Saturday, August 29, 2015

Best Martin Hewitt Detective Stories

Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) is generally considered to be the best of the Victorian writers of detective fiction with the single exception of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Morrison wrote a total of eighteen short stories recounting the cases of private detective Martin Hewitt. Dover’s paperback collection The Best Martin Hewitt Detective Stories includes nine of these marvelous stories.

The first Martin Hewitt story appeared in the Strand Magazine in March 1894. Morrison was already beginning to make a reputation for himself as a mainstream writer specialising in fiction dealing with slum life (Morrison’s own early life had been spent in considerable poverty). Detective fiction was not something he took all that seriously - in the wake of the enormous success of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (which had started appearing in the Strand Magazine in 1891) detective stories paid very well and he needed the money. Whether he took detective fiction seriously or not he proved to be remarkably good at it.

The Lenton Croft Robberies requires Martin Hewitt to solve three robberies at the home of a slightly crusty baronet. The robberies seem to have been the work of a single thief but there are some puzzling differences. On two occasions very valuable jewels were stolen but on the third occasion only a cheap brooch was stolen. All the robberies seemed to have been, if not impossible crimes, certainly exceptionally difficult.

The Stanway Cameo Mystery is a case in which Martin Hewitt was widely believed to have been failed but as the narrator points out this was certainly not the case. The Roman sardonyx cameo in question is so unique that it would be remarkably difficulty for the thief to sell it.

In The Nicobar Bullion Case a steamer carrying a shipment of gold bullion sinks. The steamer is salvaged but two cases of gold are missing.

These stories date from the time when murder had not yet become the crucial subject matter of the tale of detection. Martin Hewitt’s cases are usually just the sort of cases a working private detective would be expected to encounter, but with one crucial difference. They often turn out to be not all as they appeared to be on the surface. The Holford Will Case seems to be a very simple case of a missing will but then it veers into the realms of the weird. It’s far-fetched but it deals with a subject that was quite an obsession to the Victorians. The Case of Mr Geldard's Elopement appears to be exactly the kind of routine matrimonial case that Hewitt generally avoids but it turns out to involve a rather surprising crime. The Case of the Ward Lane Tabernacle is another example of Morrison’s skill in misdirection.

The Case of the Missing Hand seems like it really is a murder case but there’s a good deal more to it than that.

The Case of the "Flitterbat Lancers" begins with a rock thrown through a window. A piece of paper is wrapped around the rock, containing a piece of music. But the "Flitterbat Lancers" is a tune that nobody can play. Which is the cause of some vexation to certain parties since £20,000 is at stake.

At one point Martin Hewitt tells a client that his method consists of little more than careful observation and common sense. Which is more or less true. It just happens that Hewitt has developed those faculties to a remarkable degree. He certainly places little reliance on leaps of intuition or psychology. He simply follows the clues with an open mind and he follows them wherever they may lead him, even when the conclusion to which they point seems very unlikely. So skillful is Morrison’s plotting that this provides a more than adequate basis for these stories. The solutions are unexpected but they are wholly satisfying and we have to admit that Hewitt’s chains of reasoning are entirely sound.

Morrison made his detective the complete opposite of Sherlock Holmes in style and personality - Hewitt is amiable, self-effacing, even-tempered and entirely lacking in eccentricities. Apart from this Morrison followed Conan Doyle’s successful formula very closely. The Martin Hewitt stories were written to make money and they were written precisely to appeal to readers who had loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. It is the brilliance of Morrison’s plotting, allied with his lively prose, that makes him more than just a Conan Doyle imitator. The Martin Hewitt stories are good enough to stand on their own merits.

The Martin Hewitt stories were highly successful and their author also enjoyed growing success as a writer of mainstream fiction. He then, for reasons that have never been explained, simply stopped writing. Before he stopped he did however pen a wonderful series of short stories, collected as The Dorrington Deed Box, about an immensely entertaining rogue who dabbles in the private detective business for his own enrichment.

The Martin Hewitt stories are finely crafted little gems of detective fiction. Highly recommended.


  1. Morrison coined or made famous the phrase "mean streets", later used by Raymond Chandler, in "Tales of Mean Streets". He also created another detective, Horace Dorrington, on Gutenberg in The Dorrington Deed-Box", who lacked all of Hewitt's good qualities, but is well worth reading about.

  2. The Dorrington Deed-Box is enormous fun! I reviewed it back in June 2011. The "hero" is one of my favourite scoundrels. It's interesting that R. Austin Freeman started his career as an author writing about a similar rotter, Romney Pringle.

    I should add a "cads and rotters" tag to this blog!