Introduction: The following is an email that David Vineyard sent me following my request for a photo of mystery writer Philip MacDonald. A photo’s since been found, but I thought the rest of David’s comments were worth sharing.

— Steve

   I know a lot of classical detective fans don’t care for MacDonald because he tends toward suspense and even melodrama, but I’ve always thought his best books a sort of antidote to the driest and most formal of the golden age.


   I love a good puzzler, but some of the practitioners sometimes forgot that one of the essential parts of the definition of mystery involves some sort of emotional response, not merely intellectual stimulation. Only Freeman ever managed to be dull and interesting, and Dr. Thorndyke is a hard act to follow and most got the dull part right, but not the interesting part.

   Thorndyke is unique among fictional detectives in that he came first, and then the real life model, Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Most people don’t realise how much impact Thorndyke had on actual forensic investigation. I don’t know if it still is that way, but the box the forensic kit used to be carried in was always green after Thorndyke’s green forensics kit.

   Much of the actual procedure of evidence collection used by the Yard and then by police around the world was taken from Freeman’s descriptions, and the actual forensics box based on his.

   I ran across a terrific article in a 1914 issue of the New York Times on their archive site. Seems when Thomas Hanshew, author of the “Cleek, Man of Forty Faces” books (John Dickson Carr was a huge fan), was suspected to have been Bertha M. Clay when he died.

   Hanshew, an actor who was one of Ellen Terry’s stock company, and died in England where he was living (and where the Cleek books are set), was a hugely prolific writer who wrote some 150 novels.


   Clay, who was Charlotte M. Brame, was a popular writer of books for women (notably young women) whose work was issued in paperbound editions similar to the Nick Carter Nickel Library.

   When she died in 1884 Street and Smith were unwilling to give up the golden goose, and apparently Hanshew, John Corryell (Nick Carter), and others took over, sometime writing from her notes, other times probably writing their own books.

   The article is particularly kind to both Hanshew and Clay, and not the least snobbish (well, a little when it refers to her young female readers with mint on their breath — waiting in vain, we assume, for that first kiss), and even gives a few examples of how Hanshew changed Clay’s originals to his own style.

   The article comes complete with a very nice drawing of Hanshew, who was a handsome fellow. If you have never read the Hanshew books, many of them can be downloaded from Google Books On-Line library, and while they are full of melodrama and over the top writing, you will begin to see what Carr liked about them. I freely admit I sometimes get my fill of the literary and want something bad but fun. Hanshew made the cut in Bill Pronzini’s Gun in Cheek books, and deserves it. He is a true alternative classic.


   Hanshew doesn’t play fair as a detective novelist, but Cleek is an interesting character. The heir of a royal throne, he is the finest cracksman in London (The Vanishing Cracksman), but as usual true love turns his hand and he reforms, being hired by Maverick Narkom (great name) Superintendent of Scotland Yard as a consulting detective.

   High handed and theatrical (as you might expect from an actor) the books are bad writing at its best. One of the stories seems to me may have been the source for one of Dorothy Sayers Wimsey shorts, the one where Lord Peter finds the sculptor is hiding real bodies in his bronzes.

   Impossible crimes and locked rooms are common stuff, but the solutions are often of the poison unknown to science type. The Google edition available of Cleek of Scotland Yard includes the photos from either a silent film or play (I’m not sure which).

   Little as either Clay or Hanshew is known now, it seem strange that they should have merited a New York Times article in 1914. Anyway, sometime you might treat yourself to a taste of Cleek, his true love Alicia, his servant Dollops, Mr. Maverick Narkom, and Margot, Queen of the Apaches (French Apaches, not American ones). Readers once read this breathlessly, and truth be told even today they can take your breath away, though not perhaps as they intended to.