I love short story collections, especially those that offer up short stories I haven’t encountered before. This is one of those collections.
Sims has done an excellent job as curator – often these whistle-stop tours of early detective fiction are dominated by British and American authors, but The Dead Witness is more cosmopolitan, bringing in stories from Canada, Australia and France. The staples are here – Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, C. Auguste Dupin – but they are outweighed by rarities.
For example, the titular story was written in 1866 – the first known detective story written by a woman – an Irish-Canadian working as a journalist in Australia. It is set amongst the sheep-farmers of the Outback district of Kooama, in a forest of stringybark and peppermint. Moving across the globe to another remote population – Canadian trappers – we are introduced to November Joe, a native American tracker described with no trace of condescension. Meanwhile, back in blighty, we get a Glaswegian oddity – ‘The Mysterious Human Leg’.
Sims has gone all the way back to 1837 to propose a new candidate for the earliest known detective story. William E. Burton’s ‘The Secret Cell’ first appeared in the Philadelphia Gentleman’s Magazine, and was almost certainly read by Poe before he wrote the stories often credited with kick-starting the genre.
The daughter of a Mrs Lobenstein, a London washerwoman, inherits a fortune from a stranger, but vanishes without trace. Foul play is suspected, and our hero L—- of the detective police is called in. In true Victorian fashion, he uncovers the truth by a series of cunning disguises and a big dose of luck. As in the adventures of Mrs Paschal, my favourite lady detective, almost nothing is left out: a post-chaise chase, a faithful little dog, Sam Welleresque dialogue, a private prison masquerading as a monastery, and a pitched battle.
There are many gems in this collection, but the high point for me was Melville Davisson Post’s Uncle Abner.
I had heard about Uncle Abner, but I had entirely the wrong impression. I was expecting to find a kindly but perceptive small-town lawyer (possibly I had him mixed up with Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson, also in this collection). Instead I found an enormous, Bible-quoting, mountain man doing God’s work in rough country. Probably because I’m irreligious, I always find religion impressive in books (G. K. Chesterton would have a field day with that, I’m sure).
And Post could really write, in a sort of portentous end-of-days style. It’s strong stuff. Here is the the boy-narrator, looking down the stairs at the neighbour who will shortly be throttling him:
‘The thing was a fascinating horror; I seemed to be looking down into the chamber of some horrible maternity. the room was filled with the steady red light of the fire. Not a shadow moved in it. And there was silence. The man had taken off his boots and he twisted before the fire without a sound. I thought the man would burn himself to death. His clothes smoked. How could he be so cold?’
If you enjoyed True Grit (and if you haven’t read True Grit, go and get yourself a copy immediately), Uncle Abner could be for you.
‘Whoever rode that horse rode for his life or for something more than his life, or he was mad.’
See also: Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings is currently dipping in to this collection (and was in fact responsible for me keeping an eye open for it)..
Final destination: Back to the library, but I’m going to get myself a copy.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.