The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Dick Donovan Mysteries (1888-1914)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The over 180 Dick Donovan Mysteries were written by “Dick Donovan,” and Donovan himself first appeared in “The Saltmarket Murder Case” (Dundee Weekly News, Jan. 28, 1888). “Dick Donovan” was the pseudonym of James Edward (née Joyce Emmerson) Preston Muddock (1843-1934), an English overseas journalist and writer. Muddock wrote widely, in a number of genres, and produced more than fifty detective novels and story collections, though he found them inferior to his other work.
Although forgotten today Donovan was one of the more popular Victorian fictional detectives. Muddock published fourteen collections of Donovan stories, but dozens more stories remain uncollected. In many of these stories Donovan is only the narrator, rather than the protagonist, and tells the reader stories of crime and criminals, just as Old Cap. Collier (see: The Old Cap. Collier Mysteries) did in the Old Cap. Collier Library. But in dozens of other stories Donovan is the detective hero who handles a variety of criminals and threats. The Dick Donovan stories, both the ones in which he was the hero and the ones which he narrated, vary in tone, ranging from casebook stories to spectacular melodramas involving Gothic horror, witchcraft, Asian supervillains, and sinister secret societies. In his first stories Donovan is a street-level detective working in Glasgow. He is a policeman, but like several of the other casebook detectives he takes cases for pay from private citizens. The criminals he investigates, at the start of his career, are similar to those of other casebook detectives: murderers, female sharpers, murderesses, criminal gang conspiracies, American female swindlers, and counterfeiters. But even in The Man Hunter there is a hint at the later, more fantastic elements of the Donovan stories: a brutal thief who is called “The Knave of Spades,” whose name is reminiscent of the more colorful opponents of the story paper detectives, like Sexton Blake (see: The Sexton Blake Mysteries) and Nelson Lee (see: The Nelson Lee Mysteries).
As a detective Donovan is careful rather than brilliant. He examines crime scenes and draws conclusions based on the evidence he finds there. He makes intelligent use of the evidence he does find, in one case comparing the hair fibers found under a murder victims fingernails to the hair and cuts he finds in the bearded face of a suspect. He uses deductive logic when required. He is dogged, which accounts for a lot of his success; he relies on perspiration rather than inspiration. Donovan also depends upon his great physical strength and the occasional coincidence thrown his way by Muddock. Donovan is boastful, but usually deservedly so, for he is successful at what he does.
The stories are entertaining, but not exceptional in any way. Although Muddock does describe some rather gruesome crime scenes, there is not the wealth of information and scene setting of Glasgow as in the James M’Govan stories (see: Brought to Bay; or, Experience of a City Detective), and Donovan as a character is not as fleshed out as M’Govan. The stories are competently written but nothing more. And there is a trace of antisemitism in the portrayal of a Fagin-like Jewish character.
The Dick Donovan stories predated the Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand, and for the space of years the Donovan stories were as popular as the Holmes stories. Donovan can even be said to have begun the practice, post-casebook, of a series of related, short detective stories,1 although Donovan did so in the Dundee Weekly News (with its circulation of 121,000, true) rather than in the far more prestigious and influential Strand. (Donovan may have begun the practice, but it was the Sherlock Holmes Mysteries which other writers and publishers imitated.2) But the Donovan stories have not survived as well as the Holmes stories. In part this is because Conan Doyle was simply a better writer than Muddock. But there are additional reasons:
¼the Dick Donovan stories, or the run of them before Sherlock Holmes, are decidedly products of the last generation of detective stories. The Donovan stories are first person narratives supposedly taken, somewhat randomly, from the experiences of a successful police detective, and, as noted above, they use the same kind of sub-titles as those used a generation ago highlighting them as excerpts from a real detective’s notebook. They pay scant attention to delineating the character of the narrator, revealing only that (in most of the stories) he is middle aged. Information about the hero’s employment is inconsistent: although Donovan is supposed to be a Glasgow detective, the stories also make him a detective in other cities in Britain, and at times he seems to be sought out as a private detective. Typical of the notebook police detective hero, occasionally the narrator mentions superiors giving him orders, the failure of others to solve crimes, and his own ambition to succeed as a detective. While the stories demonstrate successful individual action, they also sometimes praise corporate law enforcement...Like older notebook literature about crime, the Donovan stories seek to inform readers both about what detectives do and about the ways of criminals. Largely readers find that what detectives do is hunt and chase criminals— thus collections of Donovan’s stories and the individual stories themselves feature terms such as Caught, Hunted, Tracked, and Found in their titles. Background about criminals, however, is more diverse. “Doing a Fence,” for instance, focuses on the operations of receivers of stolen goods and “Checkmated” discusses how criminals case potential jobs....3
The Dick Donovan stories were in fact inspired by the previous generation of fictional detectives, specifically the James M’Govan stories and before them the memoirs of Inspector James McLevy (see: Brought to Bay; or, Experience of a City Detective). The Donovan stories continued to be influenced by what Panek calls the “notebook police detective” heroes until well into the twentieth century, when they began to change and become more colorful and facilely exciting, bringing in elements like Yellow Peril villains and crime and political conspiracies.
The Dick Donovan stories are for the most part dated, part of the late-Victorian era even when they were published in the Edwardian years. But they have their appealing aspects and are an agreeable way to pass the time.
Print: J.E. Muddock and Bruce Durie, Dick Donovan: the Glasgow Detective. Lulu.com, 2013.
1 Bruce Durie, “Foreword,” in J.E. Muddock and Bruce Durie, Dick Donovan, the Glasgow Detective (Lulu.com, 2013), xiv.
2 Ashley, The Age of Storytellers, 197.
3 Leroy Panek, After Sherlock Holmes: The Evolution of British and American Detective Stories, 1891-1914 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014), 47.