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Barr, Robert

Page history last edited by Jon 14 years, 3 months ago

Robert BarrRobert Barr (1850-1912) was born in Glasgow, Scotland and taken to Canada when he was four. He grew up in Toronto and became a reporter in Detroit. In 1881 he moved to England and became an editor. He established The Idler with Jerome K Jerome in 1892, and wrote many short stories. He used the Luke Sharp pseudonym for parodying Sherlock Holmes under the name 'Sherlow Kombs'. His best-known mystery stories feature the French adventurer Eugene Valmont.


Mike Grost on Robert Barr


First, some spade work. Barr's The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont (collected in book form 1906) is a series of eight short stories, but the individual tales were broken up into chapters on book publication, to make the book look like a novel. The individual stories, and their corresponding chapters, are The Mystery of the Five Hundred Diamonds (1904) (1-3); The Siamese Twin of a Bomb-Thrower (4-8); The Clue of the Silver Spoons (1904) (9-10); Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune (11-12); The Absent-Minded Coterie (1906) (13-17); The Ghost with the Club-Foot (18-20); The Liberation of Wyoming Ed (21-22); Lady Alicia's Emeralds (23-24). The stories are somewhat unusual among the mystery story sequences of the day in that they were not all written for one magazine. Nor are the stories uniform in length, as is the tradition among the typical one-magazine series, but range from 15 to 34 pages. Nor do the stories show any discernible sequence or progression, unlike, say, Bennett's The Loot of Cities, in which characters grow and develop, and one tale builds on another. The stories are very varied as well. Several focus on clever con men, which is why Barr is tentatively placed here among the detective story writers inspired by rogue fiction. And in the spy story "Twin", Valmont himself takes of many of the techniques of the rogue hero, such as dual identities and clever schemes. By contrast, "The Ghost with the Club-Foot" has elements of the supernatural detective story so popular in Edwardian England. "The Liberation of Wyoming Ed" includes some Wild West elements, proving Barr was a fan of Bret Harte, then at the height of his popularity in England - he was loved by Doyle and Chesterton, for example. And "Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune" reminds one of the scientific detective story. His description of a flashlight in "Ghost", at that time a new high tech device unfamiliar to most readers, is a wonderfully poetic piece of description. Barr also liked typewriters, and they turn up in a couple of his tales, reminding one that Barr's fellow Canadian Grant Allen was one of the first authors to use typewriters.


Three of the recommended stories in Valmont are puzzle plot mystery stories; two others are best described as tales in which Valmont intervenes to thwart criminal intrigue: "The Siamese Twin of a Bomb-Thrower" and "The Liberation of Wyoming Ed". "Twin" comes long after Stevenson's encounter with bomb throwers in More New Arabian Nights (1885), and Doyle's "An Exciting Christmas Eve" (1883). Barr's tale is best when imagining the complex relations between Valmont, the police of two countries, businessmen, government officials, and various kinds of anarchists. Barr manages to dream up many paradoxes in these relations. Professor Stephen Knight's fine introduction to the 1997 Oxford paperback edition of Valmont has much useful analysis of Barr's influence from Doyle, especially from the first six stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.


The tone of Barr's fiction is comic. He is often described as a satirical writer, but this does not seem to me to be an especially accurate description of his works. His tales instead tend toward sophisticated wit, paradox, elegant conversations, clever repartee, and ingenious, off trail situations. This is a tradition with roots in Saki and Wilde, and is a strain that pops up in mystery fiction in Barr, Frederick Irving Anderson, and T.S. Stribling. Many of Barr's tales are driven by comic but frightening villains. These are usually all powerful older men, who will stop at nothing at imposing their way on everyone around them. Barr's best tales include well constructed plots, full of twists and turns. I have included three works from the recent Barr omnibus Selected Stories; although not mysteries, they will probably be enjoyed by most mystery fans on account of their skillful plots.




Strange Happenings (1883)

From Whose Bourne (1893)

In the Midst of Alarms (1894)

The Face & The Mask (1894)

Revenge! (1896)

Jennie Baxter, Journalist (1899)

The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont (1906)

  • The Siamese Twin of a Bomb-Thrower
  • The Clue of the Silver Spoons (1904)
  • Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune
  • The Ghost with the Club-Foot
  • The Liberation of Wyoming Ed

Lord Stranleigh : Philanthropist (1911)

The Unchanging East

The Sword Maker : A Romance Of Love And Adventure

The Girl in the Case (1910)

Tales of Two Continents (1920)


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