The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Bernard Sutton Mysteries (1893-1894)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Bernard Sutton Mysteries were written by Max Pemberton and first appeared as a series of ten stories in The English Illustrated Magazine (Dec. 1893-Sept 1894). Pemberton (1863-1950) was a writer of over sixty novels, the editor of Chums and Cassell's Magazine, director of Northcliffe Newspapers, and founder of the London School of Journalism. He was knighted in 1928 for various good works.
Bernard Sutton is by profession a dealer in precious stones, gems and jewels. He is one of the best-known jewelers in England and deals with Society (though not royalty) on a consistent basis. Wealthy men and women form his clientele, both as a jeweler and as a crime solver. He is well-known in Paris as well as London, and is approached by clients even in France. Sutton is not extroverted; he never canvasses clients. But thanks to his business he comes into contact with several people who are either criminals or the victims of crimes, and Sutton is called upon to solve those crimes. He is not a professional detective, consulting or otherwise; he is at all times a jewel dealer, and he would be just as happy never solving a crime. He just happens to keep getting involved with the victims of crimes.
As a detective Sutton is extremely basic. He thinks hard about the cases he is involved with and carefully questions the victims and criminals, but he is as often helped by luck as by anything he does as a detective. Because of his business he is careful about thieves, employing one man solely as a guard for his West End store and bodyguard for himself. This care he applies to the cases. But beyond an above-average intelligence and a careful approach he is nothing extraordinary as a detective. Unlike many of his contemporaries he thinks well of Scotland Yard and the men who work there, and when he is scornful of them he learns the error of his ways.
Sutton is somewhat wry. His morality is that of the Victorian middle class, but he is generally not stiff or lacking in compassion or understanding. He appreciates “impertinence” in his trade and in his hobby, although he is not himself impertinent. His one really distinguishing characteristic is his “stone hunger” or “jewel hunger,” a consuming desire for particularly valuable stones. He describes this as a common enough affliction in his profession, and his own case of the disease is mild compared to some of the misers he sees.
The Bernard Sutton stories are not outstanding as mysteries; the crimes, criminals, and methods of the crimes are straightforward. But Pemberton is skilled enough as a writer to make the stories absorbing nonetheless. They have intelligent plots and are generally well-written and intriguing. The characterization, though brief, is entertaining. Pemberton puts his own knowledge of gems and gemology to good use without being flashy about it, and the stories even have an occasional touch of humor: “The principal actors held their tongues, and in due time the West forgot, for a new scandal arose, and the courts supplied the craving for the doubtful, which is a part of polite education nowadays.”1 There is a fair bit of opinion in the stories, too. Pemberton is not complimentary of the French police–another way in which he differs from many of his contemporaries. He is benignly contemptuous of Americans, benignly xenophobic about Algerians, and even indulges in the occasional comment of social concern, as with his shots at a particularly greedy landlord.
What is particularly striking about the stories is how dark some of the stories are and how bittersweet their endings are. A story about a seemingly cursed opal ends with a suicide. Another story ends with a lover left insane of a broken heart. A third story, about a cursed topaz, ends with an innocent young woman dead and Sutton unwilling to let anyone buy the topaz for fear of more murders. Other stories are black comedies: a miser/gem hound has the screws put to him by his nephew, with the connivance of Sutton; a roué is humiliated, as he deserves; and Sutton himself is hypnotized and duped by a clever adventuress. And then there are the more usual kinds of stories: the recovery of a stolen jewel in Algiers, a swindler apprehended, and a gang of jewel thieves preying on the rich at society balls stopped by Sutton.
This darkness is quite at odds with the general tenor of detective stories published in the early 1890s, and represents a departure from the genre’s implied expectations by Pemberton. Nearly all the detective stories and novels of the early 1890s followed the template established by Conan Doyle in The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, where there might be some grim material in the story but ultimately everything works out in the end, the wicked are punished and the good are rewarded. In these stories innocents are endangered but rarely if ever permanently damaged, and any bittersweet story is far more sweet than bitter.
Pemberton ignored these dictates. The Bernard Sutton stories are among Pemberton’s earliest works, and spring from a time when he had just left off being the editor of Chums and was making his name as a man of society and bon vivant. The days when he would be a familiar of Arthur Conan Doyle and Fletcher Robinson in the Crimes Club (a literary criminological society of which all three were members) were ahead of him. It can be argued that the Bernard Sutton mysteries, then, were Pemberton’s attempt at getting out from under the shadow of Conan Doyle–who in 1893 cast a vast shadow courtesy of Sherlock Holmes–and establishing both himself as a mystery writer and mystery genre as something that could be darker, different, and even more Gothic than Conan Doyle would allow it to be.
Sherlock Holmes’ “Great Hiatus”–the eight-year period in which there were no new Holmes stories published–began after the publication of “The Adventure of the Final Problem” in December, 1893, the same month that the Bernard Sutton stories began. Perhaps what Pemberton had in mind, with Holmes finally out of the way–and Conan Doyle had published twenty-four Holmes stories over the preceding two and a half years, making Holmes not only the archetypal Great Detective but a constant, unavoidable presence–was to try something different from Conan Doyle and to establish himself via darker detective stories, as a sort of counter-programming to Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, in something of the same way that C.L. Pirkis’ Loveday Brooke (see: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective) struggled to do earlier in 1893 and which Grant Allen’s Hilda Wade Mysteries would accomplish in 1895? It’s quite possible that the departure of Holmes following “The Final Problem” removed a psychic weight from the minds of English detective writers, and let, to paraphrase Mao Zedong, a hundred new detective flowers blossom.
However, despite injecting Gothic tropes and darkness into the detective genre, from which they had been absent largely since the Gothics themselves, Pemberton was not successful in creating a rival to Holmes. Sutton lacks the spark that Holmes had, and the Sutton stories are too simplistic to be challenging mysteries. Arthur Morrison’s Martin Hewitt Mysteries were not much better than Pemberton’s Bernard Sutton stories, but Morrison and Hewitt had the advantage of hewing closely to the Holmesian template, where Pemberton seemingly wanted to try something legitimately different, and so Martin Hewitt became Holmes’ rival (in Holmes’ absence) while Sutton became forgotten.
The Bernard Sutton stories are an agreeable diversion, but no more, although they do represent a pathway that mysteries could have taken if Holmes had stayed away.
Print: Max Pemberton, Jewel Mysteries I Have Known. Nashville, TN: Rarebooksclub: 2012.
1 Max Pemberton, “The Accursed Gems,” Jewel Mysteries From a Dealer’s Note Book (New York: R.F. Fenno, 1904), 110.