Monday, September 3, 2012

Thornley Colton, Problemist

Amazon's Kindle cover for Silver Sandals

Every good crime fighter needs resources with which to work.  Today, let's take a look at what Clinton H. Stagg's absorbing protagonist Thornley Colton has going for him.
Colton, blind from birth with a disorder causing light to burn his eyes, was the first fictional blind detective.  Before, during and after a case, he can be found in his library, sitting in the dark with his eyes swathed in alcohol-soaked bandages.
A chessboard in the library is part of the motif of this logical sleuth, a man who matches "moves" with not only criminals, but with the NYPD—hence, he refers to himself as a Problemist.  Colton will place objects of evidence on the board itself, moving them about in an effort to find a solution.  His highly developed memory, keen intellect, and fantastically acute, "supernormal" senses allow him access to clues that detectives "handicapped with eyes" uniformly overlook.
Colton is lean, white-haired, and sports tortoise-shell framed sunglasses to protect his tender eyes, as well as a narrow walking stick with which he explores any environment.  Driving in his open roadster (yes, driving, although he employs a full-time chauffeur), he will doff his shades and allow the cool, onrushing air to cascade across his inflamed eyes.
 The Problemist does, at times, need 'eyes' and other forms of assistance.  His eyes come in the person of faithful secretary, Sydney Thames, a manonce and orphanwho would do nothing save obey Colton.  Stagg describes Thames's obedience like this, after Colton had given Sydney instructions to carefully follow: "Nor was there any other idea in the mind of Sydney Thames, whom Colton had picked up twenty-five years before as a bundle of baby clothes on the banks of the English river that had given him the only name he had ever known."
Michael is Colton's clumsy but lovably loyal Irish chauffeur, employed although the independently wealthy Thornley Colton is able to drive while being provided oral instructions as to distances and speed by Thames or Michael himself.  What kind of two-fisted American sleuth would he be if Thornley was always simply resting in the tonneau?

"A New Type of Detective Story"
The last member of the Problemist's cadre is a street-smart kid known by the dual nicknames of "Shrimp" and "The Fee."  Stagg describes the lad's latter monicker thusly: "The Fee — red-haired, freckle-faced boy, with [a] slightly twisted nose, who had become a member of the Colton household as the only fee in a particularly baffling murder case."
Colton's lodgings are simply described as an "old-fashioned uptown house," and we are left to imagine how the sightless sleuth pays the bills as he takes cases, not for the money, but for the sheer excitement of solving a perplexing puzzle—and besting the pompous New York City police while doing so.
The first appearance of Thornley Colton was in a pulp periodical, People's Magazine (also known as People's Ideal Fiction Magazine), in February 1913.  Colton, whose was dubbed "The Blind Reader of Hearts" at the time, was featured in a story called "The Keyboard of Silence," making him the first blind detective of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados, the Golden Age's second sightless sleuth made his initial appearance some months later in the 24 August 1913 issue of News of the World, in a tale called "The Mystery of the Signals."   We'll examine at both Bramah and Carrados in another post.
Clinton Stagg had created a highly original, memorable character by the age of 23, and in 1916, after the publication of his first two novels in the United States (read the book Silver Sandals here; quotes above are taken from the 1916 text), he also found himself writing "photoplays" for the burgeoning movie industry in Hollywood, California, at the ripe old age of 27.  The world was his oyster, as they say.
Or so he must have thought.
We'll take a look at the all-too-brief life and career of Clinton H. Stagg next time…

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