Sunday, April 3, 2011
Lillian de la Torre's Sam: Johnson Stories, Part One
There's four books of de la Torre's stories featuring the Great Lexicographer as a detective. It's significant as being the founding volume of the historical-character whodunit; that is, a historical mystery featuring a real-life character from the past functioning as a detective. Now the genre is almost overpopulated with it; I've read stuff featuring Aristotle, Edgar Allan Poe, Davy Crockett, P. T. Barnum, Richard Burton, Algernon Swinburne, Jane Austen...the list goes on and on. But de la Torre came up with it in the 1940s and kept it going...at least in the Western world, as in Chinese literature such a tradition was already common.
For the newbies, Samuel Johnson (or Sam: as he's called; he actually wrote it that way) was a poet, critic, essayist, editor and lexicographer who lived from 1709 to 1784 and was the most prominent man of letters of his age, and many regard him as the greatest of all time. He wrote the first dictionary of English, edited an influential volume of Shakespeare plays, and was also an amazing wit and raconteur, something that came out with a biography written by his friend James Boswell, who carefully chronicled Johnson's life and conversation. He also detailed Johnson's health and habits so carefully that a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette's syndrome was reached; Johnson was prone to nervous tics and weird gestures, with odd vocalizations. And by all accounts, Johnson wasn't afraid to tackle criminals (including someone who picked his pocket), and took an active part in exposing the Cock Lane ghost fraud. He experimented in chemistry and, interestingly, with ceramic glazes. In other words, he had an active, curious intellect, a definite role model.
About the stories....they're in classic Holmesian style (and if you think about it, Doyle borrows from Boswell anyway) with the loyal friend/narrator recording the detective adventures of his best friend. They're written in 18th-century style, with the style and spelling/grammar quirks of period writing. And almost all of them contain actual historical characters, or thinly veiled versions of actual historical characters, or are based on real-life crimes or events.
First up: "The Wax-Work Cadaver," set in 1763, which is a great way to start off the volume. Boswell and Johnson go to visit Mrs. Salmon's famous wax museum, only to end up in a tangle of murder and mayhem. It's a fun story, full of detection and overtones of gothick horror, with bones inside wax statues and a grisly murder. And who can resist a murder in a wax museum? Wax museums seem to be made for murders.
"The Second Sight of Dr. Sam: Johnson" takes place during Boswell and Johnson's tour of Scotland and the Hebrides in 1773, and actually has chunks lifted pretty much directly from Boswell's account of the tour. While on the island of Raasay, they stumble on some odd happenings, which end up in a tragic death. It's probably the least of the series; the mystery depends on people overlooking some painfully obvious clues, like why an elderly woman who lives alone would be drying a wet pair of trousers by the fire.
"The Flying Highwayman" isn't specifically dated but seems to take place in 1763 or '64. It involves at least one real person, the blind magistrate Sir John Fielding (brother of novelist Henry Fielding, and who would later star in his own series of historical detective novels, written by "Bruce Alexander," pen name of Bruce Cook), and looks at the real contemporary problem of highwaymen. This time, a highwayman seems to appear and disappear at will, and is impossible to track down...until Johnson and Fielding join forces and nab the wrongdoer.
"The Mondobbo Ape Boy," also set during the Scottish visit of 1773, involves a bizarre real person, Lord Monboddo, an eccentric nobleman with many odd, loopy ideas, but whose ideas also prefigured the theory of natural selection and Darwin. While visiting the eccentric, two rough men show up with a naked boy, whom they claim is a wild boy they captured in a nearby forest. Monboddo is wild to take in the boy and use him as proof of his theories, but Johnson smells a rat...
Autumn of 1769 is the time of "The Manifestations in Mincing Lane," which is a fictional fantasia based on the real-life Cock Lane haunting that Johnson helped expose. De la Torre had a talent with atmosphere; this is a memorable tale, and the solution to it is just about every bit as grisly as the mystery that preceded it. What is the source of the knockings on the wall in an old house? Who is the phantom that appears? The final revelation seems unlikely but from what I've heard and read it's actually quite plausible.
Aaaaand we're back to Scotland of 1773, for "Prince Charlie's Ruby." Boswell and Johnson are staying in the home of the famous Flora MacDonald, a heroine of what was known as "the '45" to which Boswell and Johnson are played as being sympathetic. (Then again, this is during the reign of madman George III, so the Young Pretender was probably a viable alternative.) A mysterious visitor is revealed to be none other than the Bonnie Prince himself (who, it is rumored, really did slip back and forth from France to Scotland and England), who is in search of a fabulous ruby that was supposedly hidden for his future needs.
The holidays of 1772 give us "The Stolen Christmas Box," which sees Boswell and Johnson spending the Christmas festivities with Johnson's real-life friends the Thrales, especially Mrs. Thrale, another of Johnson's biographers, and whom Boswell disliked intensely. A valuable gem is stolen, and bizarre coded messages are found. Who is responsible? What is the importance of the messages? The ending is actually very unexpected, but only a minor fictionalizing of real events.
"The Conveyance of Emelina Grange" is yet another return to Scotland of 1773. Boswell and Johnson are called in to witness an ill woman signing a questionable document; they finally smoke out an imposture and abduction. De la Torre makes a claim for historical basis, but I can find nothing to back it up, except for it being based on the capers of a noted rakehellion Simon Fraser, who was the last man to be beheaded on Tower Hill.
The last story in the collection, "The Great Seal of England," is set in 1784 and is the first story published. Based on a real-life disappearance of the titular Great Seal, and including a number of political figures of the time, including Chancellor Thurlow. The Great Seal, a monumental responsibility and an object vital to the functioning of the Empire, is missing; who took it, how, and why? Other objects of value have not been taken, and it hasn't been ransomed. What was the purpose?
All told, it's good reading, even when it's not at its best, and certainly educates one about history and the notable figures of the 18th century. DR. SAM: JOHNSON, DETECTOR i's out of print, but worth seeking out. Highly recommended.