Saturday 3 October 2020

The first blind detective in modern English fiction

October is Blindness Awareness Month when the National Federation for the Blind (NFB), holds outreach activities to create opportunities for people to meet blind people living in their communities and to realize that blind people are vital contributing members of society.

My small contribution to this is to get you to meet the earliest blind detectives and their authors. Three of them in fact:

Clinton H. Stagg’s Thornley Colton appeared in a series of stories in Street & Smith’s People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine starting in February 1913
Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados made his debut in the British tabloid, The News of the World on August 17, 1913 and made one appearance in Flynn’s Detective Fiction
Isabel Ostrander’s Damon Gaunt appeared in the Munsey pulps - The Cavalier, The Argosy, first appearance not known to be earlier than February 1914

Thornley Colton appeared in eight stories in People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine from February to October 1913, beating Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados (first appearance in The Coin of Dionysus, published in News of the World, August 17, 1913) by six months, and Isabel Ostrander’s Damon Gaunt by over a year (first appearance in Eyes that see not, published in The Cavalier, Feb 14, 1914). It’s possible that there could be an even earlier story, yet undiscovered, but until then Stagg and Colton have first place in the pantheon of blind detectives.

Hellen Keller (photo courtesy the Library of Congress)

Why did so many blind detectives appear at around the same time? I think it had to do with Helen Keller. Born in 1880, she overcame many obstacles to become the first deaf-blind graduate of Radcliffe College for women. She graduated summa-cum-laude, and published her autobiography in 1902. The Story of My Life was a best-seller, and by 1913, Keller was on a lecture tour around the United States, going from city to city and giving talks on her experience as a blind person.

By 1913 the world had seen blind people match their sighted brethren in skills and accomplishments. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been writing Sherlock Holmes’ stories for over a quarter century, and detective stories were a staple of popular fiction in the all-fiction rough paper magazines and their more sophisticated counterparts. Then, as now, an author of detective fiction needed something different –the setting, the crime, the detective or the criminal - to differentiate his story from the crowd. While Stagg wasn’t unique in picking blindness as his detective’s distinguishing characteristic, he was the first to be published.

Next week: Clinton Stagg and Thornley Colton

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