This collection, like its predecessor Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, is a delight for fans of the history of crime writing and lovers of the short story mystery format. I enjoyed most of these tales and the anthology contributed to my fascination with seeing where some of the things I love most about modern crime originally came from. However, this is not just a collection that that feeds the nostalgic urges, these stories are well written and still merit reading a century and more later. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will find these stories entertaining for their parallels to the master detective, but for the most part they are more than simple copying exercises. Some are enlightening about the Victorian/Edwardian world. They are all well chosen to demonstrate variety and its a good thing that these stories overlooked for decades should get a new audience. You will recognise some of the tropes Conan Doyle employed (the faithful companion, the hint of other unwritten mysteries that demonstrate cleverness, amazing deductive powers etc.). These are copied or manipulated by a host of writers here but crucially they have something of their own to impart too. With hindsight, we are in a position to evaluate these stories anew, for their illumination of the past for example, we can discern the jingoism and the sense of entitlement occasioned by empire but also small rebellions and non-conformity. More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes gives us a glimpse of how important Sherlock Holmes and his counterparts were to their contemporary audience.

One of the points Rennison makes in his introduction to this volume is that modern readers might think that Conan Doyle ploughed some lone literary path with the invention of Sherlock Holmes. It’s just not true at all, many authors made up this band wagon, of course, some were very bad – certainly forgettable. However, the authors here for the most part are entertaining storytellers, the tales are well written and they have enough of their own about them to be more than a mere copy of the master’s work. Take Baroness Orczy, we’ll get to her story later but I recently read two collections of her’s featuring The Tea House Detective. I was knocked back by how good the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel actually was. Her writing was clearly meant to challenge Conan Doyle and demonstrates wit and a feminist perspective of the Victorian world. Ernest Bramah wrote a crime series set in ancient China with a faux Chinese style that I think would probably horrify the modern reader but his British Max Carrados stories still have merit, again we’ll get to the one Rennison includes here.

The first story, The Missing Heir, features Mr. Booth and is narrated his friend, a middle-aged clerk, Mr. Perkins, this was originally published as part of a series in the Idler in 1896. Mr Perkins receives a visitor with a strange proposal. The young man introducing himself as Farquhar Barrington and says Perkins has money coming to him but as only he knows of it they will have to strike a bargain. So if Perkins wants his money he must sign a contract giving the young man half or he will disappear without a trace. Fortunately, the contract needs to be witnesses and Perkins turn to his friend, Mr Booth, who is suspicious of the deal. Booth offers the young man £350 to wave his right to half the fortune and it is refused. Booth intends to find out what is behind this…

Ernest Bramah (author of the Kai Lung mysteries set in ancient China I already referred to) gives us Max Carrados, the blind hero of The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage. Max is visited by Lieutenant Hillyer who has a delicate personal problem he is reluctant to discuss but he has heard of the ‘foundering of the Ivan Saratov case’, and decided to trust Carrados. Hollyer has a sister; she is married to a man 15 years her senior. She is now the recipient of the family legacy. While visiting the married couple Hollyer finds his sister living a drab existence. He fears that his sister’s life is in danger. Carrados feels there may be something to this… (We have a policeman sidekick and the employment of subterfuge here.)

E.W. Hornung is the author of Raffles, his story One Possessed features ‘John Dollar, crime doctor’. His first eminent client is lieutenant general Neville Dysone. The old soldier opens up to the alienist (early psychiatrist) about his fears for his wife and her sanity. In India she never touched a weapon and yet in England she has started carrying a gun…

Richard Marsh’s hero is Judith Lee. In Conscience she sees a beautiful woman in a mauve dress on Brighton pier and a Mongolian-looking gentleman nearby. She later learns that the woman was found dead, presumed fallen from a train on the Brighton line. When she sees the Mongolian man again she fears for the life of another woman…

Baroness Orczy of Pimpernel fame gives us Lady Molly of Scotland Yard in The Man in the Inverness Cape. Leonard Marvell vanishes one night from the Scotia hotel on the Cromwell road. His sister Olive reports this to the police two days later but there is no progress. So, eventually, she seeks out Lady Molly. A new witness comes forward but everything is not as it seems…

There are ten other stories here. Each story is introduced with a helpful note on the author, a date, a guide to the character of the detective and the reason why the story itself merits inclusion in the anthology. This is helpful as some of these authors were completely unknown to me even though I first came across this kind of collection a long time ago, Graham Greene’s brother Hugh compiled volumes on Sherlock’s rivals decades ago. Some of the writers here are the same but their stories are long overdue reprinting. I learned a lot from those old collections as a young reader. I first heard about the Irish rebel bombing campaigns that predated WWI and learned of the anarchists in the same period long before I read Conrad’s The Secret Agent. H.B. Lyle now writes about a British spy in 1909/10 in his Irregular books.

These stories demonstrate a vast array of different detectives from different backgrounds: women, foreign, doctors, old and young etc. Each story is respectful of Sherlock Holmes but nuanced enough to be original in some aspect. The writers here are also keen on proving their modernity by introducing their contemporaries to technological change, psychology, photography, and even one stab at forensic science (John Thorndike by R. Austen Freeman).

I can’t think of a more pleasant afternoon’s reading than this. Fun and informative.

Paul Burke 4/3

More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes edited by Nick Rennison
No Exit Press 9780857302601 pbk May 2019