Michael Sims surveys the development of the mystery tale in The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories.
How did you come to be such a voracious reader?
I grew up in rural Tennessee. There were no bookstores in the town, but the school had a little library and the town had a little library, each with a patient and enthusiastic librarian, and I raced into both as if they were doorways to another world. And each week my teacher would unpack our box of mail-ordered Scholastic Book Club paperbacks—books such as The Great Whales and Mystery of the Haunted Hut. No Christmas will ever top the weekly anticipation of watching from my desk as the teacher took handfuls of books out of the box and matched them with their order slips and called out our names.
What about Victorian-era writing appeals to you?
Primarily the sense of texture and detail and atmosphere, as well as the feeling that you are in a world far enough away from our own to be exotic and close enough to be familiar.
Describe your approach to making selections for this volume.
The challenge for me in editing an anthology is balancing the undeniable classics, hugely influential works, little-known discoveries, and a variety of approaches (suspenseful, atmospheric, compassionate, humorous, and analytical), and mixing in such a way that the reader stays surprised and entertained while, say, a professor can see this volume as a reasonable nominee for introduction to the genre. Also, I thought about what sorts of nonfictional snippets would spice up the stew, and came up with a Dickens article about exploring nighttime London with detectives.
What was Doyle’s impact on the development of the detective story?
He was hugely influential. He was the culmination of the first period of detective stories’ growth—from the idea of a series of stories centered on a single main character, focusing on the progress of the investigative routine, going through Poe, Gaboriau, Anna Katharine Green, and so on. Doyle created an amusingly smug genius anchored in more convincing detail and more agreeable characters than Poe had done with his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Doyle wrote with style and a great sense of atmosphere; his best scenes blossom into life. The combination gave us one of pop culture’s most popular and enduring characters and made his world continue to live for us more than a century after what we associate with Holmes faded into the dustbin of history. For decades, writers had to grapple with whether to imitate or deliberately counter Holmes, but they couldn’t ignore him.