In the Beginning: Early Historical and Literary Influences
Created by Arthur Morrison
Arthur Morrison is one of the forgotten crime authors of the Conan Doyle generation. He grew up in genuine poverty, and is remembered by literary critics for his social protest "slum novels", most famously the semi-autobiographical "A Child of the Jago". His work also included the intriguingly-titled, but so far as I know not P.I.-related "Tales of Mean Streets". Most of his crime short stories featured an investigator named Martin Hewitt, who seems to have been created as a deliberately low-key, realistic, lower-class answer to Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, Hewitt was so low key that he lacked any memorable personality whatsoever.
While the last twenty years have seen some collections of Hewitt stories, Morrison's more interesting P.I. creation, HORACE DORRINGTON has barely been heard of since the publication of the short-story collection The Dorrington Deed-box in 1897. Yet the Dorrington stories will change the mind forever of anybody who sees 19th century crime stories as morally cozy or stylistically old-fashioned. Whatever Merchant Ivory may try to tell you, Victorian London had mean streets that would make Compton or the South Bronx seem like paradise. The plump and moustachioed Dorrington appears to be a charmingly rough diamond, a kindly raconteur who attracts the instinctive trust of his clients. However, he is really Tom Ripley fifty years before Patricia Highsmith started writing, a cheerfully unrepentant sociopath who is willing to stoop to theft, blackmail, fraud or cold-blooded murder to make a dishonest penny.
The book's curious structure may have been a means of making such a character tolerable to Victorian publishers. The very first story describes how Dorrington is forced to go on the run after being caught trying to kill one of his own clients, a stroke of bad luck that would ruin any PI's career. The remaining stories are narrated by the person he tried to kill, allegedly from secret records found in Dorrington's office. They portray, in reverse order, his rise from East End legbreaker to respected but deeply corrupt private detective. Unfortunately, it appears that 19th century readers were just not ready for a man whose response to discovering a thriving murder-for-profit racket is to recruit the prime mover as a hitman.
Why should anyone reading this site be interested in a book published over a century ago and never reprinted? For a start, it's interesting that at the dawn of the detective story a writer was prepared to challenge a taboo that still survives. There are countless PI writers who enthusiastically create brutal or corrupt coppers by the precinct-full, but who shy away from creating a truly amoral private investigator, even as an opponent for their knight in shining armour. The Dorrington stories are no masterpieces, but they deserve to be read for their gleeful portrayal of a truly self-interested investigator, a man who I find far less reprehensible than the self-righteous and hypocritical sadists who some authors put forward as heroes. I only hope that somebody reading this site has the influence to get the Deed-box re-published, so that those with no access to copyright libraries can make the acquaintance of the unspeakable Mr. Dorrington.
Contributed by Philip Eagle.
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