Robert L. Fish Essay - Critical Essays


Robert L. Fish’s career began in 1960 with a short story, “The Case of the Ascot Tie,” which introduced the memorable character of Schlock Homes. Eleven more Homes stories were written between 1960 and 1966, all of which first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Clearly, Fish was a student of Arthur Conan Doyle and knew the canon well enough to use the latter’s style and devices both creatively and comically. His stories are, in the opinion of most critics, excellent pastiches and parodies of Doyle’s work. Schlock has a friend and narrator, Dr. Whatley; Mrs. Essex lovingly keeps house; Schlock is frequently confronted by the evil plans of Professor Marty; and much of the action takes place at 221B Bagel Street. Inevitably a worried or desperate person appears hoping to win the assistance of the great detective. Questioning these clients in a manner that does credit to his model, getting at the pertinent facts by the most logical of deductive reasoning, Schlock is nearly always wrong in every particular.

The tales are laced throughout with puns that are described by every critic as outrageous. Fish had a reputation among his friends for puns and could string together dozens of them in a matter of minutes. Excellent examples of this penchant for puns may be found in the titles of the stories. When Homes offers his help to a group of Polish men, the result is “The Adventure of the Danzig Men.” The tale of a British aristocrat forced by his conduct to resign from his clubs is dubbed “The Adventure of the Dismembered Peer.” It is noteworthy that no member of the Baker Street Irregulars protested the fun; evidently, they recognized that the parodies were a form of affectionate tribute. The Mystery Writers of America awarded a prize to “The Case of the Ascot Tie,” arguably the best of the Homes stories.

The Fugitive

Fish’s first full novel, The Fugitive, was more serious in tone. With this book, which concerns Nazis who have escaped to South America, Fish introduced the most popular of his heroes, Captain José da Silva of the Rio de Janeiro police force. Da Silva, a large, swarthy, pockmarked man with black, curly hair and a fierce mustache, evokes the image of a romantic highwayman and immediately captures the reader’s attention. As the plot develops, it is evident that da Silva’s dramatic presence is less important than the gifts of intelligence, humanity, and sensitivity with which he is endowed. Yet his character remains credible. Although he is vulnerable to women, he is realistic in his assessment of them in the course of his investigations. He has an almost obsessive fear of flying, certain that any flight he endures will be his last. He can never relax on an airplane, which interferes with his appreciation of the attendants’ physical charms and his partaking of the available libations. In moments of great physical danger, he knows fear and dreads dying.

Nevertheless, da Silva is a man of extraordinary courage. It has been suggested that the earlier volumes in the series, particularly Isle of the Snakes (1963), in which da Silva must contend with several poisonous reptiles, and The Shrunken Head (1963), which involves him with bands of head-shrinking Indians, tend to emphasize the primitive facets of his homeland, while the later volumes describe the wealth and culture of the cities, the other face of Brazil. Brazilian Sleigh Ride (1965) emphasizes that da Silva is at home even on the sidewalks of New York, as he confronts a gambling syndicate in Manhattan.

Police Lieutenants Series

One trait that seems a constant in the makeup of Fish’s detectives is first explored in da Silva’s character: He is remarkably independent. Although he holds the rank of captain, he is a part of a bureaucracy. He wastes little time with authority, however, and acts on his own. Clancy and Reardon of the Police Lieutenants series operate in much the same fashion on their respective police forces but are more conscious of the penalties that independence carries. Clancy is well aware that his duty may be complicated by superiors and politically ambitious prosecutors. Reardon’s superiors seem convinced of his ability and value, yet his...

(The entire section is 1750 words.)