The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Dorcas Dene, Detective (1897)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Dorrington Deed-Box was written by Arthur Morrison and first appeared as a series in The Windsor Magazine (Jan-June 1897). Morrison (1863-1945) was a remarkable and secretive man about whom little is known. Born in the slums of London into a poor family, he was self-educated, and through natural talent and hard work became a popular and respected magazine writer and a foremost proponent of naturalist fiction, producing two books about the slums of England that stand up well even today. After the turn of the century he abandoned writing and turned to Asian art, becoming one of the world's leading authorities on the subject.
The Dorrington Deed Box traces the rise and fall of Horace Dorrington, an unrepentant scoundrel, thief, and murderer who uses his job as a detective to enrich himself. The stories are told in reverse chronological order. The first story tells of Dorrington’s last and only defeat, when his associates fail to completely drug one of their victims. The man escapes from drowning in a cistern and leads the police to Dorrington's door. Dorrington has fled, but his guise as a respectable member of society, which was essential to his success, is ruined. The remaining five stories in the collection trace his career backwards in time, starting with Dorrington's discovery of the couple who use a cistern to drown their victims–the same couple who Dorrington blackmails into being his assistants in the first story–and ending with Dorrington's first big break, when he makes enough money to escape the East End and his job as muscle for a local criminal to start his own business.
Dorrington's business is as a “private inquiry agent,” the Victorian equivalent of a private eye. He and his partner Hicks form "Dorrington and Hicks,” a well-respected detective firm. Thanks to their reputation they are consulted on cases for the rich and well-heeled. This is exactly as Dorrington likes it: Hicks handles the office end of business, and Dorrington is the field man as well as the brains of the operation. This positions Dorrington to enrich himself, either through actually doing his job and solving the crime he was hired to look into, as he does when there is no way to profit from a case, or by finding a way to make money either from his clients or from the criminals he is hired to catch. Dorrington is always keen to take advantage when the latter situation arises. If his client holds the deeds to a large amount of valuable land in Australia, Dorrington will persuade his client that he should hold on to the deeds–for safe keeping, you understand–and then will have his client murdered. If a diamond is stolen and Dorrington is hired to recover it, he will find the guilty parties and then blackmail them into giving him the diamond. If Dorrington investigates a clever investment scam, he will force the swindler, through the threat of revelation, disgrace, and imprisonment, to accept him as a partner in the scam. Dorrington is cheerfully ruthless in his pursuit of lucre, willing to do anything to enrich himself. He appears to lack any sort of morality whatsoever.
In the late 1890s the concept of the “rogue hero” was not a new one to the English reader. The English had the tradition of Robin Hood and other heroic outlaws, and the räuberroman craze at the turn of the nineteenth century had given the English more recent examples. But the idea of a criminal—not a noble outlaw, not a hero wanted for a crime they did not commit, but an actual criminal—being the hero or at least the protagonist of a series of stories was something relatively new. This changed in 1896, when Grant Allen began publishing his Colonel Clay (see: The African Millionaire) stories. Clay was the first modern Gentleman Thief, and he was followed the next year by Guy Boothby’s Simon Carne (see: A Prince of Swindlers), and then in 1898 by E.W. Hornung’s Raffles (see: The Amateur Cracksman). Dorrington is a more extreme example of the Gentleman Thief character type. Dorrington is neither gentle, like Clay and Carne, nor a gentleman, like Carne and Raffles. He is a cheerful, friendly, thoroughly unprincipled villain. On the Gentleman Thief evolutionary tree, Dorrington is on an entirely different branch than the Clay-Carne-Raffles type. Dorrington is influenced by Doctor Quartz (see: The Doctor Quartz Mysteries), Professor Moriarty (see: “The Adventure of the Final Problem”), and the other ruthless and genuinely villainous bad guys of the 1890s. Dorrington anticipates the more fantastic (and thoroughly evil) villains of twentieth century pulp, like Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s murderous Fantômas, “the Lord of Terror.” But Dorrington is also emphatically real—the reader never forgets that Dorrington makes use of no unrealistic devices or skills, and becomes successful and wealthy only through the combination of a realistic lack of morality and careful planning and intelligence. He is a forerunner of the criminals of twentieth century hard-boiled detective fiction and noir.
The Dorrington stories are anything but cozy. Dorrington is ruthless and his crimes equally so. Morrison tells the stories in a straightforward style; there are not any particularly memorable lines or passages, but neither are there any howlingly bad ones. The schemes of the criminals are often clever, and Dorrington’s solutions are even more clever. And Morrison uses his own knowledge of Asian art and culture to good effect in one story. Reading the Dorrington stories, one can’t help but notice how much more alive they are than the Martin Hewitt Mysteries, and suspect that Morrison wrote the Hewitt stories for money but wrote the Dorrington stories out of a more personal compulsion, perhaps to show the reading audience, many of whom would have been familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, how weak most of Holmes’ opponents were in comparison to a character type Morrison would have been familiar with from his childhood: the ruthless, clever, East End thug.
The Dorrington stories are interesting because they contrast neatly with the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes, as various critics have argued, represents the reinstitution of a benign and comprehensible status quo, a “benevolent and knowable universe.”1 In the Dorrington stories, conversely,
the detective’s skills are put to malignant, self-serving uses; the detective/criminal binary becomes blurred; and the rule of law is almost totally absent, thus destabilizing the genre’s reassuring nature and readers’ conception of trust, morality, justice, and the way that society operates.2
This perhaps explains their comparative lack of renown and lack of popularity both for Victorian readers and the modern audience: Dorrington transgressively made the “hero” of his stories both a detective and an unapologetic criminal. In doing so, however, he anticipates the many criminal heroes of late twentieth- and twenty-first century popular culture.3 For this reason, in addition to the stories’ general readability, The Dorrington Deed-Box should be read by modern readers.
Print: Arthur Morrison, The Dorrington Deed-Box. Los Angeles: Hardpress Publishing, 2013.
1 George Grella, “The Formal Detective Novel,” in Robin Winks, ed., Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980), 101.
2 Clare Clark, “Horrace Dorringon, Criminal-Detective: Investigating the Re-Emergence of the rogue in Arthur Morrison’s The Dorrington Deed-Box (1897),” Clues 28, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 8.
3 Clark, “Horrace Dorrington, Criminal-Detective,” 17.