In Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados stories, the reader finds the best of two worlds: The stories contain many of the conventional crimes and criminals that are greeted as old friends by those who have read widely in mystery and detective fiction, yet they center on a detective who is utterly new and who insistently provides a fresh view of the conventional material.

Max Carrados

Max Carrados was blinded as an adult, when a twig hit his eyes during a riding accident. The injury left him sightless, but the appearance of his eyes is unchanged. In his introduction to The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923), Bramah explains thatso far from that crippling his interests in life or his energies, it has merely impelled him to develop those senses which in most of us lie half dormant and practically unused. Thus you will understand that while he may be at a disadvantage when you are at an advantage, he is at an advantage when you are at a disadvantage.

Carrados, understandably, prefers to work when he is at an advantage; thus he conducts many of his investigations at night, and he manages to hold a roomful of villains at bay simply by extinguishing the lights. Even in a well-lit room, however, Carrados is able to perform remarkable feats: He is able to read newspaper headlines, playing cards, and photographic negatives by running his extremely sensitive fingers over them; by knowing what to look for and guessing where to search, he can locate a single petal on the ground or a few strands of hair caught in a bramble; he can recognize the voice or pattern of footsteps of a person he has not encountered in several years; and he is able, by identifying the odor of the adhesive, to determine that a man is wearing a false mustache.

Though Carrados’s achievements may seem to readers incredible and superhuman, Bramah went to some pains in his introduction to The Eyes of Max Carrados to establish that, historically, blind people have indeed accomplished much, and Carrados is only one example of the tremendous capabilities of the blind. “Although for convenience the qualities of more than one blind prototype may have been collected within a single frame,” each of the things that Carrados can do is certainly possible. “Carrados’s opening exploit, that of accurately deciding an antique coin to be a forgery, by the sense of touch, is far from being unprecedented.”

Carrados is not above feigning helplessness when it will help him obtain information. When it suits him, he can be remarkably clumsy, knocking over a framed picture (and stealing the piece of glass with the fingerprint on it), accidentally opening the door to a darkroom (to confront the suspect within), or bumping into furniture (so he can whisper to the accomplice who reaches out to help him). These accidents are typically followed by Carrados’s humble apology—“’sorry’, he shrugs, ’but I am blind.’”

With one exception, the rather unsuccessful novel The Bravo of London, Max Carrados solves his mysteries within the span of the short story. Yet even within this genre Bramah manages to establish characters that live and breathe and intrigue the reader. Bramah’s recurring characters—Carrados, Louis Carlyle, Parkinson, Inspector Beedle—are so engaging in part because they are revealed to be flawed. Witty, kindly, and generous as Carrados is, he also has a cold streak and is not immune to vanity. Previous to his reunion with Carrados, Carlyle has been disbarred because of an indiscretion (although not a crime), and he does not take cases from clients who cannot pay. In only a few sentences, Bramah presents a succinct and rather appealing suggestion of Inspector Beedle’s character:the inspector nodded and contributed a weighty monosyllable of sympathetic agreement. The most prosaic of men in the pursuit of his ordinary duties, it nevertheless subtly appealed to some half-dormant streak of vanity to have his profession taken romantically when there was no serious work on hand.

Bramah’s crime fighters are believable, likable characters, not overly virtuous supermen.

This passage also shows something of Bramah’s own style. The sentences are economical and carry a constant faint touch of irony. “This is how people are,” Bramah seems to say, “and is it not amusing?” The teasing is always gentle, always affectionate—Bramah enjoys his characters, finds pleasure in the silliness of social climbing and the vagaries of...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)