Arthur B. Reeve Essay - Critical Essays


Arthur B. Reeve may have borrowed the idea of using a word-association test in “The Scientific Cracksman” (in The Silent Bullet, 1912) from “The Man in the Room” (in The Achievements of Luther Trant, 1910, by Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg), but the emphasis differs. Reeve’s success with Craig Kennedy went far beyond anything his predecessors had achieved. Within a few months, Kennedy the scientific detective was a household name, and his creator was hard put to keep up with the demand for his adventures.

In less than a decade, Reeve turned out enough material to make a twelve-volume collected edition of his books not only feasible but a marketable commodity as well. A few decades later, Craig Kennedy would be forgotten, but during the years between 1910 and 1920, he was the best-selling fictional detective in the United States, considered by his publisher (especially for advertising purposes) the American Sherlock Holmes.

The secret of Reeve’s success lay in his timing; his emphasis on the latest scientific discoveries in an age that took pride in progress; and the appearance of the stories in one of the most popular magazines of the day, one part of the publishing empire of William Randolph Hearst. Although Reeve wrote ten novels about Kennedy, it is in the short form that the writer’s skill as a storyteller lies. Although the series spanned two and a half decades in publication, it is the earlier stories that retain the greatest interest—as reflections of a vanished period in American society as well as examples of an earlier mode of detective fiction.

To keep up with the demand for stories about Kennedy, Reeve often reused ideas and even recycled actual episodes that had appeared in earlier stories. Short stories were often expanded to fit a longer format, and stories that had appeared in magazines were often rewritten for book publication with characters altered and situations reversed. Some of this recycling was the result of contractual obligations, but some was simply a matter of expedience. Reeve was a one-man fiction factory with insufficient raw materials.

Reeve may not have described Kennedy’s physical appearance, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what he looked like. Will Foster’s illustrations made it obvious that the professor of chemistry at an unnamed university (apparently intended to be Columbia) was clean-cut, square jawed, and stocky. Walter Jameson, his reporter friend who narrated the stories, was slight of build with fine features. Beyond that, it was up to the readers to form their own images.

In the early period, a Craig Kennedy story was as ritualistic as any in the Holmes canon. Each story opens in Kennedy’s laboratory in the chemistry building on the campus of the university or in the apartment he shares with Jameson. Enter the client or Inspector Barney O’Connor to present a problem to Kennedy and ask for his help. Kennedy may suggest that the case should be easy to solve simply because it seems so extraordinary. This is quite in keeping with one of Holmes’s own patterns of reasoning.

The crime is usually murder committed in unusual circumstances. A young couple is found dead with no discernible means or motive to be found. There are so few suspects that the focus is not so much on who did it as on how the crime was committed and the motive. The motive is often apparent, since there is only one logical individual who benefits. Each story contains two scientific devices, one used to commit the crime and one to solve the mystery. Kennedy discovers the first through his own wide knowledge of scientific matters, but he creates the second in his laboratory, often concealing its nature and significance until the end of the story.

It was this element, the scientific device, which was responsible for Reeve’s great popularity. Kennedy’s basic theory was that science could be applied to the detection of crime just as it could trace the presence of a chemical or locate a germ. Ballistics, voiceprints, the use of film cameras to record crimes in progress, the identification of the typewriter used by comparing the alignment of the letters, and Dictaphones are only some of the devices that Kennedy uses to combat crime. Yet the novelty wore off, much of it quickly became outdated, and even more novel devices had to be described in subsequent stories. Some of this is sufficiently representative of the period for the stories to have acquired a significance as social history.


(The entire section is 1851 words.)