Tom Sawyer, Detective: Twain’s Other Steamboat Adventure

It was always nuts for Tom Sawyer—a mystery was. If you'd lay out a mystery and a pie before me and him, you wouldn't have to say take your choice; it was a thing that would regulate itself. Because in my nature I have always run to pie, whilst in his nature he has always run to mystery. People are made different. And it is the best way.

—Huckleberry Finn

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are bored and itching for adventure and why shouldn’t they be after the thrilling chronicles, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894). In Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), his Aunt Sally from Arkansas (or, rather, Arkansaw since Mark Twain writes with such charming vernacular perfection) wants him to visit. Tom’s Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas have a neighbor named Brace Dunlap who had wanted to marry their daughter Benny but was told he couldn’t and has since “soured” on the family. They made the mistake of trying to appease Brace by hiring his ne'er-do-well brother, Jubiter, which they can barely afford. Frustrated by these events and deciding they need a diversion that only Tom Sawyer can provide, Aunt Sally asks him to come visit. Huckleberry Finn faithfully tags along, explaining this will cure their spring fever, and he narrates this adventure like the previous classic tales.

Adventure begins on a steamboat down the Mississippi when they meet Jake Dunlap, Jubiter’s long lost twin brother—yes, an incredible stretch of coincidence, for sure—who the family assumed had been killed after a brief criminal career. Turns out Jake and two other thieves stole some diamonds in St. Louis and, at one point, he robbed his two accomplices. Once Jake learns from Tom and Huck that he is considered dead, he plans to make it back to his family’s abode, don a disguise, and blend in as a deaf-mute. Tom and Huck discover Jake’s former accomplices are also on the steamboat and they help Jake escape, but the other criminals are ready for any sudden shenanigans and soon enough are on Jake’s trail again.

Jake had agreed on a rendezvous with the boys but when Tom and Huck arrive they see men enter a wooded area, hear screams, and assume Jake’s been murdered.

We laid down, kind of weak and sick, and listened for more sounds, but didn't hear none for a good while but just our hearts. We was thinking of that awful thing laying yonder in the sycamores, and it seemed like being that close to a ghost, and it give me the cold shudders. The moon come a-swelling up out of the ground, now, powerful big and round and bright, behind a comb of trees, like a face looking through prison bars, and the black shadders and white places begun to creep around, and it was miserable quiet and still and night-breezy and graveyardy and scary. All of a sudden Tom whispers:

“Look!—what's that?”

“Don't!” I says. “Don't take a person by surprise that way. I'm 'most ready to die, anyway, without you doing that.”

“Look, I tell you. It's something coming out of the sycamores.”

Ultimately, they discover the ghost walking about in broad daylight and find the intestinal fortitude to approach the ‘dead man’ who they believe is Jake in disguise. The ghost acts dumb (as they had planned on the steamboat) and Tom and Huck let him go about his business. A more sobering mystery awaits them when Uncle Silas is accused of murdering Jubiter and Tom takes it upon himself to clear his uncle’s good name with Huck’s aid. Of course, all threads are tied together nice and neat by this slim book’s conclusion.

So why has Tom Sawyer: Detective slipped through the cracks of popular reading? Especially since it features two of fiction’s most celebrated creations. Conceivably, because nothing can live up to the Great American Novel—Huckleberry Finn—that preceded it. Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”  No such praise met Tom Sawyer: Detective with the British Guardian’s original review harshly noting, “The whole story is poorly conceived and badly put together.” That’s unfair because the novel taken on its own— and today best viewed as a YA tale—is enjoyable, humorous and allows us another trip downstream with characters that have become like family. Yes, Mark Twain allegedly wrote the book because he needed money and sure the plot owes a little more than just a bit to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes who, at the time, was just in his first decade of enormous popularity. But, bottom line, if you like Twain, and his Tom and Huck, then you will enjoy Tom Sawyer, Detective. If you don’t go in expecting a socially conscious experience like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn then you will come away with a light, amusing read by America’s foremost storyteller.

A few years after Detective’s release, Twain was accused of plagiarism by Valdemar Thoresen, a Danish schoolmaster, saying the plot was taken from The Vicar of Weilby by Steen Blicher. An article published in The New York Times in 1910 claims Twain's secretary wrote back to Mr. Thoresen in typical Twain fashion, diffusing the situation: “Mr. Clemens is not familiar with Danish and does not read German fluently, and has not read the book you mention, nor any translation or adaptation of it that he is aware of. The matter constituting 'Tom Sawyer, Detective,' is original with Mr. Clemens, who has never been consciously a plagiarist.”

Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent anthology collection, The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform and Other Stories.

Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts at Criminal Element.


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