(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The turn of the century was an extraordinary time in popular fiction, when stories of detectives, criminals, magicians, living mummies, space invaders, and romantic adventurers took the public’s fancy in books and in magazines. Types of popular fiction were not always distinct, and some authors seem consciously to have made a determination about what sold, combining as many popular elements as possible into a single book. Richard Marsh, for example, realized that both detective stories and occult mysteries had large audiences, so in The Beetle (1897) he set an aristocratic detective to investigate the case of a man who literally turns himself into an insect.

The World’s Finger

Thomas W. Hanshew’s The World’s Finger, accurately subtitled “An Improbable Story,” brings together several elements from popular fiction of the period. Especially in its declamatory dialogue, it reveals Hanshew’s training as a dime novelist in the United States, but he included a number of comments expressing the prejudices of his adopted country: “That’s the worst of you Continental people,” cries one of the characters, “you squeal and howl when the jig’s up and you find yourselves in a corner.”

The plot of The World’s Finger reflects the vogue for the detective stories of Fergus Wright Hume. As in Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) and The Chinese Jar (1893), the suspense is created by the competition between rival detectives. In The World’s Finger, Scotland Yard superintendent Maverick Narkom, who plays the heavy through much of the book, opposes private detective George Yardley, who had resigned from the police because of his hatred of the overbearing Narkom. Narkom is in love with the heroine, who has accepted the proposal of a nobleman. When his rival is charged with murder, Narkom seizes the chance and promises to track down the real criminal in exchange for the heroine’s hand in marriage. One of Narkom’s nasty characteristics is that he is prejudiced against the aristocracy, for he has the features of an aristocrat but is of low birth. Hanshew, however, admired those of high birth and disliked those who spent their lives in “workshops [which] vomited their hordes of wage-workers out on the muddy pavement.” The major exception was the Cockney, whom Hanshew found good for a bit of comedy.

Though the social positions in The World’s Finger are backward-looking, the cleverness of Hanshew’s plotting hints at what would come with the Golden Age two decades later. The book begins with the discovery of a corpse, from which lead the bare footprints of the murderer, but the footprints stop at a blank wall. A diamond shirt-link is also found, leading to the strange image of an upper-class murderer in evening dress but wearing no shoes or socks, a murderer who, moreover, can disappear when he reaches a wall. To make matters more mysterious, the body of one of the constables investigating the case is found, yet there seems to be no way for the murderer to have come and gone without being seen. These problems are solved quite quickly by an inventive explanation that would be used by later writers, especially Thomas Burke in “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole.” More mysteries appear, however, some of them concerning inheritance. Hanshew mentions M. E. Braddon in the book, and it is clear that her sensational novels contributed this emphasis on family rights. When a bit more than one-third of the book has been told, the complexities have become so great that one of the characters laments, “Upon my word it is the most mysterious affair of which I have ever heard. It doubles and twists and contradicts itself at every turn.” The detection at this stage is done by a young woman, and her deductions are far cleverer and more persuasive than those of the bemused men about her.

Had the book maintained this level, it would have become one of the classics of detective fiction, but it declines into problems involving identical twins, unnecessary kidnappings, ridiculous police procedure, and (the always popular, at least in 1901) Italian anarchists. Even with its flaws, however, The World’s Finger was successful enough that Hanshew followed with similar novels; the work also helps the modern reader understand Hanshew’s strengths and weaknesses. His willingness to toss almost anything into a plot makes his books marvelous examples of popular culture, but when his tales reach novel length, they form a gooey mishmash.

“The Amethyst Pin”

Hanshew’s major strength was in his plots, especially his imaginative openings with impossibilities. This skill was best displayed in his short stories. In 1905, for example, George Yardley reappeared in “The Amethyst Pin,” a detective story published in The Monthly Story Magazine. Once again, Hanshew used his favorite elements—identical twins, snobbish social attitudes,...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)