The Killing Needle

The Killing NeedleI’ve just seen an interesting post in the GAdetection Yahoo! group, from John Pugmire of Locked Room International. I share it here in full for the benefit of people who don’t get the digests: 

In 1887, a British author named Arthur Conan Doyle published a book about a drug-taking, misanthropic private detective with a gift for observation and logical deduction, and knowledgeable about the chemical and forensic science of the period. He was a master of disguise and his audacious exploits were chronicled by his friend, a doctor. The detective’s name was Sherlock Holmes. He played the violin. 

In 1871, a French author named Henry Cauvin published a book about a drug-taking, misanthropic private detective with a gift for observation and logical deduction, and knowledgeable about the chemical and forensic science of the period. He was a master of disguise and his audacious exploits were narrated by his friend, a doctor. The detective’s name was Maximilien Heller. He did not play the violin. 

Arthur Conan Doyle found international fame and Sherlock Holmes achieved immortality: his name became synonymous with masterful detection and is known to every schoolchild in the world. Henry Cauvin wrote ten more books that nobody read and ended up as the treasurer of a small French department. Maximilien Heller passed into oblivion. Moral: take violin lessons when you have the chance. 

Did Cauvin’s book inspire Doyle? It came out 6 years before Doyle even met Joseph Bell, his mentor. We know he was not averse to seeking ‘inspiration’ elsewhere: “The Problem of Thor Bridge” exactly matches a real-life case in Austrian police archives which occurred thirty years earlier, according to S.S. Van Dine in The Greene Murder Case (1928.) 

Cauvin’s book, renamed The Killing Needle, was published in English on Monday. It is not only a historical curiosity, it is a very good read: an adventure story worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson with a wrongly accused servant, a ghostly mansion with a mysterious captive and a diabolical master criminal. It is also a locked room milestone, featuring the first instance of a method which was the subject of debate between John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson and which is now classic, predating “The Big Bow Mystery” and The Mystery of the Yellow Room. 

Find our more at lockedroominternational.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to The Killing Needle

  1. That’s really interesting, Rich! It does make one wonder the extent to which this influenced Conan Doyle.

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  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have just bought the kindle edition from amazon. I shall comment further after reading the book.

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  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Wow! Fascinating – thanks for the heads up about this!!

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  4. realthog says:

    Many thanks for the info: this looks fascinating. I must try to get hold of a copy.

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  5. Those were the days – nobody read his stuff and he still got ten novels in print!

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  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book.
    The main character Maximilien Heller has traits similar to those of Sherlock Holmes (drug taking, misanthropy, gift for observation and logical deduction, knowledge of chemical and forensic science, master of disguise ). The narrator is a doctor, a bit slow but a faithful ally of Heller. It is possible that Conan Doyle was inspired by these two characters to create Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
    The book is a good and interesting read, though not outstanding. It is an adventure cum mystery.There is a locked room mystery here, but it is only a small part of the story and the solution is just glossed over. The method is discussed in a Clayton Rawson’s book by his detective Merlini..

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