Robert Barr’s principal talent lay in the cleverness and ingenuity of his plots, particularly in his ability to devise ironic twists to otherwise straightforward situations. He had no particular command of naturalistic detail; his locations remain almost completely functional. His narrative language is formally correct and elegantly characterless. None of his characters is realized with any physical or psychological depth; they remain lightly sketched and one-dimensional, excelling only in badinage and facetious dialogue. He wrote with a facility that came from his journalistic background, addressing the voracious popular market for superficial fiction. Until he created Eugène Valmont, his inventiveness and wit existed almost completely at the level of romantic froth.
“The Great Pegram Mystery”
A number of detective and mystery stories and novels preceded Barr’s success with The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont (1906). “The Great Pegram Mystery” (originally published in The Idler of 1892 as “Detective Stories Gone Wrong—The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs”) was a distinct departure from his usual short-story practice. Not unlike the Holmesian prototype, Sherlaw Kombs plays the violin, scorns Scotland Yard, anticipates a visitor before his arrival and skillfully deduces his occupation and mission, uses a magnifying glass at the scene of the apparent crime, makes calculations to the inch, and meticulously unravels the sequence of events ex post facto. Kombs insists on dealing only with facts, and, within the boundaries of circumstantial evidence, his reconstruction is faultless. His aide, Whatson, the narrator, is an exclamatory naïve admirer and straight man, of no assistance whatever.
One would hope that Barr’s friend Doyle greeted this inspired silliness with magnanimity, for Kombs mistakes for suicide a case of robbery and murder that occurred, as a devastating touch, nowhere near the location of the body in a train compartment. The pastiche is of a high order. It is augmented by Kombs’s precise and completely self-assured investigation, and by his wonderfully tongue-in-cheek justification of his conclusions (the “motive”):Nothing is more calculated to prepare the mind for self-destruction than the prospect of a night ride on the Scotch Express, and the view from the windows of the train as it passes through the northern part of London is particularly conducive to thoughts of annihilation.
This story was included in Ellery Queen’s anthology The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes (1944).
From Whose Bourne?
The novella From Whose Bourne? (1893) further anticipated Barr’s attention to detective fiction. In it, a ghost assists in clearing his wife, who is wrongfully suspected of having poisoned him at a dinner party. The French spirit-detective Lecocq, a precursor of Eugène Valmont, possesses all the formality, pride, and obtuseness of Sherlaw Kombs: He seems adept only at collating the obvious facts in their logical order, an exercise that he considers child’s play. Though the story is protracted and unfocused in development—the ostensible impulse behind the two prime suspects is purely romantic—it does demonstrate Barr’s fondness for the unusual solution (here, an inadvertently switched drug) beyond the obligatory complications at the level of the apparently guilty parties.
The mystery stories collected in Revenge! (1896) are considerably more satisfactory. Ranging over a variety of international locales, the majority of the tales conclude with the discomfiture or death of the antagonists by such devices as dynamite, naphtha, billiards, revolvers, an avalanche, and the stock exchange. “An Alpine Divorce,” for example, develops the situation of a couple who hate each other. The wife commits suicide by flinging herself off a cliff in Switzerland, having first framed her husband in public for her prospective murder. In “Which Was the Murderer?” a woman must smother her wounded and possibly dying husband with a pillow to ensure that his assailant does not escape the charge of murder.
These stories are confined by rapid...
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