Saturday, March 16, 2013

E. W. Hornung and the Crime Doctor

E. W.  Hornung is best remembered today for his many tales of the great gentleman thief Raffles, and for being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. Hornung was however quite a prolific and successful author on his own account and created several other equally interesting crime fiction heroes, including Stingaree the Bushranger (inspired by Hornung’s two years in Australia) and The Crime Doctor. It is the Crime Doctor with whom we are concerned at the moment.

The Crime Doctor is Dr John Dollar, a medical man who dabbles in crime-solving. As a young man he had suffered a serious and almost fatal head injury and had been cured by a brilliant Swiss surgeon. The head injury had caused him not just great distress but had effected unpleasant personality changes. The Swiss surgeon’s operation restored him to health and normality. This experience of personal medical crisis made Dr Dollar an even more compassionate man with a personal understanding of psychology, both normal and abnormal.

Dr Dollar is a true medical detective, a man who uses both his skills as a detective and as a doctor to solve his cases. 

In 1914 Hornung published a volume of short stories featuring Dr Dollar under the title The Crime Doctor. I’ve so far only tracked down one of these stories, in a vintage crime anthology. The story is A Schoolmaster Abroad.

On holiday in Switzerland Dr Dollar makes the acquaintance of a young man named Jack Laverick. Laverick had been an amiable young man who had done well at school before going up to Oxford. He was popular and he was a devoted and dutiful son. All this changed when he was injured in a toboganning accident. He become morose, irresponsible and a drunkard, the despair of his parents and of his long-suffering tutor, a schoolmaster from Eton.

This behaviour change provides the medical challenge for Dr Dollar, but there is a criminal matter that has also attracted his attention. Someone has tried to kill young Jack Laverick. Even worse, suspicion has fallen upon the very doctor who had saved Dr Dollar’s life years before. This doctor appears to have prescribed a fatal dose of strychnine for his young patient. Dr Dollar will have to find solutions to these two problems, problems that may or may not be linked.

It’s an interesting and unusual detective story, written with Hornung’s customary easy style. It’s a story that is worth seeking out if you’re a fan of offbeat crime fiction.

As for myself, I will now be looking out for a copy of the Crime Doctor short story collection.


  1. In the book there is a underlying theme that ties together all the incidents that apparently is not touched upon in the single story you read. Dr. Dollar's mission in life is to prevent crime before it happens. In the opening of the book Dollar discusses advocating forgiveness above rehabilitation in the apprehension of criminals. "It isn't as if [imprisonment] undid anything he's done...", Dollar observes. He proposes to start a consultancy and residence for potential criminals and teach them how to recognize their criminal tendencies and transform and channel that behavior to a more productive use.

    I intended to write about this book two years ago, but I lost interest in it. I made it only half way through before Hornung's message got to be too preachy and a bit too utopian for our crime ridden 21st century world. The adventure sequences were not all that original either. Still, it was fascinating to discover this kind of radical idea coming from a man who invented the first gentleman thief.

  2. I just downloaded a kindle ebook of "The Crime Doctor" for free on Amazon. You can find it here:

  3. All the stories were serialised in 'Everybody's Magazine' in 1913 and 1914 prior to their publication in book form. Hornung also developed them into a play which, so far as I know, was never produced - the plots were amended quite drastically but cleverly rehashed into a continuous narrative. (The manuscript is in the Cadbury Research Library at University of Birmingham University, UK.)

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  5. It may be of some interest that, to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth in June 2016, some NEW books by Hornung are currently being published - 'The Graven Image' and 'His Brother's Blood' (both by ELT Press, in hardback and kindle) and 'Tall Tales and short'uns' (by Nekta Publications, in paperback). More information can (or will) be found on Amazon.