Thursday, July 7, 2016

Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective

The Dick Donovan stories have some historical interest in being fairly early entries in the detective fiction genre, and also in being remarkably popular in their day. The stories were written by J. E. Preston Muddock (1842-1934) under the pseudonym Dick Donovan, Dick Donovan being also the name of the detective protagonist. Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective is a collection of eighteen of these stories (Muddock wrote around 200 of these stories in total in addition to work in many other genres).

The first of these Dick Donovan stories appeared in 1888, about a year after Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet. Conan Doyle did not enjoy real success until the publication of the first of the Sherlock Holmes short stories in the Strand Magazine in 1891. Dick Donovan short stories started to appear in the same magazine in late 1892.

Many, although apparently by no means all, of the stories are set in Glasgow.

The Dick Donovan stories are generally, and on the whole reasonably, regarded as being a little down-market compared to Conan Doyle’s work. Muddock was a competent hack writer but he lacks Conan Doyle’s humanity and dry humour and his prose is at best workmanlike. 

The first story in this collection is The Saltmarket Murder Case. It’s really an early police procedural and it has to be said that it’s rather dull. Donovan comes across as an efficient and methodical if somewhat plodding police officer. Unfortunately the plot is also rather plodding. There are no twists at all in this story. 

The Lady in the Sealskin Coat is a definite improvement with a more interesting plot revolving around high stakes swindling. 

The Tuft of Red Hair is quite grisly but it’s a very routine story about the murder of a middle-aged woman. The Pearl Necklace is a reasonably good story with at least some worthwhile detection. It concerns a daring jewel robbery and the pawning of a very valuable necklace for a very small amount of money, in fact a sum of money so small as to arouse suspicion.

A River Mystery is a moderately interesting murder tale with the hero having to do some real detecting after a corpse is discovered in the bottom of a boat drifting downriver. The Skeleton in the Cupboard is a very dull story of a bank clerk guilty of embezzlement. There is no detection at all in this story.

The Gentleman Smasher: A Strange Story and How I Snared the Coiners form a two-part story of an investigation into a coining racket. These are two of the best stories in the collection simply because they deal with a crime that today seems strange and exotic - it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was actually worthwhile to counterfeit sixpences! There are some truly fascinating details about the art of producing counterfeit coins and even more especially the art of passing bad money.

The Robbery of the London Mail is also not too bad. Dick Donovan has to investigate a mail train robbery that has occurred between Glasgow and Carlisle. This is one of the few stories with a reasonable degree of actual mystery, not just regarding the identity of the criminal but also the precise way in which the robbery was carried out. As in all the other stories the solution is revealed much too early but there is still the hunt for the criminal to provide some entertainment.

All for Love’s Sake is one of several stories that presents crime in a tragic and rather pathetic light. Donovan investigates a series of thefts from a draper’s shop. The Haunted House is a feeble tale of a supposed haunting but given that we know from the start the identity of the culprit and the motive there’s not much interest here, especially since the methods the culprits uses are not very ingenious and there’s no attempt to create a menacing atmosphere. It’s just a nothing story really. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is much better with Donovan’s powers of observation, good memory and quick thinking helping him  catch a surprising thief.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Helen Atkinson is another rather dull story. A young woman vanishes mysteriously from her home. Donovan uses newspaper agony columns to trap the chief suspect. A Terrible Deed is also disappointingly straightforward. A woman’s body is discovered in a field and Donovan must discover who she is before he sets about finding her killer. The Pearl Button, the story of the murder of an itinerant pedlar, at least has a moderately interesting clue. 

The Story of a Diamond Ring is one of the better stories since for once there is some actual doubt about the guilt of the criminal (a chambermaid accused of stealing a valuable ring) and we don’t discover the solution until the end of the story.

Stolen money that has never been recovered is the basis for The Mystery of a Tin Box. Now the stolen money has been stolen again but this time Donovan is confident he will recover it. As is customary in these tales there is only ever one suspect so there’s not a lot of mystery here. And Donovan does no detecting whatever - he is simply told the answer.

What strikes me about most of these stories is that the plots are very very straightforward. It’s very noticeable that the author lacks the plotting dexterity of the great masters of the vIctorian detective story like Conan Doyle and Arthur Morrison. There are no real twists. Donovan begins his investigation, finds some evidence, follows up the obvious leads and makes an arrest. End of story. There are no surprises. There is almost always an obvious suspect who almost always turns out to be the guilty party. These are police procedurals rather than detective stories but a good police procedural requires either some genuine mystery regarding the criminal’s identity or some really fascinating details about the investigation. These stories don’t really provide either of these things.

There’s also a tendency to rely on gore to compensate for the deficiencies in plotting. The level of gore is in fact at times quite startling. 

At the time they were published in 1888 many reviewers assumed these were true stories of crime. In fact this was obviously the author’s intention. In some ways they are not so much early police procedurals as early examples of crime fiction masquerading as true crime stories.

What these tales lack as detective stories is compensated for to some extent by their interest as social history. The author likes to give us very detailed descriptions of the way things worked in 1888 - not just the way certain criminal activities (such as coining) worked but day-to-day things such as the retail trade and the mails. There are also some vivid depictions of the squalor and viciousness of the criminal underworld.

The detective story has often been accused of being contrived and unrealistic. This accusation cannot be leveled at the Dick Donovan stories. They are very realistic and plausible. These are exactly the sorts of cases one would expect a real-life detective to deal with and the investigations proceed in a thoroughly realistic manner. In fact these tales illustrate in a particularly stark way why realism is something that a crime writer should avoid at all costs. Realism tends to be dull. You might think that the police procedural is the one crime sub-genre in which realism would be an asset but this is not necessarily true. A good police procedural will certainly benefit from a realistic treatment of police methods but if it works as an entertaining story that’s most likely because the actual plot is a web of artifice and contrivance.

These stories do have some historical interest but apart from that they don’t have much going for them. I you love the Sherlock Holmes stories and you’re looking for more Victorian detective fiction there are much much better examples to choose from (such as Arthur Morrison’s Martin Hewett stories). I can’t really recommend this collection. 


  1. Muddock is better known for his supernatural and horror tales which probably explains the emphasis on gore and the unskilled detective story aspects. I've never read any of the Dick Donovan short stories but I've a read a few of his horror tales. I tried to read one of his novels about the 18th century highwayman -- Deacon Brodie -- who inspired a much more successful series of books when Russell Thorndike created Dr. Syn. But I was bored by the writing in Deacon Brodie, stopped reading, and shelved it forever. I ended up selling the book and made a nice profit because the edition I had with a pictorial cover turned out to be a lot more scarce than I thought.

    1. I can certainly understand your being bored by his writing. The success of the Dick Donovan tales was probably mostly due to their slightly lurid flavour. Not that I necessarily object to lurid but lurid content and dull writing makes a bad combination.