Dark Passages: Early American Detective Fiction

My newest Dark Passages column at the Los Angeles Times turns the clock back all the way to 1865, when John Babbington Williams’ LEAVES FROM THE NOTE-BOOK OF A NEW YORK DETECTIVE” was published – after which it more or less disappeared. But now the book is back in print:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that after Edgar Allan Poe’s

mysterious death in 1849, detective fiction did not make another splash

on these shores until a pipe-smoking Englishman with remarkable powers

of deduction became a transatlantic sensation. Certainly Sherlock

Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson inspired stateside copycats around

the turn of the 20th century, such as Arthur B. Reeve’s

scientifically-minded sleuth Craig Kennedy, but mystery readers looking

for immediate literary successors to Poe’s dark tales of detection

would have to resign themselves to a vacuum of time until Arthur Conan

Doyle and Wilkie Collins’ gothic-tinged detective novels showed up on

the scene.

Acknowledged truths, however, have a funny way of

being flouted. The recent reissue of a series of detective tales

published more than 20 years before “A Study in Scarlet” (Doyle’s first

Holmes tale) appeared in 1887 adds a welcome link to the chain

connecting the early masters of detective fiction. “Leaves From the

Note-Book of a New York Detective: The Private Record of J.B.”

(Westholme Publishing, 340 pp., $14.95 paper), first published by the

long-extinct house Dick & Fitzgerald back in 1865, purports to be

the diaries of one James Brampton, the titular sleuth who signs himself


All told it’s more curiosity than masterpiece but Williams wrote some wonderfully accessible prose, making the book worth checking out.