Mark Twain's 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its 1884 follow-up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are two of American literature's most famous works and the latter one of its most acclaimed. It may thus seem strange that this 1896 sequel - like Tom Sawyer Abroad, its 1894 predecessor - is now almost obscure. The truth is that this is not entirely undeserved. Huck Finn is a masterpiece of world literature, and anyone expecting this to be anywhere near its level will be sorely disappointed. It lacks the more famous work's seriousness and ambitiousness, making it inevitably minor. However, it is quite interesting on its own minor terms; this means it is not great literature or even pretending to be. However, like nearly everything else Twain wrote, it is eminently readable, very entertaining, and sometimes funny. Fans of Twain's lighter work will love it, and there is something for all to appreciate it. The book is notable for taking the series and its characters in surprising new directions, bringing in some rather dark events and making Tom an unlikely detective hero. Though not a great literary work in other respects, it performs surprisingly well in the latter area. Those eager for more adventures from Tom, Huck, and Jim will certainly warm to it. Like the book that bears his name, this is narrated by Huck with all his delightfully provincial grammar and spelling; "prostitution" for "prosecution" in the court scene is my laugh aloud favorite. His naïveté and ignorance also come into play in skillfully unprecedented ways.
Like most of Twain, this book can be read and enjoyed on several levels. Most simply and obviously, it is a rollicking, picaresque adventure of the sort later classed as Young Adult or Juvenile. It is notably entertaining and quite humorous even in this limited sense. While far from politically correct by current standards, it can easily be enjoyed by the very young as well as those of all ages who will take it on its own terms. In this sense it is very much like Tom Sawyer Abroad and, indeed, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, not least in returning to the latter's rural South.
It also differs significantly from Tom Sawyer Abroad in obvious ways. First and most clearly, as the title shows, it is a detective story of the kind then wildly popular; this was after all when Sherlock Holmes was a sensation. Those who, like me, love such stories can appreciate it simply on this level. It is set up like a typical one with a murder mystery and has exciting elements such as a false confession, a dramatic courtroom scene, a climactic discovery, etc. - and, of course, eventual justice. Seeing all this play out is exciting, and Twain milks it for all it is worth. Unlike most of his works, this is filled with literary devices conventionally used for entertainment value, especially in modern popular fiction: foreshadowing, suspense, dramatic irony, etc. The revelation and ending are in particular highly wrought. Anyone who likes blazing stories of this sort, particularly detective ones, will enjoy and appreciate this and find the book well worth reading for it alone.
The discerning can see more, even if no one can see greatness. Though less savagely biting than later work, this is vintage Twain satire in many ways. Detective fiction itself is the target, but Twain's burlesque is gentle; we feel he lightly pokes fun at something he himself enjoys - not least because his satire could be far more bitter. He has some fun at the expense of the genre's conventions, using them in slightly exaggerated fashion to show how superficial they can sometimes be. What may seem exaggeration if read straight comes into play here: melodrama, implausibility, clichés, etc. This is where Huck's naïveté and ignorance are important. Many, perhaps even most, readers will be able to deduce some - or even all - of the ostensibly revelatory events, turning what would normally be suspense into dramatic irony. Those who miss the satire may think of these as defects, but those who see what Twain is doing will know they are intentional knocks at a) provincial Southern ignorance, and b) detective fiction conventions. Even simply moving from popular detective settings - i.e., Victorian England - to Twain's rural South makes the genre seem slightly ridiculous. However, that the book itself it can still be enjoyable with shows that the genre can as well. Indeed, Twain's satire is so subtle that many, perhaps especially detective fiction fans, will not even notice it - with whatever ambiguous result. As for those who dislike the genre, they may well like the book significantly more - indeed, may think it a riot. Twain at any rate did not cut off his satirical take on the genre here, returning several years later with the novella "A Double-Barreled Detective Story," which drops Tom and Huck but actually has Holmes(!) and is significantly more biting.
Tom Sawyer, Detective is thus quite a strange book - a light-hearted satire that most will not get and that many will likely enjoy for the very reasons Twain tries to mock. Its canonical status depends on how well one thinks he succeeds here. No one could put it with his great work. It is quite short - about one hundred pages - and can be read quickly and easily. That said, it will certainly delight fans of the associated stories and characters. The story itself is better than Tom Sawyer Abroad, arguably even better than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; it has more plot than either, and characterization is strong. Conversely, there is significantly less humor, especially in the dialogue, except for those unusually alive to the satire. All told, it is a worthy edition to the series and to Twain generally even if only hard-core fans, especially those who treasure the associated works, should read it in the end. He hardly wrote anything not worth reading, but this should be one of the last stops. It is a pleasant read even if the fact that it has survived more than a century has more to do with Twain's name and his better works than inherent quality. This is surprisingly enjoyable proof that he was ever-readable even when far from this best.