Rediscovering early fictional America detective James Brampton
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 “J.B.”
The book’s 29 “leaves” were edited together by a man Brampton chanced to meet in an Augusta, Ga., bar, where, after Brampton recounts a wild story of murder and mayhem, the two forged a friendship so deep that there’s only one person Brampton trusts with his written exploits upon his retirement from crime-solving. The memoirs, of course, are wholly made up, originating from the mind of John Babbington Williams (1827-1879), about whom we know little save that he was a medical doctor and contributed stories to the dime magazines of his time.
Well, we now also know one more thing: Dr. Williams had a knack for spinning entertaining yarns in surprisingly accessible prose, even if the end result is more uneven curiosity than an essential new member of the detective fiction canon. The introduction to “New York Detective” immediately establishes Brampton’s investigative acumen when he deduces that a “respectable young man” had, in fact, robbed his employer’s till. To the narrator’s shock, Brampton explains his reasoning as “merely a matter of education. By educating the powers of observation it is perfectly astonishing how they may be developed.”
It’s one thing for Brampton to explain this to an approving admirer, but he must also awe the reader. Much of the time this works, especially in the collection’s opening story, “The Silver Pin,” wherein he lectures a suspect of the murder of his wife and father-in-law on how those deaths -- which appeared to be of natural causes -- were in fact due to a pin being pushed into the aorta at just the right place to cause instantaneous demises. In true dramatic fashion, Brampton says he “shall never forget the expression of [the killer’s] face when I uttered these words. His features were actually convulsed. It was the most fearful sight I think I ever beheld.”
When the stories give Brampton enough time to show off his analytic skills and develop them, he comes across as an amiable sort who balances his professional duties with keen interest in his wife and travels to places like Paris, Washington and Baltimore -- the last a subtle hat tip to Poe. Too many of the leaves, however, end abruptly, their denouements rushed toward execution, suicide or other macabre solutions. The descriptions of these deaths seem to contradict Brampton’s assertion that he doesn’t like “dealing in the horrible; it is pandering to a morbid taste.”
Williams throws in some strange humor in the story mix as well. Take “The Struggle for Life,” in which Brampton, on the hunt for a suspect with a tendency toward “cataleptic” fits, lodges at a tavern on the condition that he must spend the night sleeping next to a fresh corpse. Then there is the opening to “The Night of Peril,” in which Brampton dryly explains in understated fashion that "[o]f course it is to be expected that in a life like mine I should often be exposed to danger of a personal character; it is the lot of all detective officers, and I have been no exception to the rule.” And hey, even detective officers have to socialize, so why not include Herman Melville, fresh off of " Moby-Dick” and “Bartleby the Scrivener” as occasional host of Brampton and his “capital fellows” meeting on a weekly basis “relating adventures, telling stories and playing chess”? Unfortunately, Williams gets a little too carried away with his depiction of Brampton’s pals, for after leaf 18, he turns the action away from the detective officer to the supporting players -- complete with epigraphs on their importance as submitted by J.B. It’s all well and good to read about a random young lawyer’s unusual first case in “My First Brief”; or learn in “The Story of a Pack of Cards” how that object ends up getting a young doctor married, but I’m left to wonder if Williams was told he didn’t have enough material for a book with Brampton alone and felt the need to pad his wares.
James Brampton is no Sherlock Holmes because John Babbington Williams, while skilled in the art of entertaining the reader, does not play with language or brio as does Conan Doyle. But Brampton is also no Holmes because he did not appear in further adventures; “New York Detective” is all that exists. But even as curiosity, the collection offers a window into the early days of American detective fiction and the power of deductive thinking. Not to mention that Williams’ wide-eyed narration appears to be a fine jumping-off point for Watson to recount his hare-brained schemes with the detective he so admires.