Michael Sims begins his anthology of Victorian detective stories with an interesting introduction where he gives a potted history of the detective in literature, going back as far as Daniel in the Bible! Much of this is ground that has been covered many times, of course, but Sims doesn't only stick to British detectives, as many of these anthologies tend to, so some of the information about early writings from America was unfamiliar to me. And he ranges more widely than usual in his selection of stories too, taking us to Australia, Canada, and even the American wilderness.
Sims brings in several writers I haven't come across before, and in particular some of the early women writers of detective fiction. The stories are presented in chronological order and, before each one, he gives a little introduction – a mini-biography of the author, putting them into the context of the history of the development of the genre.
Overall, I found this collection more interesting than enjoyable. Unfortunately, my recent forays into classic crime have left me feeling that there's a good reason many of these forgotten authors and stories are forgotten. Often the stories simply aren't very good, and I'm afraid that's what I felt about many of the early stories in this anthology. The later ones I tended to find more enjoyable, partly, I think, because the detective story had developed its own form by then which most authors rather stuck to.
The book is clearly trying not to regurgitate the same old stories that show up in nearly every collection and that is to be applauded. However, some of the selections didn't work for me, and I felt on occasion that the choices were perhaps being driven too much by a desire to include something different. For example, there are a couple of selections that can't count as detective fiction at all – a newspaper report from the time of the Ripper killings, and an exceedingly dull extract of Dickens writing about his experiences of accompanying the police on a night shift, with Dickens at his most cloyingly arch. How I longed for Sims to have chosen an extract from Bleak House instead, to show one of the formative fictional detectives in action, Inspector Bucket.
It also seemed very disappointing to me that Sims should have chosen to use a short extract from A Study in Scarlet as his only Holmes selection. As a master of the short story form and major influence on detective fiction, I felt Conan Doyle should have had a complete entry to himself, and there are plenty of stories to choose from. We do get a complete Holmes pastiche in Bret Harte's The Stolen Cigar-Case, which is quite fun, and a good Ernest Bramah story, whose Max Carrados clearly derives from Holmes. But no actual Holmes story!
There is also an extract from Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, which kindly gives away the ending of the book, thus spoiling it completely for anyone who hasn't read it. And an utterly tedious extract from one of Dumas' Musketeer books, for which my note says simply 'short, but not short enough'.
However, there are several good stories in the collection, too, many of which I hadn't read before. The Murders in the Rue Morgue puts in its obligatory appearance (and yet no Holmes! You can tell I'm bitter...). There's an interesting story from William Wilkie Collins, The Diary of Anne Rodway, where the detection element might be a bit flimsy and dependent on coincidence, but it's well written, with a strong sense of justice and a sympathetic view of the poorer members of society.
The title story, The Dead Witness by WW (the pen-name of Mary Fortune), is apparently the first known detective story written by a woman. The plot is a little weak, but she builds up a good atmosphere and there's a lovely bit of horror at the end which works very well. I particularly enjoyed Robert Barr's The Absent-Minded Coterie, which has a nicely original bit of plotting, is well written and has a good deal of humour. Sims suggests Barr's detective, Mr Eugene Valmont, was the inspiration for Agatha Christie's Poirot. Hmm... on the basis of this story, I remain unconvinced.
So a bit of a mixed bag for me, really. I admire the intention more than the result overall, though the stronger stories towards the end lifted my opinion of it. One that I'm sure will appeal to anyone with an existing interest in Victorian detective fiction, but wouldn't necessarily be the first anthology I'd recommend to newcomers wanting to sample some of the best the period has to offer. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.