August Derleth Essay - Critical Essays

August Derleth Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Solar Pons, August Derleth’s major mystery series character, had his first adventure, “The Adventure of the Black Narcissus,” in 1928, when the author was nineteen years old and a junior at the University of Wisconsin. Because Doyle had written to him that he was not going to write more Sherlock Holmes adventures, Derleth was determined to carry on the tradition. He believed, however, that he could not use the Holmes character directly; instead, the form of the stories had to be, in Derleth’s own words, “not that ridiculing imitation designed for laughter, the parody, but that fond and admiring one less widely-known as the pastiche.” The name Solar Pons, meaning “bridge of light,” was an adolescent creation with the same syllables as Sherlock Holmes, and the 7B Praed Street address was chosen after consulting necessary guidebooks, since his own knowledge of London was limited. (No other setting seemed appropriate.)

Fell Purpose and No Future for Luana

Although Derleth sold his first story, the stock-market crash of 1929 prevented others written at the same time from being published in The Dragnet. As a result, Solar Pons was set aside, and Judge Ephraim Peabody Peck became the focus of Derleth’s first series of detective stories. The ten books of this series take place in Derleth’s hometown, which he names Sac Prairie. Yet the works themselves were written hastily and lack the polish of his later Solar Pons stories. They seem to cover a period in which Derleth was developing his craft. Easy to read and conversational in tone, they bear the hallmarks of popular literature. As such, the conversations often contain turns of phrase that seem outmoded, and that at the same time capture the local color of Sac Prairie speech: for example, from Fell Purpose (1953), “he’d never have gumption enough to go out and sock somebody on the jaw,” “he’s a good egg,” “hot-tempered as the devil,” and “you’re falling just off bounds of charging me with murder.” Sentences are composed of short phrases, and descriptions show a straightforward line of reasoning. The narrator, Judge Peck’s young secretary, reports the scene of the crime for the reader in No Future for Luana (1945), illustrating this style of writing:Judging by appearances, such as they were, someone had entered the dressingroom, slugged her, and then, taking no chances, had held her mouth and head and pushed the thorn into her eye. It was not a nice way to die. . . . The make-up table showed that she had just about completed her make-up, which meant that she must have been murdered just shortly before she was discovered. Eyelashes had been attached, dark color for under eyes had been used and set aside, the lipstick was still open, showing that she had probably put it down not long before her assailant entered the dressing-room; the disorder before the mirror was due solely to her having fallen forward among the boxes of cosmetics and other paraphernalia of the theatre.

Only such detail as is pertinent to solving the crime is included, as though the reader were following the actual logical processes in the mind of the narrator.

Judge Peck himself is less open to scrutiny. He smokes his cigar and observes closely as the police proceed with their investigations. Outwardly Peck seems like an absentminded old man, but, as his companion notes, “that large, square-jawed face and the strange, opaque eyes resembled nothing so much as a calculating machine when his mind was agile.” His method involves careful, detached observation, followed by “cerebration”: “He took the whole puzzle, divided it into subproblems, and began to ratiocinate.” The reader is shown the same evidence the judge and his secretary see, as well as an explanation at the end when the riddle is solved. Judge Peck’s character, although quickly drawn, is quite evidently in the mold of the rational “sleuth only by courtesy” whose talent for solving the riddle of difficult crimes comes from being a “student of what human nature Sac Prairie afforded.”

“In Re, Sherlock Holmes”

Derleth maintains in A Praed Street Dossier (1968) that Solar Pons “had always had more reality” in his thoughts than Judge Peck, in spite of the fact that London was a much less familiar milieu to him than Wisconsin. When, in 1944, Derleth had the opportunity to consider publishing a group of Solar Pons stories as a book, the earlier stories seemed “very amateurish” to the author; so he revised them and wrote new ones that he finally published himself in 1945 as “In Re, Sherlock Holmes”: The Adventures...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)