Bibliography of the Thornley Colton stories

Continued from last week’s post on Clinton H. Stagg who the creator of the first blind detective, Thornley Colton.All eight Thornley Colton stories were published in People’s magazine, Street and Smith’s companion to The Popular Magazine , from February 1913 to October 1913. One story per issue except for August 1913. People’s is one of those ultra-rare pulps you don’t hear much about, because most people haven’t seen a copy, let alone read an issue.

Which is why it is fortunate that all the Colton stories and the novel were recently reprinted by Coachwhip Publications. Coachwhip is a small print-on-demand publisher that publishes an eclectic mix of titles on crypto-zoology, mysteries, history and business. Their mystery lineup is worth checking out.

Clinton Stagg's Thornley Colton, the first fictional blind detective
Clinton Stagg’s Thornley Colton, the first fictional blind detective

Thornley Colton is very much in the Sherlockian intuitionist detective mold. He has a Watson (Sidney Thames, who gets his last name from the fact that he was found on the banks of the river), a parade of Lestrades from police headquarters and even a singular Baker Street irregular (The Fee/The Shrimp, an orphaned child who was adopted by Colton at the conclusion of a case where the child’s father murdered his mother). His cases usually happen in small spaces with few people, which is convenient as he can sense or memorize the positions of everything and everyone.

In the Grand Detective manner, he extracts clues that less keen eyes have missed, dispenses cliches and catchphrases hither and thither, leaving Thames baffled. That is Thames’ function, which he performs well. As a reader, we share a few of Colton’s secrets to overcoming his blindness, one of which is Thames’ skill of measuring distances in strides so that he can tell Colton the layout of any place in advance. Colton can use this information to make it seem as if he perceives space despite his blindness. By sharing these secrets with us, Stagg makes the aloof detective more human (he has pride in appearing self-reliant, even though he really isn’t).

The illustrations I have for the stories aren’t from the pulps themselves, sadly. I created them since I don’t know anyone who has a complete enough collection of People’s and will share scans from it. If you are that person, leave a comment.

Thornley Colton - The Keyboard of Silence
Thornley Colton – The Keyboard of Silence

The first story, The Keyboard of Silence, sets the stage for the others that will follow. We are introduced to the cast of recurring characters, their moods and manners, follies and foibles. A bank vault is robbed. The police ignore the obvious clues and concentrate on the obvious suspect. That is their talent. It is left to Colton to penetrate the fog of conspiracy that surrounds the suspect and reveal the true evildoer. Stagg introduces the titular detection mechanism in this story and will come back to it in the others.

Thornley Colton - Unto the third generation
Thornley Colton – Unto the third generation

The second story, Unto the third generation, is weak. Stagg starts off by introducing Colton as a member of New York’s rarefied social circles, being the godfather of Jimmy Raelton, heir to a fortune, who is constantly in the public eye. He is also a paternal figure to the heir’s wife, who is the last descendant of a family that is supposedly prone to opioid addiction. The wife starts showing signs of addiction herself, and things seem black till Colton saves the day. Not one of Stagg’s better efforts, notable only for the depiction of a scene where Colton leads his friends in the dark. One time where a blind man is no more disadvantaged than his companions.

Thornley Colton - The money machines
Thornley Colton – The money machines

The Money Machines starts with us observing a car  which is conveying the current emperor of Wall Street. John T. Villers is driven to work at 10 am. The traffic police stop traffic for his car to pass. A king anxiously awaits a call from Villers, and thousands of people are waiting for his command to start work on gargantuan projects.

Sic transit gloria mundi quickly. Viller’s role in this story is that of corpse, which he starts playing before the car reaches his office. Colton is on the spot when the unconscious body is found in the car’s back seat, sans Important papers that are critical to Viller’s projects on which the fate of nations depend. Colton has now progressed to solving the problems of the world, not just individuals. Just like Sherlock Holmes, who in his third case dealt with international complications in A Scandal in Bohemia.

Thornley Colton - The Flying Death
Thornley Colton – The Flying Death

The Flying Death, the fourth story, has shades of weird menace. Death is dealt by guns that fall from the air before their victim, and after firing they both fall to the ground. Two murders happen in this fashion. The police, as is their habit, do not examine the murder weapons. Why should they? The obvious suspect is the person nearest the corpse. The police are blinded by the obvious; Colton shows them the way to the real murderer. The Great Detective knows all, sees all, and tells us all in the finale. The murder method is interesting and plausible. A rarity for a pulp story of this nature.

The Thousand Facets of Fire is a locked room mystery without a body. The Thousand Facets of Fire is the name of a ruby, stored by a jeweler in a wall safe inside a twelve-foot room with walls of steel reinforced concrete eighteen inches thick. A steel door offers the only entry into this vault of treasures. The jeweler takes a customer into the room to view the ruby. While she is holding it in her hand and viewing it, a mist appears and covers the ruby. Both the mist and the ruby disappear.

This is the second such disappearance in the same shop. You’d think they’d have taken precautions after the first one, like placing a fan to blow mist away. It is fortunate for them that Colton happens to be in the jeweler’s shop when the ruby disappears. He’s always in the right place at the right time, like Forrest Gump. In a nice twist on the usual pulp formula, it’s an Indian trying to steal the ruby for profit. I found the mechanism of the mist unbelievable. Contemporary readers may have been more forgiving.

Thornley Colton - The Gilded Glove
Thornley Colton – The Gilded Glove

Holmes had to deal with The Red Circle. Thornley Colton goes up against The Gilded Glove, a Russian society whose mark is a golden imprint of the thumb and fingers of the right hand. And if they drop a golden glove, that means a death sentence is impending. Another glove to signify it has been carried out. 

 A woman singer is killed in a locked room; a golden glove is found at her throat and there is a smell of bananas in the air. She is a spy, who has somehow stolen secret plans for the defense of New York harbor. Enter the Secret Service, who are so incompetent that I wouldn’t trust them to deliver a train timetable. Thank God they have Colton to help them. He finds clues that the secret service didn’t, uses his sense of smell to detect banana oil, finds a hidden door inside a wardrobe and returns the secret plans which have been encoded in a package of sheet music mailed to the dead woman. He detects that the notes are all wrong by touching the paper with his sensitive fingers. No wonder the editor was defensive.

Thornley Colton - The Ringing Goblets
Thornley Colton – The Ringing Goblets

The Ringing Goblets finds Colton facing a gang of counterfeiters, of which one disappeared from a locked room in which a microphone is hidden and a secret agent is observing the only door. Colton is on the spot. The Secret Service is baffled. Colton isn’t – he finds messages sent in code, secret passages and clues, in the form of cigarette papers, all around the place. You’d think that the villains would have read Sherlock Holmes by now. Or at least the Secret Service should have. Colton dazzles the head of the Service with his detection, reducing him from a masterful man to huddling humility within minutes. And then he rounds up the counterfeiting gang.

Thornley Colton - The Eye of the Seven Devils
Thornley Colton – The Eye of the Seven Devils

The Eye of the Seven Devils is a pearl. A unique pearl embedded in an idol. An idol of the seven golden devils of sin, revered in China. China of the pulps, that is. The pearl disappears in a room where only a few people are present, and no one from outside can have entered. It vanishes as one of the people in the room dies. Was he cursed by the idol? This sort of stuff makes one superstitious about locking rooms and reading pulps. Colton is summoned to find the pearl. He finds the killer and the pearl, extracting a confession in the process. Pearl and idol are handed to the Chinese ambassador. Better to have them back in China for a sequel, perhaps.

Reading the review again, I may have made the series seem worse than it is. The stories are good pulpy mysteries, fast paced and with interesting problems demanding solutions. They are not fair play puzzle stories. Which is all right with me. I found them enjoyable but wouldn’t read most of them a second time. And they’re all available for you to enjoy on Amazon:

I haven’t read Silver Sandals. Mike Grost thinks the first half would make a good movie. Someday I’ll read it. Meanwhile, if you’ve read Silver Sandals, leave a note.

Next: Isabel Ostrander and Damon Gaunt

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