Before Sherlock Holmes there was Dick Donovan, hugely popular first in Scottish and national newspapers, and then – like Sherlock – in the pages of the Strand magazine. Donovan, who is not just the detective but the purported author of these tales, was thought by many early readers to be a real detective, relating actual cases.
In fact they are fiction, penned by a quite fascinating author called Joyce Emmerson Preston Muddock (1842-1934), the author of some fifty books and 250 detective stories. For a time, in the Strand, Sherlock and Donovan appeared in subsequent issues. A joy for the reader, I would think. If you can’t have Sherlock, have Donovan.
Now, I’d often heard of Dick Donovan. His exploits feature in many books on Victorian detective fiction. But until a month ago, I’d never read any. Then, on holiday in Oban, I found a wonderful new edition of the earliest stories, set when Donovan is a detective in Glasgow, with a quite superb introduction by Bruce Durie. Mr Durie gives a splendid account of Muddock’s colourful life and relates how the character of Dick Donovan came about. This is certainly the edition to get.
Muddock was a prolific journalist and fiction-author, who led an extraordinary life, being present in major historical events such as the Indian Mutiny and travelling through parts of the world that were considerably dangerous at the time, all grist to the writer’s mill, before settling down as an editor and writer. I’ll say no more here, for you should read Mr Durie’s account of this fascinating man’s life for yourself.
It’s easy to understand just why early readers thought these cases were accounts of real-life detection. There is a verisimilitude about the cases that certainly suggest that there is a real detective at work here. Dick Donovan, in the course of this volume alone, deals with murders, man-slaughterers, embezzlers, grand and petty thefts and encounters some memorable characters along the way.
We never, at least not in these early stories, learn much about Donovan himself, except that he is a likeable detective who works by instinct and his experience of human frailties and character. What does come shining through, from the author and his creation, is a huge compassion for the messes that ordinary people get into. In several of the stories you feel sympathy for the criminals, some of whom are trapped in crime by the unfair circumstances of Victorian society. But Donovan never hesitates to do his duty, though always with an understanding and sense of fairness
Muddock’s sense of place is excellent too. He has that rare writer’s gift for describing a setting in a few lines. I was quite lost in the Victorian Glasgow of so many of these tales. Almost like a kind of fictional time-travelling.
These stories, and the works of this author, are too good to be lost on the dusty sleeves of second-hand bookshops. They are of the highest quality of fiction. J.E.Preston Muddock and Dick Donovan deserve a renaissance.
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