The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Martin Hewitt Mysteries (1894-1903)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Martin Hewitt Mysteries were written by Arthur Morrison and first appeared in “The Lenton Croft Robberies” (The Strand, March 1894). Hewitt appeared in twenty-two short stories, three collections, and one novel. 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.

Martin Hewitt is a consulting detective. When he was a young man he had worked as a clerk for a law firm. For one hopeless case he was given the “desperate task”1 of collecting evidence. Hewitt built up “apparently out of nothing, a smashing weight of irresistible evidence”2 which won the case for the firm. Rather than continue working for the law firm or accepting any of the offers from competing firms, Hewitt decided to go into business for himself as a private detective. He was successful and became famous for it.

Hewitt is a portly, genial looking man: “stoutish, clean-shaven...of middle height, and of a cheerful, round countenance.”3 He occasionally uses disguises, but his face is not to be as well-known as he is. Hewitt does not use deduction, but rather what he calls “common sense and a sharp pair of eyes.”4 He is a careful and intelligent observer, of both people and things, and he usually withholds his judgments and theories until as much information as possible has been gathered. His one rule of thumb is “the matter of accumulative probabilities;”5 if the likelihood of something happening is high, he takes it as a “practical certainty”6 and proceeds from there. This method has usually stood him in good stead. Hewitt is willing to go into the field to investigate, and go undercover. He is good enough as an actor to fool criminals, he is knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, and his grasp of Thieves Cant is better than most thieves.

Hewitt works alone and does not use any agents in his agency. (The role of Watson is carried out by Brett, a colorless journalist of average intelligence). Hewitt is a detective of the middle and upper classes, and because money is an issue for him he is happy to let competition for his services drive up his fees. Although he takes whatever jobs interest him, even if the monetary reward is small, his enthusiasm is always heightened when there is a good fee in it for him. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries), Hewitt does not reserve particular scorn for the police, instead being content to let them do their job. If he is called upon to correct their mistakes, he is happy to do so, but otherwise he is content to go his own way. However:

In all points of contact the superiority of the private detective is unquestionable, even if Martin Hewitt is not quite the superstar that Holmes is. With his acute reasoning, he is better than the police at observing details, amassing evidence, and piecing it all together. He also has considerably more general knowledge than they, and conducts independent inquiries in cases under their investigation. Further, he is sure of his methods, while the police are often perplexed and uncertain about what should be done. Hewitt, therefore, can help them much more than they can help him.7 

Like Holmes, Hewitt feels himself above the law to a certain degree, and prefers to follow his own morality rather than that of the law. And, like Holmes, Hewitt is always aware that he is smarter than everyone around him, and he is sometimes keen to remind others, like Brett, of that fact. (Some of Hewitt’s comments to Brett would have taxed the patience of even Watson).

For all that, though, Hewitt is not a bad person. He is usually cordial, and although his clients are always of the middle and upper classes he does not treat the poor and indigent any differently than he does the wealthy. He can be modest about his abilities, and when he has been fooled by an opponent, as occasionally happens, he freely admits it and credits that opponent. And he is capable of real generosity. In one case he lets the public believe that he had failed to catch a criminal, rather than having the truth emerge and a respected and innocent art dealer be ruined.

Hewitt was not an original conception on Morrison’s part. He was designed to capitalize on the absence of Sherlock Holmes:

After Holmes disappeared over the Reichenbach Falls in December 1893, apparently never to return, many magazines were desperate to poach the readers who had developed a voracious appetite for Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime fiction. A vast number of Holmes ‘clones’ and inversions sprang up in the pages of family magazines such as The Windsor, The Idler, Pearson’s and in The Strand itself…indeed Morrison’s tubby, affable – and somewhat dull – detective Martin Hewitt was the Strand Magazine’s own swift replacement for Holmes, appearing in March 1894. The Hewitt stories were the first foray into the detective genre by Morrison, a fledgling writer, who would later become known for his grim slum novels. Early reviews of the Hewitt collection were reasonably favourable, yet tended to emphasise Morrison’s indebtedness to Doyle’s detective stories and the similarities between Holmes and Hewitt. The Leeds Mercury, for instance, generously suggested that Morrison’s Hewitt tales were ‘the only stories worthy to succeed Dr. Conan Doyle’s “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”’ (‘Magazines and Reviews’ 3). The Times review of the collected stories more bluntly concluded that Hewitt was simply ‘a second Sherlock Holmes’ (Review of Martin Hewitt, Investigator 15).8 

Further, he was designed to be Holmes’ opposite:

Whereas Holmes is tall and gaunt, Hewitt is of medium stature and plump; whereas Holmes is egotistical and arrogant, Hewitt is pleasant and unctuously affable; whereas Holmes scorns Scotland Yard, Hewitt is grateful for cooperation, reflecting that the Metropolitan Police can perform operations he cannot. Holmes’s adventures are set at high key; Hewitt is deliberately low key. All in all, the Holmes-Hewitt relationship reminds one of the motion pictures in the 1910’s and 1920’s: a comedian anxious to appear distinct from Charles Chaplin would wear clothes that were too small rather than too large, would sport a large moustache rather than a small one, and might walk pigeon-toed rather than duck-footed. It all came to the same thing.9 

Whether or not Hewitt was intended to be, in Merja Makinen’s phrase, “a critique of Holmes’ flamboyant individualism,”10 the end result, as Bleiler says, “all came to the same thing.” During the 1890s Martin Hewitt was seen as the main rival to Sherlock Holmes. Though never as popular as Holmes Hewitt was regarded, in both the U.S. and the U.K., as the second-best detective in English mystery fiction. The modern reader will not concur. Hewitt is markedly inferior to Holmes as a character and the Hewitt stories are not as well-written as the Holmes stories.

Purely in terms of the stories’ plots the Hewitt stories are more than serviceable, and are indeed in the same league as the Holmes stories. The crimes are appropriately clever and complicated and Hewitt’s solutions are suitably intelligent. But as fiction the Hewitt stories are far weaker than the Holmes stories. The wicked gleam which was surely in Morrison’s eyes when he wrote the Horace Dorrington stories (see: The Dorrington Deed Box) was equally surely absent when he wrote the Martin Hewitt stories. (There are elements of the early Hewitt stories, including the plots and the treatment of the criminals, which read like rough drafts of the Dorrington stories). The Hewitt stories read as intellectual exercises, and are as missing in joy and life as the driest calculus equation. The stories are not in any way innovative. They lack the fluidity and motion of Conan Doyle. They lack the humor of Conan Doyle. They lack the aphorisms and the memorable dialogue, characters and situations of Conan Doyle. The Hewitt stories are, in fact, rather stiff, uncompelling, and less enjoyable to read than the average Sexton Blake story (see: The Sexton Blake Mysteries). Finally, Hewitt includes an embarrassing bit of racism in “The Affair of the Tortoise,” which is likely to mar the modern reader’s enjoyment of the story.

Hewitt himself is of some limited interest. He was Holmes’ main competition in the 1890s, but Hewitt is dissimilar to Holmes only in the particulars, rather than in general outline. This insistence, on Morrison’s part, on copying the Great Detective character type rather than creating a variation of it, is why Hewitt has aged so much worse, and why he will be less interesting to the modern reader, than unusual characters like M.P. Shiel’s Prince Zaleski (see: Prince Zaleski). Hewitt is resolutely late-Victorian in his premise, attitudes, and morality, and absent the humor of Holmes and the style of Shiel, Hewitt is doomed to become that most dreaded of fates for a literary character, Of Historical Interest Only.

Recommended Edition

Print: Martin Hewitt and E.F. Bleiler, The Best Martin Hewitt Detective Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2017.



1 Arthur Morrison, “The Lenton Croft Robberies,” Martin Hewitt: Investigator (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894), 2.

2 Morrison, “The Lenton Croft Robberies,” 2.

3 Morrison, “The Lenton Croft Robberies,” 4.

4 Morrison, “The Lenton Croft Robberies,” 28.

5 Arthur Morrison, “The Case of Mr. Foggatt,” Martin Hewitt: Investigator (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894), 69.

6 Morrison, “The Case of Mr. Foggatt,” 70.

7 Shpayer-Makov, The Ascent of the Detective, 250-252.

8 Clare Clarke, Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 128.

9 E.F. Bleiler, “Introduction,” in The Best Martin Hewitt Detective Stories (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002), xiv-xvi.

10 Merja Maikanin, Feminist Popular Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 4.