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Digital Highlights: Detectives of Europe and America

With the successful “reboot” of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s transatlantically successful Sherlock (2010), a particular volume from the MHL’s collection seems appropriate for the digital highlight this week: Detectives of Europe and America, or, Life in the Secret Service.

Detectives of Europe and America

Title page of Detectives of Europe and America.

Published in 1878, the preface says it all:

Many partial friends of mine have thought I might do some good…to the cause of human happiness…by the detail of certain wily “offenses against the law and good order of society,” while demonstrating therein how sure of final discovery and punishment are the criminally vicious,…in these days, when the art of police detection has become almost an exact science.

The “author” is one Officer George S. McWatters, described on the flyleaf as “late member of the American Secret Service.” The volume itself is a selection of Officer McWatters’s more interesting cases — as collated and edited by a “well-known public writer,” admits the Publisher’s Introduction, due to the modesty and forebearance of McWatters who apparently didn’t want to blow his own trumpet enough to suit the Publishers.  The table of contents includes stories titled, “Twenty-one Years of Illegal Imprisonment Suffered by a Beautiful Young Lady of the Polish Nobility,” “The Gambler’s Wax Finger,” and, simply, “The Skeleton.

The stories have a certain Conan Doyle-ish flair to them, too, with passages such as:

“This, gentlemen,” thus I ended my story, “is all I have to tell; further particulars you may hear from the victim herself, who is now in the lunatic asylum, and from the witnesses who are all here.”

The tales center around midnight abductions, mysterious financial transactions, Eastern potentates, and innocent young heiresses and their traducers. Officer McWatters never fails to work his way through the intricacies of the case, working to establish the powers of justice, law, and order to their rightful place with the skillful use of 19th century forensic science.

You could define this as a 19th century version of Bones with Officer McWatters using his technical skill and scientific ability to dazzle lesser law officers and, potentially, his reading audience. Perhaps, too, Officer McWatters had a similar effect on actual forensic scientists as his television and movie counterparts do today. Nevertheless, the volume demonstrates that the scientific side of detective fiction is not a modern-day development in the genre.

Despite the possibility of making the reading public expect miracles from its police force by way of deduction, the adventures of Officer McWatters make for highly entertaining reading as well as a fascinating look at the continuing appeal of detective fiction in all its various guises.

For more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!