Lillian de la Torre Essay - Critical Essays


On the dust jacket of Elizabeth Is Missing, Lillian de la Torre commented, “I have been a student of the eighteenth century for seventeen years, and a detective-story fan for longer than that. It was inevitable that the lines would cross.” Yet the conjunction occurred by accident. Even as a child she had been fascinated with mystery and detective fiction. Her father, himself a fan of the genre, owned a rich collection that included the works ofÉmile Gaboriau, Jacques Futrelle, and Arthur Conan Doyle; at the age of nine, de la Torre began devouring these and similar works, and she never stopped. Her husband was far less enthusiastic. As she recalled in a lecture in 1973, “’Boo!’ he would say. ’Detectives! What a bunch! Cute brides! Bald Belgians! Quaint old ladies! Roly-poly Chinamen! Next thing you know there’ll be a police dog.’” De la Torre defended her reading preferences, arguing that mysteries could be legitimate literary art if the main characters were “solid and three-dimensional, like—like Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in Boswell’s great biography.”

Whether the decision to pursue this idea was the inevitable consequence of lifelong interests or the fortuitous outcome of a domestic dispute, the result was a happy one. That most famous of detective duos, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, were themselves modeled on the historical Johnson and Boswell, the one a brilliant and eccentric analyst, the other a devoted but often dull-witted recorder. Holmes even refers to Watson as his Boswell. Returning to the originals of this fictional pair was sensible, given de la Torre’s knowledge of and interest in their era.

The 1940’s were particularly propitious for this undertaking, as Yale University began publishing Boswell’s recently discovered manuscripts, thus placing the biographer and his subject in the news. Moreover, the eighteenth century offered a perfect period for detective fiction. The first expert witness appeared in court in 1698. In 1770, footprints in the snow were first matched with the shoes that made them. The first detected use of prussic acid as poison came thirteen years later. The novelist Henry Fielding and his blind half brother, Sir John Fielding, organized a rudimentary police force, the Bow Street Runners, with the means of detecting crimes and their perpetrators.

Samuel Johnson was caught up in these developments. According to Boswell, he spent an entire winter listening to Saunders Welch, Sir John Fielding’s assistant, examine suspects. Occasionally, he was more than a spectator. When James Macpherson claimed to have discovered ancient Gaelic verses by Ossian, Johnson correctly declared them forgeries, just as he later recognized that the supposed fifteenth century works of Thomas Rowley were the product of the young Thomas Chatterton. In 1762, he helped investigate the case of the “Cock-Lane Ghost”: According to William Parsons, who lived in Cock Lane, Smithfield, Fanny Lynes’s ghost was trying to reveal, through Parsons’s eleven-year-old daughter, that she had been poisoned by her brother-in-law. In 1762, in “Account of the Detection of the Imposture in Cock-Lane,” Johnson exposed the fraud.

De la Torre used such episodes for her stories. “The Manifestations in Mincing Lane,” for example, is based on the Cock-Lane Ghost; “The Missing Shakespeare Manuscript” deals with literary forgery. In some instances the mysteries are real: The Great Seal of England actually did disappear from the Lord Chancellor’s house; Elizabeth Canning did vanish for four weeks (“The Disappearing Servant Wench”), the Duchess of Kingston was tried for bigamy (“Milady Bigamy”), William Henry Ireland did manufacture a number of Shakespearean manuscripts.

“The Monboddo Ape Boy” and “Prince Charlie’s Ruby”

Other tales build on Johnson’s experiences and opinions. James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, anticipated Charles Darwin’s belief that humans had undergone a process of evolution. Although Johnson disliked both Darwin the man and his theories, Boswell arranged for the two to meet in Scotland. In “The Monboddo Ape Boy,” de la Torre creates a pair of confidence men who try to exploit Monboddo’s interest in feral children as evidence supporting his assumptions about evolution, and she then shows Johnson foiling the plot during his visit. “Prince Charlie’s Ruby” uses Johnson’s excursion to the Isle of Skye to see Flora Macdonald, the Jacobite heroine who hid Bonny Prince Charlie after the debacle of Culloden, as the basis of an adventure much like that of Holmes and the six busts of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Attention to History

Still other stories develop from...

(The entire section is 1943 words.)