Is Henry William Herbert’s Dirk Ericson Like Fictional Detectives of His Era?

About a month ago, I discussed how Nina 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, since 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 found in other fictional detectives of the same era, a key character accepts the reality of phenomena commonly called supernatural and, thereby, solves a central mystery.

Henry William Herbert (1807-1858)
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 “staking-out” a prime suspect. 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. By the way, the occult detective on the frontier “borderland” motif reappears in Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Pot of Tulips” (1855) and especially in Bayard Taylor’s “The Haunted Shanty” (1861).

But does Ericson reflect characteristics of other fictional detectives from his own era? It’s hard to say because there are so few others. 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 written in English. I have yet to read Catherine Crowe’s Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence (1841), but Lucy Sussex describes it 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’.” Rest assured, I’ll get to it — especially since Crowe went on to write The Night Side of Nature (1848), the bible on ghosts used by my own occult detective, Vera Van Slyke.

William Evans Burton, 1804-1860
William Evans Burton (1804-1860)

However, I have read another story that challenges Poe’s status as writer of the first detective story. It’s 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 if not for 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 describes 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.)

A moment from
A moment from “The Purloined Letter,” the last of Poe’s three Dupin tales.

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.

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.

Along with Crowe’s Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence and Burton’s “The Secret Cell,” 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.  This included “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.” In The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (1991), Dana Brand argues that, while Poe “certainly read this series” of allegedly autobiographical vignettes, there’s nothing there to explain the author’s characterization of Dupin. Rather, Vidocq’s “only special gift is an extraordinary ability to always be in the right place at the right time. He demonstrates no acute powers of deduction.”

3 thoughts on “Is Henry William Herbert’s Dirk Ericson Like Fictional Detectives of His Era?

  1. Nice analysis! I knew that Poe had written that (spot-on) review of Herbert’s work, but I hadn’t put the pieces together. Wow, Herbert (and Burton) as possible influence on the Dupin stories…

    When you think about it, occult detective fiction coming before modern detective fiction makes sense, since ghost stories are one of the oldest forms of fiction there is. So one could almost argue that “straight” detective fiction is a variation of occult detective fiction, rather than the other way around. The thought would kill the purists.

    1. Thanks, Nina! See the trouble you’ve started, mentioning Herbert’s story to me?

      But occult detectives being there right at the start of detective fiction does make perfect sense, doesn’t it? Many critics point out how detective fiction grew from Gothic horror, after all.

      In Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre, Lucy Sussex discusses the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe — which turn out to be “debunking the supernatural” stories. But someone needs to investigate the seemingly ghostly phenomenon to reveal it’s really just criminals at work or something else, right?

      And it’s interesting that Poe first makes Dupin seem almost vampiric in his isolation and love of the dark — and then has him feel the need to declare that nothing supernatural is at play, as if that were a fairly logical assumption.

      No, nothing supernatural. Just, you know, a really blood-thirsty orangutan. Because orangutans are so, you know, blood-thirsty.

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