The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Mr. Furbush" (1865)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Mr. Furbush” was written by Harriet Prescott Spofford and first appeared in Harper’s (Apr. 1865). The titular detective also appeared in “In the Maguerriwock” (Harper’s, August 1868). Spofford (1835-1921) was, for some decades, one of the most respected writers in America, although today she is remembered only by obscurists and scholars.
“Mr. Furbush” begins with the description of a shocking murder. A twenty-year-old heiress, Agatha More, is killed in daylight at a fashionable hotel, strangled with her own kerchief. Her guardian, Mr. Denbigh, is saddened by the death of More, but Mrs. Denbigh is filled with “revengeful vigor”1 and is “closeted every morning with the detectives of the police,”2 finding out what progress has been made in finding the murderer. The police discover that the murder seemed not to have been done for money or by one of More’s lovers, and the investigation halts there. But one of the police detectives, Mr. Furbush, becomes interested in the case. Mr. Furbush is “a man of genteel proclivities, fond of fancy parties and the haut ton, curious in fine women and aristocratic defaulters and peculators.”3 He is in a photography gallery when he notices that one of the photographs was of the outside of the building in which More was murdered, and that the room in which More was murdered is visible in the photograph. One of the gallery owners mentions that the photograph was taken on the day of the murder. Furbush has the gallery photographers repeatedly enlarge the photograph until the hand of the murderer can be seen. On the hand is a ring with a five-pointed gem, from which Furbush concludes that the strangler was a woman, and wealthy. Mr. Furbush begins spending all his time in high society, neglecting his other cases. Three years later, in the middle of another investigation, Furbush sees a woman stepping into carriage, and on her hand is the ring. Mr. Furbush immediately goes to the Denbighs, asks Mrs. Denbigh to remove the glove from her hand–she is wearing a five-pointed ring, and then shows Mrs. Denbigh the photograph that he had enlarged. She turns as if to flee and then drops dead. Mr. Furbush, sickened at having (in his eyes) murdered Mrs. Denbigh, retires from the police force and opens a photography studio. “In the Maguerriwock” brings Furbush out of retirement to investigate a disappearance and then the murder of his client.
While several of Spofford’s early stories and novels were mysteries and Gothics, her heart was in her work for and about women. “Mr. Furbush” is not boring, but it lacks the sparkling dialogue of “In a Cellar” and its more intricate plot. “Mr. Furbush” will not rank highly on anyone’s list of most enjoyable mystery stories. But as a mid-century American mystery, it is notable even if it is dull. “Mr. Furbush” is a different type of mystery from “In a Cellar.” “Mr. Furbush” lacks any elements of the German kriminalgeschichte (see: Detectives, The Jew’s Beech Tree) or the roman feuilleton, and is influenced by the casebooks. Mr. Furbush may have a taste for Society, but he is a working policeman, though a detective rather than a street patrolman; Mr. Furbush is much closer to Inspector Bucket (see: Bleak House) than to Paul Lynde (see: Out of His Head). There is also an element of sensation fiction in the intrusion of crime into genteel surroundings. Like the narrator of “In a Cellar,” Mr. Furbush is aided by the hard-to-credit coincidence of the discovery of the photograph, but he follows that with able detective work, enlarging the photograph and then following the trail of clues.
“Mr. Furbush” is one of the earliest uses of photography in crime fiction. Photography first become commercially practical in the 1840s, and by the late 1850s studios and galleries were widespread in the United States and England. It was quickly incorporated into literature, with Robert Browning mentioning it in “Mesmerism” (1855). Wilkie Collins mentions photography several times in The Woman in White, but it is not integral to the plot as it is in “Mr. Furbush.” Similarly, “Mr. Furbush” is an extremely early use of the concept of enlarging a section of a photograph to reveal an obscure detail vital to the solving of a crime, which would become a cliché in twentieth century detective fiction and television shows. Spofford’s use of photographic enlargement actually verges on science fiction, as the type of enlargement in “Mr. Furbush” was not possible to any degree of detail when she wrote the story.
It’s quite possible that, as Rita Dubose says, Mr. Furbush was “the first serial detective in American women’s writing.”4 But of course
Spofford did not create her detective stories in literary isolation. Aspects of her approach, such as making the perpetrator of the crime female, as she does in “Mr. Furbush,” are close to patterns in the sensation novels. The issue of Harper’s that published “Mr. Furbush” was also carrying an installment of Collins’s Armadale, with its focus on the psychology of crime and its depiction of one of sensation fiction’s most ill-famed female criminals in the character of Lydia Gwilt.5
Print: Leslie S. Klinger, ed. In the Shadow of Agatha Christie: Classic Crime Fiction by Forgotten Female Writers: 1850-1917. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018.
1 Harriet Prescott Spofford, “Mr. Furbush,” Westminster Digital Library, accessed Nov. 10, 2018, https://wdl.mcdaniel.edu/node/407.
2 Spofford, “Mr. Furbush.”
3 Spofford, “Mr. Furbush.”
4 Bode, “A Case for the Re-covered Writer,” 24.
5 Bode, “A Case for the Re-covered Writer,” 25.