Saturday, May 14, 2022

Detective Brand's Greatest Case

THE VAMPIRE; OR, DETECTIVE BRAND'S GREATEST CASE (1885), a 19th-century "dime novel," was recently revived as a trade paperback edited by Gary D. Rhodes and John Edgar Browning. Their background and analysis essay, "America's First Vampire and the Supernatural as Artifice," appears as an afterword rather than an introduction, probably to avoid inflicting spoilers on readers who might start with the editors' introduction. (I read it first anyway.) It surveys earlier nineteenth-century vampire fiction and the history of the dime novel, then discusses THE VAMPIRE in particular. Although this book was originally published anonymously, the "About the Author" preface cites evidence to identify Hawley Smart, a British army officer turned writer, as the probable author. Dime novels were short paperbacks of adventure, crime, suspense, and horror popular in the late nineteenth century. They seldom featured actual supernatural phenomena, as, indeed, THE VAMPIRE doesn't, although it does include ample suspense and horror. The publisher of this edition highlights it as "America's first vampire novel."

Murder victims turn up with punctures in their necks resembling fang marks. A police officer who discovers one body gets a glimpse of an ominous figure whose black cloak resembles the wings of a huge bird of prey. There's an orphaned damsel in distress, brought to New York as the mysterious beneficiary of a millionaire's inexplicable generosity. A stalwart young hero falls in love with her and helps to rescue her from the villain. We never learn definitely whether the "vampire" is simply a deranged serial killer who believes he needs blood or the need is genuine, enhancing the horror dimension of the story. New York landmarks and cultural elements (including stereotypical Irish-accented policemen) give the novel a convincingly realistic background to offset the melodramatic, often farfetched plot.

Detective Brand, as mentioned by the editors, somewhat foreshadows Sherlock Holmes. Brand is a brilliant investigator called in when the police are stumped. He's a bit eccentric and takes only cases that intrigue him because of their unusual features. He's also a master of disguise. Holmes, however, would certainly not let himself be lured to a strange woman's home—unless he recognized the trap and intended to turn the tables on the would-be seductress. Brand solves the murders at least as much by luck and coincidence as by rational deduction.

This is a fun, fast-paced mystery with abundant plot twists and life-threatening cliffhangers. Vintage vampire fans who can suspend disbelief and let themselves get swept along by the melodrama will probably relish it.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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