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Category Archives: Mystery History

x Bleeding2It was 1629, Hertfordshire, UK when Joan Norkot had died in her bed with her babe in her arms and her throat slashed. On that tragic morning, when the family went to rouse Joan, they found her neck sliced open and a bloody knife protruding from the floorboards. It must have been suicide, they reasoned, since no one had entered the cottage that evening. It was small and they would have noticed. Beside, there was no sign of a struggle.

Crowded around the decomposing, recently exhumed corpse were Judge Harvey, the jury, two clergymen and several neighbors and friends of the deceased. Four family members were prodded to go forward and touch the dead woman. It was considered legally binding evidence if a corpse reacted to the touch of its killer and wounds would bleed anew.

An eyewitness account states that as three of the four murder suspects touched the body its face turned to a ‘lively and fresh color’ while one of its eyes opened and shut again. At the same time her ring finger ‘thrust out …and pulled in, again’. Blood dripped onto the grass below. This happened three times then the body resumed its lifeless state.

ImageOriginally the Baker Street Irregulars were a gang of street urchins whom Holmes often employs to aid his cases. Now BSI also stands for an elite sleuthing club dedicated to the study of Sherlock Holmes. It began on May 19, 1934,  when a unique crossword puzzle appeared in The Saturday Review of Literature. The society claims many famous people among its members. Here are its by-laws.


(1) An annual meeting shall be held on January 6th, at which those toasts shall be drunk which were published in the Saturday Review of January 27th, 1934; after which the members shall drink at will.

(2) The current round shall be bought by any member who fails to identify, by title of story and context, any quotation from the Sacred Writings submitted by any other member.

Qualification A.–If two or more members fail so to identify, a round shall be bought by each of those so failing.

Qualification B.–If the submitter of the quotation, upon challenge, fails to identify it correctly, he shall buy the round.

(3) Special meetings may be called at any time or any place by any one of three members, two of whom shall constitute a quorum.

Qualification A.–If said two are of opposite sexes, they shall use care in selecting the place of meeting, to avoid misinterpretation (or interpretation, either, for that matter).

Qualification B.–If such two persons of opposite sexes be clients of the Personal Column of the Saturday Review, the foregoing does not apply; such persons being presumed to let their consciences be their guides.

(4) All other business shall be left for the monthly meeting.

(5) There shall be no monthly meeting.


Some things have changed since S.S. Van Dine gave us his 20 rules for detective fiction writing. Some things have not. The rational behind many of these rules still hold true while some are hilariously dated and reveal the bias from the time they were written.

“Twenty rules for writing detective stories” (1928)

(Originally published in the American Magazine (1928-sep),
and included in the Philo Vance investigates omnibus (1936).

by S.S. Van Dine
(pseud. for Willard Huntington Wright)

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

Was the purpose of this secret society of Irish immigrants, The Molly Maguires, to fight oppressive mine owners in the mid 1800s in Pennsylvania – or were they a Death Squad? Killings by the Molly Maguires were as common as slagheaps in coal country. Twelve unsolved murders took place at the headquarters for the Coal and Iron Company in the first 8 months of 1867. Pinkerton’s Detective Agency was called in. Irish newcomer James McParlan, standing 5’7″  was assigned to the case. He got paid $12 a week.

Disguised as a clean-cut Irish dandy, McParlan rolled into Pottsville. A large bankroll in his pocket he headed to the Sheridan, a bar where the Mollies were frequently found. After buying drinks for everyone in the house he then took everyone’s last penny playing poker with them – then he announced “I kill an English bastard in Buffalo. And I play with counterfeit money. But you boyos needn’t worry – my counterfeit is perfect.” The bills, later carefully examined by a bank tell with a magnifying glass, were pronounced perfect. McParlan later commented “Of course it was perfect. It was good US money.”

After two years undercover as Jimmie McKenna, secretary for the secret society, the detective was distressed to find himself named as the leader of a three man execution squad. He hoped for circumstances that would prevent his carrying out of the orders – and he got his wish. The ‘fingerman’ James ‘Powderkeg’ Kerrigan got impatient waiting for their arrival and took care of the execution himself.  Powderkeg later turned stool pigeon and was the only one of the Mollies to walk away from a death sentence. James McParlan went down in history.

Snobbery with ViolenceMayhem Parva is a fictional village setting, coined by mystery historian Colin Watson. In his book A Snobbery With Violience; Watson reviewed mysteries by writers from the first half of the 20th century – why they were popular and what their books say about the prejudices of the time. But all of that sociology aside Mayhem Parva is:

“The setting for the crime stories by what we might call the Mayhem Parva school would be a cross between a village and a commuters’ dormitory in the South of England, self-contained, and largely self-sufficient. It would have a well-attended church, an inn with reasonable accommodation for itinerant detective-inspectors, a village institute, library and shops – including a chemist’s where weed killer and hair dye might conveniently be bought.”

John le Carre adds this about setting:
“If you describe a Secret Service and impose upon it the same ground rules of behavior as you would upon an English country house, you quickly get the reader with you. So these are bits of ammunition that are available to an English writer, and properly used, are pure gold, in my experience.”

And finally Diana Rigg (Remember her as  the marvelous Mrs. Peel from the Avengers?) while hosting Masterpiece Theatre had this to say:
“A cozy mystery refers to stories that take place in closed, often serene settings. An unexpected act of violence shatters the peace. A small group of characters falls under suspicion and a heroic detective arrives to solve the crime. Are usually solved within a short period of time, a week or two at the most.   In general the solution is usually in plain sight from start to finish. And the killer has been onstage throughout. Motives are clear and simple. Somebody hates fears or envies somebody else or else stands to inherits a lot of money. One by one suspects are considered and eliminated, although the detective will occasionally find himself in a blind alley.”

That Edgar Allen Poe sure knew how to size up a guy. Here’s a marvelous quote from his famous short story The Purloined Letter.

The speaker is an eight year old boy who is always winning at a game of marbles where you guess whether the person is holding an odd or even number of marbles in their closed hand. He figured out how his opponents would play based on their astuteness. When asked how he identified the other’s intelligence he replied :

“’When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.”

In New South Wales, Australia, thrill seekers pressed against the glass panels of Coogee Aquarium’s shark display as the newly acquired tiger shark writhed in pain and then vomited up a human arm – with a tat of two boxers slugging it out on the soggy flesh. A rope was wrapped around the severed limb.

Police initially thought that the arm belonged to an unlucky swimmer but it was soon revealed to be the limb of  Jim Smith a shady character who ran a sleezy pool hall and had been previously charged for  illegal bookmaking.

Suspects were Reggie Holmes, a successful boat-building businessman and smuggler and his associate, Patrick Brady,  a forger.   Smith had worked dirty deals for Holmes and then made the mistake of blackmailing him. Brady was arrested.

Four days later Holmes tried unsuccessfully to shot himself but the bullet flattened against the bone of his forehead and he was only stunned. Captured by the police he confessed that Brady had killed Smith. The day before the inquest into Smith’s death Holmes was found shot dead in his car. Brady was acquitted and  continued to claim his innocence until he died at the age of seventy one years.

Here’s an interesting coincidence. I drew the picture and guessed what the tat would look like. Then I found the photo of the arm and was happy to see that my guess was pretty good.

Scared to go in the water?

 Shark Attack Tips


  • Fishing boats leaving a trail of fish flesh and blood.
  • Shark food such as dead animals and large groups of fish, seals, or sea lions.
  • High-contrast clothing (orange and yellow)
  • Bling or other shiny jewelry (which may be mistaken for fish scales)
  • Excessive splashing.

Leave the water:

  • At dawn, dusk, and night.
  • If you are bleeding.
  • If something brushes up against you.

Check with the Locals. If you don’t want to meet a shark stay out of its way.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE ATTACKED – If you’re being attacked by a shark, go for the eyes and gills. Kill the killer and cook him up.

 Shark Steaks

Cube 4 shark steaks, put them in a glass pan and marinade them in:

  • Braggs amino acids
  • 1 tsp grated lemon peel
  • ¼  cup lemon juice
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • 2tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbl olive oil

Garnish with Green Onion

In the late 1700s, Dr Ignace Guillotin thought all criminals should be equal in death. It was not the case at the time. Noblemen were quickly sent to their graves with the swift swipe of a sword. The sword was then broken. Common felons were put on a wheel and their bones were broken until they died; a slow tortuous affair. It was too expensive to kill them all with swords. Plus the executioner admitted that he couldn’t stand the sight of all that blood.

A decapitation devise was clearly the answer. Tobias Schmidt, an alcoholic piano maker, was selected to produce the mechanism. It was tested on sheep and then on humans. The blade was crescent shaped and botched the job. King Louis XVI pointed out that the blade should be shaped like a triangle. The new design’s first victim was a man who had stolen a wallet and knifed the owner. King Louis himself suffered the same fate nine months later after being ousted by the French Revolution.

Here’s a fantastic specimen of an illustration from the Allan Pinkerton 1880 book Professional Thieves and the Detective. This is facing Chapter V The Murdered Man with the accompanying text:

“Upon its being shown to him, Mr. Kuenzle, with tearful eyes, at once recognized the features of his unfortunate lodger, and thus the question as to who the murdered man was became definitely settled, and the work of tracing the perpetrators of the awful deed, their detection and punishment, was intelligently commenced.

“On returning to New York city, they proceeded to the residence of Mr. Kuenzle, and thence to the apartment formerly occupied by Adolph Bohner, for the purpose of examining his effects in the hope that something would be found that would give fuller information of the young man, furnish some knowledge of his associates, and by that means enable them to form some opinion of the possible cause of his death.”

Now I am assuming the illustration is somewhat accurate, being Pinkerton and all, and have to wonder why the head is in a jar. Is it suppose to be less traumatic to identify just the face rather than the whole body? So much information lost to history…

Found a great book at a garage sale last weekend! By Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous ‘Pinkerton`s We Never Sleep Detective Agency. It was published in 1880 and is an account of some of his cases. My husband guesses that the book was his retirement project.

It is divided into sections: CRIMINAL SKETCHES – fourteen chapters, LIGHTNING STEALERS AND THE DETECTIVEfifteen chapters, THE EDGEWOOD MYSTERY AND THE DETECTIVE – seventeen chapters, BOOMING LOGS AND THE DETECTIVE – twelve chapters, CRIMINAL REMINISCENCES – five chapters.

The book is a glorious 598 yellowed, occasionally ripped, pages long. Loving it! Samples of the exquisite woodcut illustrations will be coming in future postings.