Dirk Ericson: America’s First (Occult) Detective?

Unearthing the UnearthlyWhen Nina Zumel from Multo (Ghost) suggested I read Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” to see if it qualifies as occult detective fiction, I was skeptical. This story was published in 1840 (in three parts). Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, who’s often named as the first fictional detective, didn’t appear in print until 1841, and I was working on the somewhat blind assumption that fictional detectives would have to be fairly well established before occult detectives could be introduced. I, therefore, looked for ways to disqualify Herbert’s Dirk Ericson.

Discovering that I couldn’t disqualify Ericson inspired me to pin down what I hope is a reasonable definition of occult detective fiction. Basically, it’s this: mirroring the qualities of other fictional detectives from the same era, a key character accepts the reality of phenomena commonly called supernatural and, thereby, solves a central mystery.

henry-william-herbert
Henry William Herbert (1807-1858)

Ericson clearly displays some basic traits of fictional detectives yet to come. He’s very skilled at drawing logical conclusions about a crime from physical evidence. He leads a murder investigation, and when that’s thwarted, supernatural activity prompts him to switch from gathering evidence to keeping a prime suspect under surveillance. Granted, Ericson got his expert eye, his stalking skill, even his leadership talents from the “woodcraft” of surviving on the frontier. Speaking of woodcraft, he’s closer to James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo than to any European detective.

But does Ericson reflect characteristics of other fictional detectives from his own era? I decided it was time to explore works that have been suggested as beating Poe’s “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” for the title of the first piece of detective fiction. For example, Catherine Crowe’s Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence (1841) has been described by Lucy Sussex as “a novel with three female detectives, and centred on a murder mystery, [published] four months before Poe’s ‘The Mysteries of the Rue Morgue’.” (This novel is especially interesting to me because Crowe went on to write The Night Side of Nature (1848), the bible on ghosts used by my own occult detective, Vera Van Slyke.) However, it’s only one of a number of works that have been offered as pre-Poe detective fiction, notably, Voltaire’s Zadig, or The Book of Fate (1748), Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri (1819), and the anonymous Richmond; Or, Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Officer, Drawn Up from His Private Memoranda (1827).

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William Evans Burton (1804-1860)

Another story that challenges Poe’s status as writer of the first detective story is William Evans Burton’s “The Secret Cell,” printed in two parts in 1837.¹ Though published in Philadelphia, the story is set in London. The urban setting is only one of its contrasts with Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead,” which is set in rural New England. Burton writes about a kidnapping case probed by L—, a police official. The tale might even be considered a police procedural, despite its romanticized elements. A first-person narrator assists the detective, the same technique that Poe would use in the Dupin tales — long before Watson chronicled Holmes’ adventures! Herbert, on the other hand, presents something closer to a whodunit-style murder mystery. Ericson is a talented amateur detective, not a member of the official police like Burton’s detective. Poe’s detective is another amateur, but Ericson certainly isn’t an eccentric genius. In addition, of the three, only Herbert uses third-person narration.

Despite the contrasts, Burton’s and Herbert’s stories have some common traits. For instance, it’s fairly easy to figure out who the culprit is. Early in “The Secret Cell,” we meet “an hypocritical hyena of a niece” who “raved and swore the loudest revenge” upon learning that the inheritance she was counting on would be given to Mary Lobenstein, who becomes the kidnapping victim. Likewise, in the first part of “The Haunted Homestead,” Cornelius Heyer is described as “a tall, dark-visaged, gloomy-looking man, wearing a long and formidable butcher-knife in his buff belt.” Heyer offers to guide a young, aristocratic-looking man known only as “the traveler” over rough terrain and through stormy darkness. At one point, Cornelius says he’ll head home and gives the traveler directions that, at the first bridge, would take him off “the most traveled route.” Lo and behold, the traveler is attacked, recognizing “the dark visage and the gloomy scowl” as well as “the glitter of the long butcher-knife” of the man who kills him. Readers are pretty certain who that is, but yeah, it could be coincidence or perhaps someone disguised as Heyer. Heyer’s twin brother? Herbert goes on to describe the criminal’s subsequent actions — but clumsily avoids stating a name outright. Oddly, Herbert never absolutely confirms that Heyer is the culprit in the end, leaving us only 99% sure we know it was him. Clearly, the whodunit was something very new. (And remember that in “The Purloined Letter,” the third Dupin story, there’s little doubt of who the culprit is through most of the story. The detective’s challenge is to outsmart that culprit and to retrieve a purloined letter.)

More importantly, Burton’s L— and Herbert’s Ericson share some defining characteristics. First, both are good trackers who persist despite a few false steps. After disguising himself to follow up a lead, L— tracks a man named Joe through the London streets to a phoney monastery, where people are held against their will — but where is Mary Lobenstein? Meanwhile, Ericson tracks the muddy hoof prints of the traveler and Cornelius to see that they did indeed part ways. He manages to see that the traveler did not continue on the main path after reaching the bridge — but where is the corpse?

Second, both L— and Ericson are good team leaders. The former takes the narrator and several others with him to the phoney monastery. Ericson takes his reliable Allen brothers and several others to track the traveler’s horse. This is a curious contrast to Poe’s Dupin, who pretty much works alone, letting the mostly useless narrator tag along. Third, both L— and Ericson know that patience can help solve a mystery, be it the couple of days that L— spends disguised in a bar or the night-after-night that Ericson and the Allen brothers devote to keeping their prime suspect under watch. Fourth, both have an eagle eye that leads to the final step in solving the mystery. L— uses a spaniel to help track where Mary Lobenstein is being confined, but once that dog loses the scent, he spots something all the others in his posse miss: a large padlock on the sliding lid over a cucumber bed in a greenhouse. The oddness of keeping one’s cucumbers under lock and key inspires the detective to grab a crowbar and break open the lid, beneath which lies a room hiding the kidnapping victim. At the close of “The Haunted Homestead,” Ericson’s keen eye spots a patch of snow shaped like a body on Heyer’s property. Knowing the dynamics of melting snow, the detective calls for axes and crowbars, which in turn uncover the corpse of the traveler.

the_purloined_letter
A scene from “The Purloined Letter” (1845), Poe’s third and last Dupin tale.

Poe knew of both of these writers’ work. He worked for Burton at Gentlemen’s Magazine, in which “The Secret Cell” was published. But it was in Graham’s Magazine that he described Herbert’s work as being “sometimes wofully turgid.” In addition, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” the second Dupin tale, was published in The Ladies’ Companion, where Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” had appeared two years earlier (and one year before the first Dupin story appeared in Graham’s). It’s possible that either or both of these works spurred Poe to see if he could write a better detective story.

I hope that critics take a closer look at Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” when considering detective fiction that precedes Poe’s Dupin stories. Was Dirk Ericson the first American detective in fiction? L— is English, after all, and Dupin is French. Equally intriguing, since the supernatural has an important role in “The Haunted Homestead,” it appears that occult detective fiction didn’t follow detective fiction. Instead, occult detective fiction helped create detective fiction.

¹It’s also worth noting that, in 1838-39, Burton ran a series titled “Unpublished Passages in the Life of Vidocq, the French Minister of Police” in his Gentleman’s Magazine. Despite its use of Vidocq, the name of a real police official, this presumably fictional series includes “No. I: Marie Larent,” “No. II: Doctor D’Arsac,” “No. III: The Seducer,” “No. IV: The Bill of Exchange,” “No. V: The Strange Discovery,” “No. VI: The Gambler’s Death,” “No. VII: Pierre Louvois,” “No. VIII: Jean Monette,” and “No. IX: The Conscript’s Revenge.”

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