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martin hewitt, investigator

5 january 2019

Mr. Bunting, the landlord in Marie Belloc Lowndes' novel The Lodger, is devoted to reading detective stories. The Lodger was published in 1913, so I wondered what authors Bunting might have been reading. Conan Doyle, certainly; Poe and Gaboriau perhaps. But just as sure is that Belloc Lowndes' initial readers would have thought of many other examples now forgotten by canon-makers.

Fortunately, the awesome Indiana University Library maintains a bibliography of early detective fiction. The item that first caught my attention, not least because I could easily download it from iBooks, was Arthur Morrison's 1894 collection Martin Hewitt, Investigator. Martin Hewitt is carved from the same material as Sherlock Holmes, for sure. His adventures appear here in short-story form (also the quintessence of Holmes) and are narrated by a close friend (Brett) who is not nearly as quick on the uptake. Like Holmes, Hewitt is a consulting detective much in demand among the baffled – though he seems to be a keener businessman than Holmes.

In fact, Morrison's hero works not from rooms like those in Baker Street, but from an office near the Strand, "the dusty ground-glass upper panel of which carried in its center the single word 'Hewitt'." ("The Lenton Croft Robberies"). This may be the first time in any fiction that the archetypal private-eye's office door appears; perhaps it used to read "Hewitt and Archer" before the latter's demise. In the same story, "The Lenton Croft Robberies," Hewitt is summoned to one of your standard country-great-house settings to investigate a series of locked-room burglaries. You will tip to the solution early on (it's an ultra-lite version of "Murders-in-the-Rue-Morgue"), but it's a pleasant introduction to the detective, all the same.

Martin Hewitt has far fewer character notes than Sherlock Holmes, though, and the collection doesn't add much to them as it goes along. No rapport between Hewitt and Brett really develops, and Hewitt has few personality traits; we never see him outside of work. He is something of a chameleon, like Holmes and Gaboriau's M. Lecoq, but Hewitt's very plasticity makes him hard to place, or like, as a character.

"The Loss of Sammy Crockett" is not much of a mystery story, but it offers a window into the world of semi-professional sport of the 1890s. The milieu is one where smart blokes wager on footraces, where the old adage "never bet on anything with less than two legs" is borne out by the relentless corruption of the scene. "The Case of Mr. Foggatt" is another locked-room mystery, where Hewitt treats his amanuensis Brett with Holmesian hauteur when Brett (the narrator) cannot piece together the solution to a murder just by looking at some table scraps.

In "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo," Hewitt tackles yet another variation on the locked-room puzzle – how could plans vital to Her Majesty's Government have been spirited out of a locked safe in full view of an engineer and his two assistants? By contrast, "The Quinton Jewel Affair" isn't a puzzle, but more of a chase-'em-down story with mild action. In "Quinton Jewel," Morrison is interested in various registers of English, including elaborately rendered dialogue from an Irish character, and some purportedly genuine (and heavily footnoted) thieves' slang, which of course Hewitt speaks fluently.

"The Stanway Cameo Mystery" and "The Affair of the Tortoise" share a device: the crime that isn't what it seems. The theft of the spectacular Stanway Cameo isn't really a theft, and the murder in "Tortoise" isn't a murder. The reader catches on pretty quickly, because as in the various locked-room scenarios there seems no other conclusion.

"The Affair of the Tortoise" saves the worst for last in this collection, in many ways. It is a story of unthinkably crass racism, where the various white characters (Hewitt included) go out of their way to express their contempt and disgust for the apparent murder victim, a Haitian immigrant, just because he's black. Rameau, the central character, comes from high society in Haiti, but to the Londoners of the story he seems no better than an ape let loose in civilization.

Martin Hewitt, Investigator doesn't have a great deal to recommend it, but most of the stories, till one gets to "The Affair of the Tortoise," are harmless enough. Gentility is a theme (true gentlemen can never be suspects), and the working class and the Irish are the butt of jokes, but in "Tortoise" Morrison puts himself beyond the pale, into relentlessly ugly territory.

Morrison, Arthur. Martin Hewitt, Investigator. 1894. iBooks.