As the Baker Street Irregulars prepare for Sherlock Holmes’ birthday, celebrated this year beginning January 7th, here’s a less-known version of a Sherlock Holmes short story, which begins in marital horror and ends with The Great Detective nose-tweaked by one of Conan Doyle’s contemporaries, Mark Twain.
The setting is the Virginia countryside, circa 1880. An “intense, high-strung, romantic” nineteen year-old woman, against her widowed and significantly wealthy father’s wishes, is set to marry Jacob Fuller, a twenty-six year-old of “slender means.” The very morning after the nuptials, the bride discovers a sobering fact. Jacob is extremely anathematic toward her father because of things her father had previously said of his character. Jacob’s cruel intention is, “to put him to shame; to break his heart; to kill him by inches. How to do it? Through my treatment of you, his idol!” The psycho begins to do everything thing he can imagine against his bride—save bodily harm—but the proud and strong-willed woman (who is never identified with a first name), doesn’t run to her daddy and instead lives with the disgrace that she made the poorest of choices in men.
After three months and out of frustration, Jacob takes her down the road from their home, lashes her to a tree, gags her, strikes her across the face, and if that’s not low-down and dirty enough for one day, he sics his trained bloodhounds on her, who proceed to rip at her clothes until she’s fully nude. Jacob leaves his wife for the passing public to find, rescue, and gossip about. She goes back to live with her father, who now is aware of her ordeal, and both them live a life of seclusion out of humiliation. The old man wastes away “and even his daughter rejoiced when death relieved him.” She kept her pregnancy secret from both men, and to The Almighty, she prays it’s a male child. The woman sells her father’s estate and moves far away.
Fast forward. The woman is raising the five-year-old boy by herself, when she discovers that the child she calls Archy has an almost-canine ability to smell. She hides various objects around the house and is thrilled to find Archy sniffing them out with more skill than any four-legged creature. The mother, still smarting from her past disgrace, decides to use her son to hunt down (literally it would seem) Jacob Fuller and to torture him with public dishonor. Soon, Jacob Fuller is being forced to leave each new residence, repeatedly confronted by a son who tries to oust him over past travails. It seems this mother has no problem condemning her son to a life of never-ending vengeance.
The second act of A Double Barrelled Detective Story is also revenge-minded. Fetlock Jones (Love it! Another character is named Ham Sandwich!) kills his insufferable master, Flint Buckner, a silver miner, by dynamiting his cabin. There’s just one catch: Fetlock is the nephew of, well, let’s let Mr. Twain explain:
The next afternoon the village was electrified with an immense sensation. A grave and dignified foreigner of distinguished bearing and appearance had arrived at the tavern, and entered this formidable name upon the register:
Now, that seems like it would stop Fetlock’s murderous agenda, but he decides that “the best way to throw a detective off the track is to have him along when you are preparing the thing.”
Twain took issue with Doyle’s emphasis on meticulous clues and logical deduction that are just a little too perfect. So Fetlock muses, “Anybody that knows him the way I do knows he can't detect a crime except where he plans it all out beforehand and arranges the clues and hires some fellow to commit it according to instruction.”
And he’s quite right that this Sherlock comes to the wrong deduction. But, as it turns out, Archy Spillman is also close at hand to lend a helping nose.
By the start of the 20th century, Twain had a difficult time living up to his imposing canon. At the point A Double Barrelled Detective was published, in 1902, there would be no more Huckleberry Finns or Innocents Abroad on the horizon. His best was behind him. Much conjecture has been offered that during this period he was only writing to work his way out of bankruptcy and once again build a savings. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), and A Double Barrelled Detective Story all met with less than glorious reviews and were ripped apart by myopic detractors. Quite often critics (and the general public) don’t initially get satire and a few decades have to pass for the material to marinate and for readers to play catch-up. A Double Barrelled Detective Story, a minor but entertaining Mark Twain tale, is long overdue for reconsideration.
Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.