It’s hard to know for sure who was the first author to conscript a real-life historical character as an amateur detective in mystery fiction. Often, though, credit is laid at the feet of Lillian de la Torre, a onetime president of the Mystery Writers of America.
Beginning in the early 1940s, she published more than two dozen short stories—later collected in several volumes—that cast 18th-century poet, editor and lexicographer Samuel Johnson and his renowned biographer, James Boswell, as Holmes-and-Watson-type partners, solving myriad transgressions of the law through the force of their superior intelligence and with the aid of science.
Read the Rap Sheet’s interview with D.E. Johnson, author of ‘Detroit Breakdown.’
But if de la Torre initially had the field of “celebrity sleuths” to herself, it wasn’t for long. By the 1980s, people such as New York Police Commissioner (and later U.S. president) Theodore Roosevelt, critic-satirist Dorothy Parker, inventor-statesman Benjamin Franklin, Greek philosopher Aristotle, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst were all being impressed by authors into the service of gathering clues and suspects together to keep civilization’s crime rate under control.
Some readers cringe at the idea of refashioning famous figures of yore as fictional snoops. Yet the number of these transformations has increased dramatically over the last three decades, enough to comprise a distinct subgenre.
Being an enthusiastic student of history as well as crime fiction, I’ve read and relished scores of “celebrity mysteries.” They come in two types, which I shall deal with in separate columns: stories that employ the distinguished (or sometimes notorious) real-life player from the past as principal crime-solver; and others that pair him or her with an imagined ally who can undertake most of the legwork and perhaps undergo most of the injuries, thus saving the author from having to digress overmuch from the historical record.
In the former category, we have such works as Bogart ’48 (1980), by John Stanley and Kenn Davis. Actor Humphrey Bogart would earn prominence during his career for playing not only Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco private eye, Sam Spade (in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon), but also Raymond Chandler’s L.A. peeper, Philip Marlowe (in 1946’s The Big Sleep). Here, though, he proves to be a dab hand at the gumshoe game even when there aren’t cameras rolling.
The year is 1948 and Bogie is wrapping up work on Key Largo, when he learns that a friend has been shot to death. Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn approaches the star, suggesting this murder is linked to a script Bogie had shopped around on behalf of another buddy of his, Dalt Brennan. It seems Brennan has vanished, and Cohn worries that he’s planning to blow up Shrine Auditorium on Oscar night—a debacle mirroring the developments in Brennan’s screenplay. With help from fellow performer Peter Lorre, Bogie embarks on a search for Brennan that will have him rubbing elbows with Edward G. Robinson, Raymond Chandler and a youthful Marilyn Monroe, dodging his ex-wife and delivering such wise-cracking dialogue as this exchange with the arrogant Cohn:
“You sound off key today, Harry. Do I detect sentiment?”
“You don’t think I got a heart?”
“A surgeon would have to prove that, Harry.”
“You gotta stand in line to hate me, Bogart.”
“And the line gets longer every day, Harry.”
Another tale in which the real-life player does the detecting is The Titanic Murders (1999), by Max Allan Collins. Collins’ protagonist is Jacques Futrelle, an early 20th-century mystery writer and the creator of a brilliant sleuth known as “The Thinking Machine,” who was among the passengers lost when the RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in May 1912. In this paperback, Futrelle is asked to solve the slaying of a scapegrace named John Bertram Crafton, who’d approached several wealthy passengers on board the mammoth liner, offering to hush up exaggeratedly negative “facts” from their pasts—for a fee. Collins’ portrayal of the relationship between Futrelle and his wife, May (who survived the sinking), is charming, and he avoids letting this story slip too far into coziness by injecting a goodly amount of gossip and scandal, as well as a second murder and even a séance.
The question is, can Futrelle get to the bottom of Crafton’s slaying before the Titanic plunges to the bottom of the frigid Atlantic?
The Titanic Murders is actually the first in a series of “disaster mysteries” concocted by Collins, all of which enlist real authors as investigators. The other entries are The Hindenburg Murders (2000, starring Leslie Charteris), The Pearl Harbor Murders (2001, starring Edgar Rice Burroughs), The Lusitania Murders (2002, featuring S.S. Van Dine), The London Blitz Murders (2004, with Agatha Christie) and The War of the Worlds Murder (2005, starring Shadow creator Walter Gibson).
Perhaps it’s because today’s mystery-makers like to imagine that they, too, would be capable of vanquishing murderers, blackmailers and other malefactors, but they’ve gone rather out of their way to promote long-ago wordsmiths as shamus stand-ins.
Jack London comes off as a savvy, two-fisted hero in Peter King’s three mysteries set in pre-earthquake San Francisco: The Jewel of the North (2001), Dead Man’s Coast (2002) and The Golden Gate Murders (2002). Ernest Hemingway probes the singular case of a harpooned friend in Michael Atkinson’s Hemingway Deadlights (2009), while a young Daphne du Maurier looks into the fate of a kitchen maid found dead beneath a Cornwall precipice in Murder on the Cliffs (2009). Dashiell Hammett, who was in fact a former Pinkerton detective, tackles femmes fatales and corrupt businessmen in Joe Gores’ spirited Hammett (1973), and goes to work for movie star and accused murderer Fatty Arbuckle in Devil’s Garden, by Ace Atkins. Quinn Fawcett extends James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s espionage career through three ambitious thrillers, beginning with Death to Spies (2002), and Louisa May Alcott seems to stumble upon foul play wherever she goes in Louisa and the Missing Heiress (2004) and its two sequels, by Anna Maclean.
We mustn’t forget, either, about the imaginative justice-seeking escapades of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Josephine Tey and their respective sidekicks. But I’ll address those—and many other yarns—in my next column.
J. Kingston Pierce is the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine, as well as a principal contributor to the new encyclopedic work, 100 American Crime Writers (Palgrave Macmillan).