When I reviewed John Baxter’s “A Pound of Paper recently, I mentioned in passing the various lists in the back of the book – terribly dangerous for someone like me, always on the hunt for something new in the book line! I confess that the Ellery Queen lists of various classic crime stories and collections had a bad effect, and I may well have sent off for the odd penny book….. Ahem. Anyway, one of those volumes, The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont looked like ideal train-reading material, so it came with me on the journey to London recently, and proved to be very enjoyable!

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Author Robert Barr was a Scot, and Wikipedia says: Robert Barr (16 September 1849 – 21 October 1912[) was a Scottish-Canadian short story writer and novelist, born in Glasgow, Scotland. In London of the 1890s Barr became a more prolific author—publishing a book a year—and was familiar with many of the best-selling authors of his day, including Bret Harte and Stephen Crane. Most of his literary output was of the crime genre, then quite in vogue. When Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were becoming well-known Barr published in the Idler the first Holmes parody, “The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs” (1892), a spoof that was continued a decade later in another Barr story, “The Adventure of the Second Swag” (1904). Despite the jibe at the growing Holmes phenomenon Barr and Doyle remained on very good terms. Doyle describes him in his memoirs Memories and Adventures as, “a volcanic Anglo—or rather Scot-American, with a violent manner, a wealth of strong adjectives, and one of the kindest natures underneath it all.”

The Eugene Valmont stories are what he is remembered for nowadays, and my collection is a nice little Oxford Popular Fiction volume from some years back; it contains not only the eight Valmont stories but also the two Holmes parodies mentioned above.

Of course, so much crime fiction was influenced and informed by Conan Doyle’s great creation that it’s often difficult to appreciate other works of that ilk on their own merits. However, these stories are more than able to stand comparison with Holmes and they’re a great read.

Valmont introduces himself thus at the start of the first story, “The Mystery of the Five Hundred Diamonds”:  The first tale covers the affair which led to Valmont being released by his French employers, and an ingenious story it is. The rest of the short works tell of club-footed ghosts, absent-minded men, lost jewels, kleptomaniacs and other entertaining plots.

The character of Valmont himself is an engaging one – Barr manages to create a very convincing-sounding Frenchman, with the verbosity, gallantry and intolerance of British law and police that you would expect from one of our Galllic cousins of that era! He is susceptible to fine wine and beautiful women, and very occasionally you think that Barr might be hamming up the stereotype a little, but this is never so much that it distracts from the puzzle. And these puzzles are very good – from minor mysteries of stolen money to larger concerns of bombs and anarchy. Valmont’s cases stretch as far as America, and he is much more fallible that Holmes – he fails in some of his cases, and at times acts outside the law in a way that the resident of 221b would never do!

Robert Barr

Robert Barr

Having struggled on occasion with short stories recently – particularly in fighting the urge not to rush through them and therefore not really retain them – I pleased to find that these were such an easy, enjoyable read. They’re well-plotted and well-written, and I think the issue I might have been having with the Amelia Edwards collection I started was the lack of continuity – with no common character or detective, each story is a separate entity. The tales here are individual, but with the constant thread running through of Valmont. In fact, the stories do stand as memorable on their own – while reading “The Absent-Minded Coterie” I was struck immediately by a sense of familiarity, and started anticipating the plot details. I dug about in an old Wordsworth collection of Holmes-era stories to discover that it contained this tale, and so I had read it previously and recalled the details.

If you’re a fan of gentlemen detectives, period crime or Sherlock Holmes, this is really a book you should read. Highly recommended, and I wish Barr had written more about the fascinating Eugene Valmont!

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