Science of Deduction," explains his crafty ways.

But these prose superstars are supporting players in a book that takes on the admirable -- and, for the reader, gratifying -- task of resurrecting a host of largely forgotten genre raconteurs. For example, the book opens with William E. Burton -- whose "The Secret Cell," Sims writes, "has never been reprinted since its first appearance in 1837" -- and closes with Anna Katharine Green, another groundbreaking female author in the world of detective fiction.

Lest the tone be too sober, "The Dead Witness" also features the work of Bret Harte, whose "The Stolen Cigar-Case," published near the turn of the century, made sport of the cult that had grown up around Sherlock Holmes. Harte's protagonist is named Hemlock Jones, and in relating the detective's intuitive crime-solving skills, the writer takes delight in mocking Arthur Conan Doyle's highfalutin prose. Harte describes the obsessive Jones as possessing "a look which I may call an absolute concatenation of inductive and deductive ratiocination." Quick, someone call a detective! There's been a terrible crime committed against the English language!

Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.

  • THE DEAD WITNESS

    Edited by: Michael Sims.

    Publisher: Walker & Co., 608 pages, $20.

    Review: A better-late-than-never showcase for some of the era's unsung genre storytellers. A generous, entertaining and enlightening collection.

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