Friday, October 21, 2016

E.W. Hornung's The Crime Doctor

The Crime Doctor is a 1914 collection of linked short stories by E.W. Hornung, a writer best known for his very successful stories of the gentleman-thief Raffles. The crime doctor is a Doctor John Dollar and he has come up with a theory that all crime is a form of madness and can therefore be treated the way madness would be treated.

Doctor Dollar claims that his theory is based on his own first-hand experiences. A mild brain injury some years earlier had caused him to develop certain very specific criminal tendencies. He claims to have cured himself and now he hopes to cure others.

As we reach the later stories it becomes increasingly obvious that this is more an episodic novel than a collection of linked short stories although one or two of the stories (such as A Schoolmaster Abroad) can stand on their own. 

The first story, The Physician Who Healed Himself, give us Doctor Dollar’s backstory while also revealing the unconventional methods he uses to promote his revolutionary new theory on the treatment of crime.

The Life-Preserver deals with a murder committed during a suffragette riot. An habitual criminal has been condemned to death for killing a policeman during the disturbances but the notorious Lady Vera Moyle claims to have evidence that the man is innocent.

In A Hopeless Case Doctor Dollar is persuaded, against his better judgment, to try to cure the thief who figured in the previous story and he discovers that curing some criminals can be a very great challenged indeed. 

A Schoolmaster Abroad takes Doctor Dollar to Switzerland. Serious accusations have been made against a Swiss doctor who happens to be the man who cured Doctor Dollar of his criminal tendencies. The accusations involve a young man of good family who has rather suddenly become wild and unpredictable and is proving to be quite a handful for his tutor. Doctor Dollar claims to dislike having to act as a detective but that is what he must do in this tale.

One Possessed is probably the highlight of the book. A highly decorated army officer retired after long service in India is desperately anxious about his Anglo-Indian wife’s erratic behaviour. There is certainly a tragic secret here but perhaps not the obvious one. If the solution is a little outlandish it’s also highly entertaining.

In the later stories (or chapters if you prefer to treat the book as a novel) we return to the events and characters introduced in The Life-Preserver. The manner in which the various floating plot strands are brought together is reasonably effective if a little contrived, and the ending is perhaps really too contrived.

The premise of the book is quite clever and taps into the zeitgeist of the times. At the beginning of the 20th century psychological theories were all the rage and seemed to hold the promise of opening up a brave new enlightened world in which human happiness would attain unheard of heights and most human misery would be eliminated by scientific progress.

Doctor Dollar has all the zeal of a prophet. Interestingly enough although he might sound like a starry-eyed idealist and even a bleeding heart his compassion for those who break the laws has its limits. While he believes in trying to cure some offenders he thinks that habitual criminals should be ruthlessly exterminated!

Mercifully Doctor Dollar is not a Freudian so we’re spared that misfortune.

The Crime Doctor has some historical interest as an early example of the psychologist-as-detective sub-genre (although it was preceded by the rather more interesting Luther Trant, Psychological Detective stories which appeared in 1909-10). The Crime Doctor is a mixed bag but it has its moments. It has to be said that Doctor Dollar does not do a great deal of actual detective work. Worth a look if the subject matter appeals to you.

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