Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Essay - Critical Essays

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Symbolic of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s transitional status is the fact that his first novel, The Cock and Anchor (1845), originally a historical novel, was rewritten much later as a real mystery story, with a change of time and place, and published as Checkmate (1871). One cannot but admire the cleverness with which he adapts the characters and even the minor details of plot to his changed purpose.

The Cock and Anchor

The Cock and Anchor gives a vivid reconstruction of the social and political atmosphere of Dublin in 1709-1710. Mary Ashewoode, the heroine, is a member of the Protestant, Anglo-Irish aristocracy that controlled most of the land and power in Ireland after the overthrow of James II. Her father and brother, Sir Richard and Henry Ashewoode, are particularly obnoxious members of this class, dissipated and improvident; Henry is a compulsive gambler. Mary loves a Catholic Jacobite, Edmund O’Connor, newly returned from exile; her family, however, has other ideas. For a time they encourage the suit of an elderly fop named Lord Aspenly. After Sir Richard’s death, however, Henry falls into the hands of a villainous usurer named Blarden who wishes to marry Mary. He tricks Henry into forgery, for which he is eventually hanged. Blackmailing Ashewoode, Blarden prepares for marriage by imprisoning Mary in her own home; he is betrayed, however, by a barmaid hired to watch Mary, who escapes. An elderly friend of O’Connor named Audley then escorts the heroine to the country house of an uncle, where, contrary to the conventions of the romantic novel, she simply dies, leaving her lover to fall in battle.


Some of the changes in Checkmate may not be relevant to this discussion, being made necessary by the change of setting from eighteenth century Ireland to Victorian England; some of the subordinate villains change from stage Irishmen to stage Jews, and the hero becomes a respectable gentleman who waits in the wings to marry the heroine (who does not die). It is the handling of the villain that shows Le Fanu’s skill in a new genre. Blarden is a villain of the crudest kind, but his counterpart, Walter Longcluse, is an elegant gentleman who moves easily in the best society; he has immense wealth but a somewhat mysterious past. Although there is nothing improper about his courting the heroine, Alice Arden, her family rejects him in favor of a presentable lord; in his anger, he behaves like Blarden and blackmails Alice’s brother. At this point, a somewhat primitive Sherlock Holmes figure intervenes. Alice’s uncle, David Arden, a successful businessman, follows a hunch that there is some connection between Longcluse and Yelland Mace, who years before had been involved in the murder of Arden’s brother. In Paris, Arden tracks down the mysterious Baron Vanboeren, the plastic surgeon who had transformed Mace into Longcluse. Mace/Longcluse turns out to be an illegitimate Arden, who seeks revenge. Though not considered one of Le Fanu’s best novels, Checkmate is notable for the ingenious development of the plot and for the character of Longcluse. The transformation of the benevolent uncle should be noted: Mary Ashewoode’s uncles are ready to defend her with their money and the sword, but David Arden protects his niece with his analytical mind. There is an official detective in the novel, but he has been discharged from the police force, is duped by the villain, and dies ignominiously of scarlatina.

The House by the Churchyard

By general agreement, Le Fanu’s best novels are The House by the Churchyard (1863), Wylder’s Hand (1864), and Uncle Silas (1864); all three can properly be termed mysteries, though none has as strong a detective element as Checkmate. The House by the Churchyard, set in Chapelizod in 1767, is to some extent a historical novel, and it also contains much comedy and social satire. Here is a clear-cut version of Le Fanu’s double mystery. Years before, in England, there had occurred a murder that was the result of gambling; a certain Lord...

(The entire section is 1693 words.)