The Dead Witness edited by Michael Sims

A mixed bag…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

the dead witnessMichael Sims begins his anthology of Victorian detective stories with an interesting introduction where he gives a potted history of the detective in literature, going back as far as Daniel in the Bible! Much of this is ground that has been covered many times, of course, but Sims doesn’t only stick to British detectives, as many of these anthologies tend to, so some of the information about early writings from America was unfamiliar to me. And he ranges more widely than usual in his selection of stories too, taking us to Australia, Canada, and even the American wilderness.

Sims brings in several writers I haven’t come across before, and in particular some of the early women writers of detective fiction. The stories are presented in chronological order and, before each one, he gives a little introduction – a mini-biography of the author, putting them into the context of the history of the development of the genre.

Overall, I found this collection more interesting than enjoyable. Unfortunately, my recent forays into classic crime have left me feeling that there’s a good reason many of these forgotten authors and stories are forgotten. Often the stories simply aren’t very good, and I’m afraid that’s what I felt about many of the early stories in this anthology. The later ones I tended to find more enjoyable, partly, I think, because the detective story had developed its own form by then which most authors rather stuck to.

Missing! Inspector Bucket as portrayed by the wonderful Alun Armstrong in the BBC adaptation...
Missing!
Inspector Bucket as portrayed by the wonderful Alun Armstrong in the BBC adaptation…

The book is clearly trying not to regurgitate the same old stories that show up in nearly every collection and that is to be applauded. However, some of the selections didn’t work for me, and I felt on occasion that the choices were perhaps being driven too much by a desire to include something different. For example, there are a couple of selections that can’t count as detective fiction at all – a newspaper report from the time of the Ripper killings, and an exceedingly dull extract of Dickens writing about his experiences of accompanying the police on a night shift, with Dickens at his most cloyingly arch. How I longed for Sims to have chosen an extract from Bleak House instead, to show one of the formative fictional detectives in action, Inspector Bucket.

It also seemed very disappointing to me that Sims should have chosen to use a short extract from A Study in Scarlet as his only Holmes selection. As a master of the short story form and major influence on detective fiction, I felt Conan Doyle should have had a complete entry to himself, and there are plenty of stories to choose from. We do get a complete Holmes pastiche in Bret Harte’s The Stolen Cigar-Case, which is quite fun, and a good Ernest Bramah story, whose Max Carrados clearly derives from Holmes. But no actual Holmes story!

Stephen Fry has recently narrated some of the Max Carrados stories - available as a download from Audible or Amazon
Stephen Fry has recently narrated some of the Max Carrados stories – available as a download from Audible or Amazon

There is also an extract from Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, which kindly gives away the ending of the book, thus spoiling it completely for anyone who hasn’t read it. And an utterly tedious extract from one of Dumas’ Musketeer books, for which my note says simply ‘short, but not short enough’.

However, there are several good stories in the collection too, many of which I hadn’t read before. The Murders in the Rue Morgue puts in its obligatory appearance (and yet no Holmes story! You can tell I’m bitter…). There’s an interesting story from William Wilkie Collins, The Diary of Anne Rodway, where the detection element might be a bit flimsy and dependent on coincidence, but it’s well written, with a strong sense of justice and a sympathetic view of the poorer members of society. GK Chesterton’s The Hammer of God, which I recently included as a Tuesday ‘Tec! review, also came from this collection.

Spoiler Alert! The Murders in the Rue Morgue Illustration by Harry Clarke
Spoiler Alert! The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Illustration by Harry Clarke

The title story, The Dead Witness by WW (the pen-name of Mary Fortune), is apparently the first known detective story written by a woman. The plot is a little weak, but she builds up a good atmosphere and there’s a lovely bit of horror at the end which works very well. I particularly enjoyed Robert Barr’s The Absent-Minded Coterie, which has a nicely original bit of plotting, is well written and has a good deal of humour. Sims suggests Barr’s detective, Mr Eugene Valmont, was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Hmm… on the basis of this story, I remain unconvinced.

So a bit of a mixed bag for me, really. I admire the intention more than the result overall, though the stronger stories towards the end lifted my opinion of it. One that I’m sure will appeal to anyone with an existing interest in Victorian detective fiction, but wouldn’t necessarily be the first anthology I’d recommend to newcomers wanting to sample some of the best the period has to offer.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Ah, Holmes, old man - there you are!
Ah, Holmes, old man – there you are!

37 thoughts on “The Dead Witness edited by Michael Sims

  1. But you were never going to read pudding head anyways! Dumas! That reminds me. You have to read The Black Tulip! Did I ever say I liked that book? I think I liked it a lot. I can’t remember. It was a good story, you know. You should read it. At once, of course.

    That is definitely a picture of me. (Is it a Yeti?)

    I know that Holmes and Watson!

    • Haha! But other people might want to – people who haven’t been tricked into reading IA! You did! But much more important than you liking it is the fact that Schwarzy liked it! One day, I may read it, but again… IA! Your reputation as a book recommender to me is about as high as mine is to you!

      Yes, is rather cute and cuddly, isn’t it? (It’s supposed to be a gorilla or an orang-utan, or something. Hmm…)

      They’re the best ones!

      • IA was good, tho! Twain just gets…a bit mean. He literally rips everything imaginable. Except his white mustache. You know, now that I think on it, you might not like it too much at all…there’s like this real gory part in the beginning. Then later on, there’s a few things that might make you gag!

        Haha. Is not! It’s a monster, I tell you, capable of great destruction!

        • Good, in a horribly racist and not very funny kind of way. *nods* Hmm… you’re not doing a very good job of selling this one to me, you know, you know…

          But monsters can be cute too, poor things! Look at King Kong – he’s nearly as romantic as the Professor!

  2. Sounds very interesting and more a collection of things that are less-known, rather than things that are particularly good. It’s one of those books that might be nice to have about, just in case the need for obscure detective stories crops up. I reckon the lack of Holmes was deliberate, perhaps Sims thought it was too obvious a choice. Anyway, I like your review and the picture of that weird beast thing.

    • A lot of these anthologies are more interesting than good, really – I suppose it must be hard to find some stories that haven’t appeared in every other collection. But personally I preferred Martin Edwards’ Capital Crimes collection – nearly as much history and better stories, I thought. Yeah, it was a strange decision about Holmes, especially since there’s so many stories he could have chosen. The pic is good, isn’t it? Harry Clarke’s illustrations of the Poe stories are brill…

        • Haha! Yes, good of him! The history fo the genre side of it was very good, though – I think I’ve probably read too many of these anthologies too close together – time for a change!

  3. That’s the thing you always risk with a short story collection, isn’t it, FictionFan: that unevenness. I do have to say I always respect an editor/anthologist who tries to include some new or at least slightly different entries into a collection. But that can sometimes take away from the overall effect. It sounds as though Sims tried more for variety than high quality – always a tricky balance. Still, I’m glad you found some things to really like.

    • Yes, you rarely get an anthology where every story is great. I think with this one it felt a bit unbalanced, because all the poorer stories were at the beginning and the better ones were at the end. Had I not been reviewing it, I might have given up before I got to the good bits. And I am peeved about Holmes… 😉 But the stuff about how the genre developed was interesting.

  4. I think I’d only find this enjoyable if I drank brandy and smoked a pipe, but I’m afraid I can’t take up a new habit. 🙂 Oh, but I am interested in Americanah! Looking forward to your review of that.

    • These anthologies can be hit or miss for me – I think they’re often as likely to put people off Victorian detective fiction as encourage them to read it. Hmm… in truth, Americanah isn’t grabbing me as much as I hoped. I think it’s mainly because of referendum/tennis meaning I’m not devoting big enough chunks of reading time to it, so I’ve kinda left it to one side till the weekend when I should be able to concentrate more…

    • Ah, I see you did! I’ve linked through to it and glanced at the tiltes – will read it properly later. Looks interesting – thanks! Anytime people talk about men dominating the book market, I always think of the crime fiction market and disagree – women have been dominating it for a century, literally. So I see no reason why they feel so hard done by, to be honest… 😉

        • Yes, you’re probably right. Certainly I find I read far more crime by women than men but that’s a taste thing – in general, women write more character based stuff while men tend towards action. Though there are exceptions, of course, in both directions…

  5. I loved Bleak House and of course Alun Armstrong!
    Thanks for the review of this book. Though it is a mixed bag (as I’ve found most anthologies to be), I’d like to check it out.

    • One of my all-time favourite adaptations, that one. Such a great cast!

      Yes, I agree – very few anthologies don’t have some less good stuff in it. And this one was certainly interesting for getting an idea of how the genre developed. Hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  6. I had read most of these and I agree, they aren’t always the strongest stories by their authors. I think its getting progressively difficult to anthologise the Victorians – re-print the Greenes, say I!

    • Yes, especially the earlier stories. However it was still an interesting read overall. I know – I understand the pressure they all must feel under to find stories that haven’t appeared a million times before, but personally I thought Martin Edwards’ Capital Crimes had a better selection than this one. Again you’d probably read most of them before, but there were plenty that were new to me.

    • I know – I felt it was a little let down by some of the selections and could have been better even if some had just been left out altogether. And then there would have been plenty of room for a full Holmes story!!! 😉

  7. Well, on the positive side, at least some of these stories were of interest! I imagine compiling a variety of stories into one book is rather like preparing a buffet. Some people will like some of the food put out on the table; others, not so much. Too bad you had to read ALL of them so you could give us a thorough review, ha!

    • Very true! And I think this one might be aimed at people who want to know more about the background rather than just reading it for the stories, so probably not for the beginner. Haha! I know – sometimes I do find myself struggling through to the end of something just because I feel I have to if I’m going to review it – a martyr, that’s me! 😉

  8. Yes! Both you and LF struck out today. My luggage will not need an expansion pocket. I’ll be heading out a week from today for a bit of an excursion. Please don’t review any more enticing books between now and when I leave. Thank you for your cooperation in advance.

    • Hahaha! I think I can promise you total safety from around here. Between tennis and the EU referendum, I’ve pretty much stopped reading and I have about three half-written reviews, one history book and a couple of crime. I may be forced to take another break for lack of anything to post. Can’t answer for ‘er over there, though…

  9. Despite your misgivings about some of the selections chosen I’d still like this one to sit on my bookshelf as the format sounds like one that can be dipped in and out of at ease – I don’t know why that appeals as I rarely if ever read books that way but it does! A shame Holmes didn’t get his own full piece though as that sounds a perverse choice.

    • Haha! I know – I think I like “dip into” books too, though I never actually dip into them. I don’t know how many collections of short stories I have that I’ve only read a couple of stories! I’m still gnashing my teeth over the whole Holmes thing… 😉

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