The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes
Edited by Graeme Davis
Pegasus Books, 2019
There’s a familiar silhouette on the cover of this nicely-designed new item from Pegasus Books: the deerstalker cap and coat, the pipe, the pensive nod of the head. It’s standing metaphor for the absence governing The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: the greatest detective in all of fiction isn’t here, but a bunch of other fictional detectives are. Editor Graeme Davis here assembles half a century of detective fiction from 1837 to 1914, prototypical examples of the genre from writers like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Baroness Orczy, and of course Edgar Allan Poe, plus a dozen lesser-known trailblazers who either inspired Arthur Conan Doyle or were inspired by him.
Anthologies like this one have a long pedigree, mainly because they’re such reliable fun. Fifty years ago there was a book called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Hugh Greene (Graham’s older brother) that was successful enough to generate three further sequels, and there have been other anthologies with the same title over the ensuing years, plus plenty with different titles but the same modus operandi: to give innumerable Holmes fans a sampling of the vast variety of detective fiction that preceded Doyle’s signature creation, flourished alongside him, and flooded into the temporary void created when Holmes went over the Reichenbach Falls in the grip of Professor Moriarty.
“The debate about the first detective novel may never be settled, but what is certain - and certainly more interesting - is to note just how detective fiction has become by the early 1860s, both with the reading public and with writers from widely different backgrounds,” Davis writes in his Introduction. “In the words of a contemporary music hall song, there was a lot of it about.” A book of 370 pages can only serve up a small fraction of that lot, and some items are virtually constitutionally mandated: you can’t make an anthology like this without Poe or Collins, for instance. But Davis makes some excellent ancillary choices. Yes, there’s a Lady Molly story by Baroness Orczy, but there’s also “The Secret of the Fox Hunter” by crackpot author William le Queux, who elicits one of Davis’ choice footnotes: “At the outbreak of World War I, le Queux pestered the police constantly, seemingly convinced that German agents were out to get him for ‘rumbling their schemes’ in his books. His appeals were not taken seriously, and he survived the war unscathed.” There’s also the 1906 “The Superfluous Finger” starring Professor S. F. X. van Dusen, the main creation of old Boston newspaper hack Jacques Futrelle, who wrote clean prose at breakneck pace and (unconnectedly, one presumes) died on the Titanic.
The baseline reality of all books like The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is both sobering and challenging: there are no real rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The closest approximations, an egotistical Belgian sleuth and a little old lady with a mind like a bacon slicer, are comfortably distant second-placers, and the various problem-solvers Davis assembles here don’t even come close. But they make for all the more intriguing reading because of that, and the picks here are good. The biting little irony of the book is that finishing it will create a near-irresistible urge to read a Holmes story, or more than one, but such an indulgence can only be improved by a bit more context.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.