In The Fog
Richard Harding Davis
First published in the US, 1901, by R. H. Russell
Illustrated by Thomas Mitchell Pierce and F. D. Steele
Source: Project Gutenburg
It is 1897. Four chaps are sitting around the dinner table at The Grill, London’s most exclusive club, which ‘enjoys the distinction of having blackballed, without political prejudice, a Prime Minister of each party’. They are strangers, but as is the tradition at The Grill, they have to eat together.
A fifth Club member, Sir Andrew, is also at the Grill that night. Later that evening, Sir Andrew will be speaking in the Commons in favour of the Naval Increase Bill, and is such a persuasive politician that he is sure to get the Bill passed, much to the dismay of one of the diners.
Currently Sir Andrew is sitting by the fire reading.
‘The weighty work in which the eminent statesman is so deeply engrossed is called “The Great Rand Robbery.” It is a detective novel, for sale at all bookstalls.’
Sir Andrew is addicted to mystery novels, and unable to put one down once he has started. The four men devise a plan to keep him occupied until the debate on the Naval Increase Bill has finished.
The first diner, an American diplomat, sets up a fine mystery to capture the politician’s interest. Lost in the thick London fog earlier that day, he stumbled through an open door to ask for help and found the bodies of an English aristocrat and a notorious Russian princess. The second man, a Queen’s Messenger, presents a back-story, describing how the princess attempted to steal the Czarina’s Diamonds from him. The third man comes back to the present and describes the investigations of Inspector Lyle.
I do not know if any of you gentlemen are acquainted with Inspector Lyle, but if you are not, I can assure you that he is a very remarkable man. Our firm often applies to him for aid, and he has never failed us; my father has the greatest possible respect for him. Where he has the advantage over the ordinary police official is in the fact that he possesses imagination. He imagines himself to be the criminal, imagines how he would act under the same circumstances, and he imagines to such purpose that he generally finds the man he wants. I have often told Lyle that if he had not been a detective he would have made a great success as a poet, or a playwright.
The set-up is interesting and In the Fog is worth a read as a satire on mystery stories. Ultimately, however, it is too obvious that the speakers’ stories are false, which makes for a slightly disappointing read.
Having said that, the narrative of the first speaker lost in the fog is brilliantly atmospheric. It is probably worth reading this novella (which is very short – it took me an hour) just for this stuff:
‘To a sailor the course did not seem difficult, so I bade my friend goodnight and walked forward until my feet touched the paving. I continued upon it until I reached the curbing of the sidewalk. A few steps further, and my hands struck the wall of the barracks. I turned in the direction from which I had just come, and saw a square of faint light cut in the yellow fog. I shouted “All right,” and the voice of my friend answered, “Good luck to you.” The light from his open door disappeared with a bang, and I was left alone in a dripping, yellow darkness. I have been in the Navy for ten years, but I have never known such a fog as that of last night, not even among the icebergs of Behring Sea. There one at least could see the light of the binnacle, but last night I could not even distinguish the hand by which I guided myself along the barrack wall. At sea a fog is a natural phenomenon. It is as familiar as the rainbow which follows a storm, it is as proper that a fog should spread upon the waters as that steam shall rise from a kettle. But a fog which springs from the paved streets, that rolls between solid house-fronts, that forces cabs to move at half speed, that drowns policemen and extinguishes the electric lights of the music hall, that to me is incomprehensible. It is as out of place as a tidal wave on Broadway.’
Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) is an interesting character – an American war correspondent who was an honorary member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and who apparently made the clean-shaven look popular.