August Derleth Short Fiction Analysis
Although it has been said that the “true and most original Derleth” is not to be found in his fiction, August Derleth’s short stories have also won him admirers. His horror stories, many in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, have appeared in magazines for popular reading. His most skilled work in the area of short fiction, however, is probably his Solar Pons series. Clearly undertaken as an imitation, these stories recall for Sherlock Holmes fans the wonderful adventures of Baker Street, with Solar Pons as the new master detective. Each of these stories is constructed along a line of deductive reasoning that is very Holmesian in character. The three examples that follow will serve to illustrate Derleth’s skill in creating adventures of this type.
“The Adventure of the Rudberg Numbers”
“The Adventure of the Rudberg Numbers” is an ingenious speculation on the invention of the atomic bomb as a tangential result of one of Solar Pons’s elegant solutions to a crime. It is related by his Dr. Watson-like associate, Parker, who is the detective’s foil. Bancroft Pons, a high official in the Foreign Office and brother to the detective, introduces the plot. A young woman with defective eyesight named Lillian Pargeter has consulted him, by mistake, about the abduction of her brother, a thirty-five-year-old physicist employed by the government in research. A double has been substituted in his place who goes to his office at the regular times. Lillian detects the substitution only by the calluses on his right hand. The imposter is able to mimic her brother’s gait, speech, and appearance but not his left-handedness.
Pons consults his reference book on physics and studies the scientist’s papers assiduously. After an entire night’s concentration he concludes that the formulae are Rudberg numbers which refer to the radiation of heat and light, and he speculates that Pargeter has discovered the law of the fissionability of the atom. He puts together the information he has gotten from the sister, that their social life is quite constricted because her brother insists on boring everyone with his theories, since no one at work takes him seriously, with the fact that one of the people he had recently expatiated to is a close associate of the German ambassador, who is a friend of an espionage agent, von Grafenstein.
Pons summons Alfred Peake, who is head of a gang of boys, the Praed Street Irregulars, who will do anything for a guinea. Pons gives them money to buy Halloween costumes and instructs them to storm into Grafenstein’s house as if they were trick-or-treating. They are to search through the mansion until they find the scientist, and Pons gives them a photograph so they will recognize him. Just as he suspected, the physicist’s face has been bandaged and he has been confined to bed. The twenty boys manage to get him to the waiting limousine. Pargeter is sent to America, and his double is charged with giving information to foreign agents and put under detention pending trial. Subsequent events prove that the Americans were not as skeptical as the British about Pargeter’s radical theories. Not only is the plot line of this story elegantly maneuvered, with an extraordinary amount of highly technical information used in its solution, but also the minor characters, such as the landlady and the boys in the street gang, are amusingly handled. Everything falls perfectly into...
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