#869: Little Fictions/The Cornerstones – The Silent Bullet [ss] (1912) by Arthur B. Reeve

Another week, another Cornerstone; this time, it’s “the American Sherlock Holmes” Craig Kennedy, creation of Arthur B. Reeve and a wildly popular character in his day.

The Raw Materials

Craig Kennedy, a professor of Chemistry at an unspecified university somewhere in or near New York, is called upon to investigate crimes unusual which feature scientific means of either commission or detection, but also safe-breakings and shootings. He is accompanied in all things by the journalist Walter Jameson, whose initials that of Homes’ chronicler swapped round probably in an unconscious admission of plagiarism since these two are so Holmes-and-Watson that you wonder why Reeve even pretended he was trying something new.

In opening story ‘The Silent Bullet’ (1911), it is Jameson who recommends to Inspector Barney O’Connor that Kennedy be consulted in the murder of businessman Kerr Parker, implying that Kennedy’s reputation for greatness has not yet been achieved, though O’Connor does refer people to Kennedy in later stories. At the conclusion of ‘The Deadly Tube’ (1911) our detective is mocked by one suspect for his “so-called reputation” as a “professor of criminal science”, giving the impression that his intentions are known in certain circles — indeed, how else could he come to be invited into so many cases? — but I never got the sense that he qualifies as a Great Detective in the idiom of his illustrious forebear.

The Foundations

Authors who followed in the wake of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes usually went to the effort of establishing some fresh ground for their detectives to stand upon: Arthur Morrison’s creation Martin Hewitt was physically distinct from Holmes’ gaunt severity and possessed some avuncular warmth of character, R. Austin Freeman’s very own Dr. John Thorndyke was a scientist in the purest sense in carrying out strictly observed and meticulously explained experiments on the way to his conclusions. True, there was a lot of hack work done with thinly-veiled copies — hello Lattimer Shrive — but since we’re on the Cornerstones list we can assume such aping is deserving only of the shunning it shall receive.

This debut collection of Craig Kennedy stories arguably follows in the same tradition of finding some slight variation on the character of Holmes by simply giving Kenney no character whatsoever. Anyone who avers the lack of personality displayed by, say, Inspector Joseph French in the stories of Freeman Wills Crofts really should experience first hand the absolute character-void that is Craig Kennedy. Without a single physical descriptor or quirk to his name — no violin, no Persian slipper, no voracious appetite for distraction, no interest in literature sensational or otherwise — he is simply consulted, appears, investigates, and leaves. In one story he disguises himself as a telephone worker, and in another as a Frenchman drawn broadly enough to add an annexe to the Hundred Years’ War, but that’s about as close to any tangible personality as we get.

We learn a little more of Jameson, but firstly it would be difficult to learn less, and secondly that which we do learn is not really to his credit. His moral objection to Kennedy’s scheme of pretending to be a doctor and asking some questions of a witness being about the only time he has an opinion on anything (and, anyway, he is ignored in this instance), but his somewhat leery eye where The Ladies are concerned (“I cannot but say that I felt a certain grim pleasure in supporting even momentarily such a woman in her time of need” he reports, catching a woman as she faints under the magnificent strain of a word association test). He’s also surely the densest man ever to Watson, giving Nigel Bruce’s comedic portrayal someone to look down on in the intellectual stakes: “I was glad Kennedy had brought his revolver, and rather vexed that he had not told me to do likewise,” he tells us at one point, glossing over the fact that Kennedy only has his revolver because he asked Jameson to get it for him…yet even then Jameson didn’t consider bringing his own. Possibly an attractive widow (“[She] was in very deep mourning, which served, as I could not help noticing, rather to heighten than lessen her beauty. By contrast it brought out the rich deep colour of her face and the graceful lines of her figure.”) was occupying his thoughts, eh?

In ‘The Bacteriological Detective’ (1911) we’re treated to a confusing opening in which Kennedy delights in the wonders of progress — especially where matters of murder are concerned — and then Jameson relates the following curmudgeonly jeremiad against the whims of Modern Society:

Kennedy and I had…commented on the artificiality of the twentieth century. No longer did people have homes; they had apartments, I had said. They didn’t fall ill in the good old-fashioned way any more, either in fact, they even hired special rooms to die in. They hired halls for funeral services. It was a wonder that they didn’t hire graves. It was all part of our twentieth century break-up of tradition.

Honestly, I can’t get a handle on these two at all.

She was a Latin-American, and the Latin-American type of feminine beauty is fascinating, at least to me. I did not retreat very fast.

Well, apart from that, I mean.

The stories vary in hue and stripe, but are typically based in some classic tropes that would find rich soil in the approaching Golden Age — the resentful family waiting for their wealthy patriarch to snuff it in ‘Spontaneous Combustion’, a.k.a. ‘The Body That Wouldn’t Burn’ (1911); the fraudulent medium — sorry, just “the medium” would suffice there — who justifies having been caught cheating during a séance on the grounds that punters expect results and so sometimes she needs to do that to make them happy; a kidnapping; professional espionage, etc. In this regard there’s much here to admire, given the range of cases Reeve has Kennedy investigate, but that alone doesn’t always make for compelling reading

Flourishes

The appeal of Reeve’s stories was, undoubtedly, his use of scientific methods to untangle the solution of a crime, and since Kennedy first appeared in 1910, some three years after Thorndyke, it’s tempting to see the American as an upstart interloper treading on the toes of two more brilliant antecedents. I’m not so sure, however. Freeman’s Thorndyke stories were still fairly callow in their realisation of scientific principles when Kennedy first appeared, and — given Freeman’s well-documented dedication to ensuring his methods were practicable and valid — Reeve’s use of science can be slapdash and poorly-described in comparison.

Reeve is not to be blamed for a fair proportion of the science he uses being flattered were the prefix “pseudo” attached to it, just as Isaac Asimov cannot be blamed for the erroneous belief at the time that Mercury always presented the same face to the sun and which proved so crucial to one of his Dr. Wendell Urth stories. Yet, just as you start to enjoy the actual sceince he’ll spout some nonsense — that the heartbeat of a man can be detected in his handwriting, for starters, or that the inability to expel breath properly while moving at speed through the air will result in blood poisoning — and a certain retrospective terror can be summoned (should you be lacking terror in your life after these last two years of breezy, problem-free existence) in idly speculating on how much credence was ever given to such principles and how many wrongful convictions they allowed down the years.

No, the true fault at the heart of Reeve and Kennedy’s use of “science” is how it makes the detective omnipotent in the worst possible way; he becomes an ipse dictat simply because he understands the conclusions that can be drawn (well, perhaps “scrawled”) and you, dear reader, just have to fucking like it. The use of a lie detector in the title story, with Kennedy simply declaring a conclusion that could be explained away at least three different ways; or the convenient non-explanation of gyroscopes on planes (“I’m not going to talk about it till the [plagiarism suit I’ve filed] is settled by the courts.”)…there’s nothing wrong with using speculative technologies — Asimov himself did it magnificently in the Asimov’s Mysteries (1968) collection — but given that we’re supposed to be wowed by his science it feels a little mendacious to base some of his workings in reality and some in frank fiction.

And yet not everything here is without merit. The first ever story to feature Kennedy, ‘The Case of Helen Bond’, a.k.a. ‘The Scientific Cracksman’ (1910) is delightful in its simplicity (a safe-cracking), its historical asides (the electricity would have been turned off after midnight), and the entirely disinterested way Kennedy appears to simply destroy the intentions of the criminal as punishment for their crime; ‘The Deadly Tube’ could be slipped into a Thorndyke omnibus by a careless editor were the names changed — though the incriminating conversation at the end is no kind of evidence, and Freeman would baulk at so hoary an idea. Elsewhere, ‘The Seismograph Adventure’ (1911) proves the non-existence of very communicative spirits in a manner that was doubtless astounding at the time (though clearly ain’t as concrete as Reeve would have you believe), and the methods by which valuable stones may be created is, bizarrely, something we know to have been honed to a relatively fine art these days.

‘The Seismograph Adventure’ (1911) features a treatise on the symptoms displayed by the actions of certain poisons that was probably a virtual textbook for a lot of what was due to follow in the genre, and the use of a microphone in ‘The Black Hand’ (1911) captures the barest edge of what a technological marvel such instrumentation would have been at the time. Alas, some of the best science — the test for blood in ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ say — is rather pointless. The idea that a body whose “head and chest [is] literally burned to ashes” can only be decreed a murder because of a spot of blood on the floor is laughable, no matter how revolutionary the science behind that revelation may be. The means by which a jeweller is rendered insensible in ‘The Diamond Maker’ (1911) is no doubt correct, but it would have been a damn sight simpler to just crack him over the head and thus not leave your overly-complex and damning scientific method that is the only way to explain his shuffling off this mortal coil. And solidly 60% of ‘The Azure Ring’ (1911) occurs between Kennedy knowing the answer and telling it to the assembled masses so they can be impressed.

There’s also some hilariously casual vivisection (“I placed a cat confined in a cage so it could not escape. In an hour and a half the cat was asphyxiated.”), and the startling revelation of information so useless that it’s difficult to tell whether it’s intended as a parodic commentary on the sometimes arbitrary nature of scientific research (“one gram of [pure ricin] will kill 1,500,000 guinea pigs.” — er, thank-you?). It’s also a shame that, in the one instance that really could be used to marvel at the scientific accomplishments of man in a way that your average 1912 reader would appreciate — Kennedy and Jameson being taken for a short aeroplane ride in ‘The Terror In The Air’ (1911) — Reeve communicates the experience with all the enthusiasm of a man boarding a rail replacement bus service.

Perhaps the most egregious fault is that these stories crawl along at times. If Holmes and Thorndyke are the two points used for comparison, you appreciate the purpose of the science in Freeman’s Thorndyke stories and the need for incident and interest in the most typical work of both authors. Kennedy’s stories are like Doyle’s own ‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ (1926) — drawn out, usually dialogue-heavy, and providing no real insight beyond “Hey, Science!”. This produces the odd wild time — in ‘The Artificial Paradise’, a.k.a. ‘The Man Who Was Dead’ (1911) Kennedy and Jameson take some hallucinogenic drugs, trip balls for a few pages, and then electric shock a corpse back to life — but it all feels rather inconsequential. Consider how brilliantly Freeman overthrew the use of bloodhounds in establishing guilt, or how the best of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories would reveal some inherent prejudice in the heart of man. Kennedy has, by comparison, written what the much-missed Noah Stewart would dismiss as an “information mystery”:

This is a kind of mystery written by an expert in a field — let’s suggest, at random, glass-blowing. The protagonist will be a glass-blower who has a personal reason to solve a murder that takes place among a group of glass-blowers and their hangers-on. Our protagonist is constantly throwing off little snippets of information about glass-blowing and, almost always, one of these pieces of information is absolutely essential to the solution of the crime.

That Kennedy knows his science is (often…) not in question, but that doesn’t make him an author of good mystery stories. Ape Holmes all you like by knowing everything in advance and playing your cards close to your chest (“I had long ago learned that in applying a new apparatus to doing old things Craig was as dumb as an oyster, until his work was crowned with success.”), but these stories can mainly be praised for making you realise how damn good the likes of Doyle are.

The real flaw at the heart of these stories is their sheer lack of artistry: in prose, in character, and in plot. When charged by the newly-promoted O’Connor to find a way past the eponymous barrier in ‘The Steel Door’ (1911), Kennedy’s solution — after much discussion regarding the workings of roulette — is to cut through it with an oxy-acetylene torch…no doubt a novel prospect at the time, but unlikely to thrill readers as technology, and public awareness of technology, progressed down the years. The best detective stories thrill us today because they retain some unsuspected cleverness at their core, whereas Reeve’s ideas are now blunt, obvious, and largely devoid of interest. The best way I can summarise his approach would be to say that, were the man to write locked room mysteries, there would doubtless be a lot of hidden passages involved…

Interesting Features

Honestly, this is a pretty bland collection, made notable only by some antiquated turns of phrase to set your inner 12 year-old sniggering (I submit “Early in the morning, Kennedy aroused me” as one instance, and elsewhere the verb “ejaculate” is…unfortunately placed — god, there’s probably already been another tedious attempt to “prove” that an early 20th century detection couple are gay, as if it matters or is in any way interesting) and the revelation that some members of ruthless kidnap gangs were also enthusiastic amateur artists who would decorate their ransom demands with “a skull and cross-bones, a rough drawing of a dagger thrust through a bleeding heart, a coffin, and, under all, a huge black hand” — yeesh, someone didn’t get to follow their dreams.

Still, perhaps the one point of interest comes in final story ‘The Steel Door’ when a car belonging to the New York Police Department has the legend “P.D.N.Y.” on it rather than the more familiar modern arrangement of those letters. Er, there might be more, but mainly these are curiosities grossly flattered at their presence among so many other august titles.

The Judgement

The addition of science — peer-reviewed, repeatable scientific experiments in the purest sense — to detection is unquestionably one of the most important developments the genre underwent. In order to appear relevant, to hold the interest of an increasingly demanding reading populace, these fictional sorties needed to keep pace with what was going on in the world they claimed to take place in, and so the need to understand how the science was used was crucial. That, I hope, we can all agree on.

But, well, Reeve’s use of science is so slapdash, especially in light of the considered approach R. Austin Freeman had taken with his Dr. John Thorndyke stories, which began being published a few years ahead of Reeve. Not only do a lot of Reeve’s claims simply not stand up to scrutiny, they turn Kennedy into The Unanswerable Detective in the shape of Holmes that we’re keen to move on from. Again, consider the pains Freeman had already gone to in his Thorndyke novels and short stories not only to ensure that the processes were clear to the reader, but also to address fallacies as accepted by those who thought they knew better but were in fact ignorant of so much that needed overturning.

So, is The Silent Bullet worthy of its place as a Cornerstone title? No. This was already harking back to the past even as it paid lip service to advancing the role of factual science in fiction, and the sheer mendacity of some of the claims mean that anything built atop this would simply list and then fall over before too long. The most suitable works advance the genre, bring something new that gives what is due to follow room to expand into. These are not without interest, but so much else that was better was being and had already been done.

8 thoughts on “#869: Little Fictions/The Cornerstones – The Silent Bullet [ss] (1912) by Arthur B. Reeve

  1. A pretty fair review. The stories are historically interesting as an indication of the enthusiasm for “scientific detectives” at the time but, as you say, they just serve to show how much better Doyle and Freeman were than their competitors.

    You might also want to check out Max Rittenberg’s pre-First World War The Invisible Bullet & Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant, an early example of detective stories featuring a psychologist hero. I reviewed it a couple of years back.

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    • Thanks for the Rittenberg recommendation; I’d seen it about and it was generally in my awareness, but I hadn’t actively considered it before…there being so many books, etc. I’ll definitely add it to the list.

      The more of Doyle’s peers I read, the more appreciation I get for just how damn fine an author Doyle was. There’s a risk that the recommendation of the Holmes stories is something of a lazy sinecure, but when you see what everyone else was doing you appreciate how wonderful a writer ACD was — the fact that he married that skill to such a brilliant creation and some magnificent stories only makes him all the more special. RAF, too, even if it took him a little longer to find his voice.

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      • You’ll probably have the same reaction to Rittenberg that you had to Reeve. It’s an interesting collection, and very interesting historically as the first psychological detective and I think that for anyone interested in the history of the genre it’s worth picking up, but he was also no Conan Doyle.

        The thing about Conan Doyle is that he was an excellent all-round writer. His science fiction is excellent. His adventure stories are good. His historical fiction is superb. He wrote some fine gothic horror. The man knew how to write entertaining stories in any genre and he knew how to create wonderful characters in any genre. Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard and Sir Nigel Loring are characters who are just as colourful and just as fascinating as Holmes. And he could bring the Middle Ages or the period of the Napoleonic Wars to life just as vividly as he brought late Victorian London to life.

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        • I’ll not buy the Coachwhip edition for £15, then — thanks for the warning!

          And, yes, Doyle really did create some great characters; Challenger in particular. You can understand why the guy got frustrated at being known only for Holmes, even if you take away his real world advocacy and legal interest. Hell, even his non-fiction stuff is good — Through the Magic Door being about as earnest and wonderful a love letter to books as anyone has ever written.

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  2. I read one of his novels, which was not horrendous but it did not want me to rush out and buy another book by him. Technology and science are a big part of his style as you suggest and I remember reading in one of Howard Haycraft’s books (I think), about how even in the twenties the Reeve books were so dated due to their high quantity of tech and contemporary scientific ideas.
    Reeve did have other influence on 1920s mystery fiction due to ‘The Perils of Pauline’ (1914) – these might have been short stories. Lots of melodrama and heroines in danger etc., but Christie picks up on this and references it in The Man in the Brown Suit when the protagonist watches at the cinema The Perils Pamela (and unfortunately then starts to morph into her).

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    • There’s an attraction to this pseudo-science which I can see making Reeve popular: some of the ideas are wonderfully striking, if it is because they’re also complete hooey. What really gets me is how dull they are…slow, ponderous, repetitious, tedious — jeez, they guy could at least try to enjoy himself 🙂

      I wonder, though, how much of Reeve’s inaccurate science was overthrown by thinking that turned out to be itself inaccurate, There would be a certain fairness in that, I feel.

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  3. Thanks JJ, I needed that. Sometimes it’s great to watch someone letting loose on something a bit silly, even if people seemed to find them influential at the time.

    Couple of questions only sorta related to the review.
    Have you read Queering Agatha Christie? It can be a bit academic but I thought it was good.

    Do you think the standards for clueing are different in short stories? Obviously in this case it seems to not be a concern at all. But even in stories from fair-play masters, it seems like the shorter length means explanations are more giving an explanation which happens to fit the facts, then ending the story before you get a chance to wonder if something else could have happened.
    Notwithstanding whether the thing called “fair-play” even exists of course 😉

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    • I have not read Queering Agatha Christie; and I may never, since I typically don’t really go in for commentary, I tend to just like reading books and letting the deeper thinking be done by others.

      And I wouldn’t say that clewing is relaxed for a short story, rather that the schemes are themselves simplified and so the number of clues required can be reduced. If the only mystery to solve is why a millionaire dreamed of his own death, you can provide the clues needed to elucidate that solution. If you also need to know who stole his peonies, why his wife lied about taking the car out last Thursday evening, and who is responsible for the spate of poisonings in the village…well, the short form is perhaps going to struggle to contain those events alone, never mind the additional weight of clues required to make them work.

      I’m sure you have, but if you haven’t read the Edmund Crispin collection Fen Country it comes highly recommended as perhaps the best exemplar of how to structure and clue short mysteries. Each idea is self-contained and, since the majority of them are detective tales, they show how actual clewing on the way to a smaller problem can be achieved very intelligently indeed.

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