Seventeen stories, originally published between 1837 and 1913, test the sweeping assertion by editor Davis (More Deadly Than the Male, 2019, etc.) that the period constituted “the mystery story’s first golden age.”
The results are less than consistently convincing. The most successful detective in the earliest tale, Williams Evans Burton’s windy, plodding “The Secret Cell,” is the kidnapped heiress’s dog. Scotland Yard’s pursuit of horse thief Tally-Ho Thompson in Charles Dickens’ “The Detective Police” is much more confidently presented but still forgettable. The excerpts from novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Felix, and Emile Gaboriau are nothing more than efficient ways of allowing fans to skip the books from which they’re taken, and reprinting the climactic chapter from Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room provides major spoilers for one of the seminal locked-room novels. Leslie Klinger’s well-documented introductory essay notes that Arthur Conan Doyle himself acknowledged few forbears and that those he did note, Edgar Allan Poe (whose widely reprinted “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” makes still another appearance here) and Gaboriau, did not come off well. Doyle’s gifts for economical exposition, epigrammatic dialogue, and solutions that were ingenious without seeming labored set him far above most of his rivals. Of the entrants here, top prizes go to the derelict police officer’s dying confession of his most signal failure in Wilkie Collins’ “Mr. Policeman and the Cook,” the death of one sister and the disappearance of another solved by the determined Lady Molly of Scotland Yard in Baroness Orczy’s “The Ninescore Mystery,” The Thinking Machine’s brisk investigation into the death of a woman soon after she demanded to have her finger cut off in Jacques Futrelle’s “The Superfluous Finger,” and the bright debuts in the careers of blandly efficient private investigator Martin Hewitt (“The Lenton Croft Robberies”) and blind consulting detective Max Carrados (“The Coin of Dionysus”).
The audience most likely to enjoy the whole enterprise consists of those willing to overlook the claims that Holmes had any truly successful rivals and that his career coincided with a golden age. Bronze, maybe.