Mr. Spence

Created by Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwarz
Pseudonyms include Maarten Maartens

"My book will have no artistic value."

-- the narrator warns the reader, adapting a "just the facts" tone

Published only two years after Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes, The Black-Box Murder (1889) is one of the first mystery private eye novels to be narrated in the first person. It takes place partly in England and partly in France, and is told by a MR. SPENCE (no first name given), a private detective who recounts how he solved a murder case while working for a "private inquiry office" in London ten years earlier.

In the story, a large black box (supposedly holding photographic apparatus), brought from England by a young woman, is opened for customs inspection in Paris, France and is discovered to actually contain an elderly woman's body. The detective, who had been assigned by his agency to go to France to keep an eye on a pair of young lovers who had run away from their respective parents, happens to witness the opening of the box and investigates the woman's murder.

In a departure from most of the other detective heroes who appeared in the wake of Holmes, Spence is a far from infallible sleuth and initially doggedly pursues the wrong suspects. He eventually unmasks the killer (though he winds up being captured by said killer and only survives by sheer good luck).

The story contains enough twists and turns to hold the reader's interest. But as noted, Spence just isn't a very smart detective. Anyone paying attention will soon suspect that the perpetrator Spence is tracing isn't the right one. The question of who did commit the murder stays relevant far beyond the midpoint of the story. But then there are not many suspects to chose from. A surprising twist at the end never comes up. But with humor, atmosphere, and short action scenes, the author shows how Spence arrives at the truth step by step. By that time the reader may well have guessed it. Then the question remains how Spence will prove he is right.

It was the first novel of Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwarz, although it was originally published anonymously (on the title page, it was listed as "By the Man Who Discovered the Murderer"). This wasn't due to Schawartz considering himself to be a literary writer and not wanting to be associated with a detective novel. It actually suited the contents of the book better -- by hiding his identity, the author suggests to the reader that we are dealing an account of a true crime.

The book was written in English and first published in hardcover in Britain in 1889 by Remington & Co. and reprinted in America the following year by the United States Book Company in a "cheap library" paperbound edition. Another American edition (probably pirated) was published (as by "Maarten Maartens") in 1895 as a twenty-five cent "cheap library" paperback edition by R. F. Fenno & Company (Lenox Series, No. 31). Today all of these editions are quite rare. No original copy of any of them is currently available on any of the major used book websites or eBay (although there are plenty of listings for those "print-on-demand" editions since the book is in the public domain - including one company in India which offers to bind your copy in leather).

"Maarten Maartens" was the rather redundant pen name of the author, a Dutch-born author of novels, short stories, plays and poems, who had immigrated to England as a child, and wrote in English, his second language. He was quite well known around the turn of the century in both the UK and the US, with his books going through several reprints.

He had begun his literary career in the 1880s, publishing two collections of poems and two tragedies in verse as J.M.W. Schwartz. A friend suggested he should write prose as well, and the authortook the suggestion to heart. In 1889, he published two novels, both with Remington & Co. The first one was The Black Box Murder. The second was The Sin Of Joost Avelingh, set in the Netherlands and depicting Dutch society. The book was a bestseller and went through several editions, and was translated into German, Danish, Italian, French and Dutch. He went on to publish over a dozen more non-mystery novels, and four collections of short stories, all under the pen name of Maarten Maartens. He chose that name because it sounded very Dutch, and in fact most of the books were set in the Netherlands (although he was never particularly popular there). Among his literary pals were such British writers as Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, Edmund Gosse and the publisher George Bentley.



Early Historical and Literary Influences on the Genre

Respectfully submitted by Mike Russell, with additional info by Kevin Burton Smith.

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