Literary daybook, Jan. 8

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 8, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 8, 1985, Kinsey Millhone lunches with her cousin Tasha.
-- "M is for Malice" (1996)
By Sue Grafton

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1824, the Victorian mystery novelist Wilkie Collins was born. Though many of Collins' 25 novels are now little-read, his "gaslight thrillers" were once very popular, and two -- "The Woman in White" (1860) and "The Moonstone" (1868) -- have not only stayed in print but grown in reputation. Critics and historians view Collins as a master of suspense and the first in English crime fiction to bring psychological depth and literary flair to tales so sensational and lurid that they would otherwise belong to the crime tabloids. Collins attributed his popularity to the old adage "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait," which he said he borrowed from the music hall, though it might just as easily have come from his good friend Charles Dickens. Whatever Collins' formula, Victorian England lined up at the publisher's to get his next installment -- some perhaps humming the popular song he inspired, "The Woman in White Waltz."

Among Collins' many contributions to the crime genre was to make his detective hero more than cardboard or clue-hound. In "The Moonstone," the Yard's Sgt. Cuff is given steely gray eyes, a melancholic mood and a tired, seen-it-all voice. He keeps his antisocial urges down with manners and time among the roses: "I haven't much time to be fond of anything, ... but when I have a moment's fondness to bestow, most times, Mr. Betteredge, the roses get it." In the following passage, the admiring narrator reports on the ease with which "the great Cuff" can administer his back-of-my-hand:

"My lady led the way back. Before he followed her, the Sergeant relieved his mind on the subject of the gravel walks by a parting word to the gardener. 'Get her ladyship to try grass,' he said, with a sour look at the paths. 'No gravel! no gravel!'
Why Superintendent Seegrave should have appeared to be several sizes smaller than life, on being presented to Sergeant Cuff, I can't undertake to explain. I can only state the fact. They retired together; and remained a weary long time shut up from all mortal intrusion. When they came out, Mr. Superintendent was excited, and Mr. Sergeant was yawning.
'The Sergeant wishes to see Miss Verinder's sitting-room,' says Mr. Seegrave, addressing me with great pomp and eagerness. 'The Sergeant may have some questions to ask. Attend the Sergeant, if you please!' While I was being ordered about in this way, I looked at the great Cuff. The great Cuff, on his side, looked at Superintendent Seegrave in that quietly expecting way which I have already noticed. I can't affirm that he was on the watch for his brother-officer's speedy appearance in the character of an Ass -- I can only say that I strongly suspected it."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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