In reading books of mystery and detective fiction from the late Victorian and Edwardian age for a possible book project, I find many that would be of interest only to the specialist. They all have novel features, but some are not as well-written as the ones that have achieved deserved fame: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, G. K. Chesterton’s tales about Father Brown, and a few others. But in a fair number of cases I’ve come across a book that is well-written and interesting, but for some reason has failed to keep public attention over the last century. One of these is a book that Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who wrote together as Ellery Queen, listed among the most important books in detective fiction, but which I’d never heard of before my research, Arthur Sherburne Hardy’s Diane and Her Friends, whose eleven connected stories first appeared in Harper’s Monthly in the years 1908-1912; the book was published in 1914. The detective here is Inspector Joly, but he makes up only one part of the book.
In fact the book has three moving parts. The circle of Diane Wimpffen’s immediate friends is small, and includes her husband Raoul, General Texier, an old family friend who becomes Raoul’s boss at the war ministry, and Monsieur de Sade, who begins as an acquaintance—interesting, provocative, and so irritating that Diane, insulted by him, fights a sword duel with him and prevails. Yet he is also one whose manners abruptly return after this breach, and in the course of time his wisdom and capacity for empathy make him Diane and Raoul’s most trusted friend.
Diane meets by chance Countess Anne, who owns a chateau in the village of Freyr and holds there an unofficial position somewhere between that of a magistrate and a parish priest. The countess takes Diane and her young daughter in, inspiring Diane’s friendship and the daughter’s hero-worship; the girl demands, after getting to know and love the countess, to be called not Diane, her given name, but Anne. Having her mother’s strength of will, she prevails in this. But the whole village becomes Diane’s friend, and the village is depicted with Chaucerian sympathy and Flaubertian precision. The hotel upon whose terrace Diane and the countess meet is thus introduced:
It was called the “Hotel d’Italie et d’Angleterre.” Why? Neither Italians nor Englishmen frequented it. Nor had M. Achille, its proprietor, ever visited these countries except in imagination. Why not “Peking and Timbuctoo?”
With such brushstrokes Hardy creates a believable village he calls Freyr. Its police commissaire, its reverend abbot—secretly in love with its chateau owner, Countess Anne, its fiercely rationalist doctor, its mysterious recluse, and the countess’s donkey Balafre, all inhabit a village on the Meuse, with a steep path up to the chateau, the river with its long-abandoned ferry replaced by a bridge, its hotel with a terrace overlooking the river, its Café de la Regence, its bakery, and its fountain by Girardon. The mysterious figure in the village, known only as Le Vieux, turns out to be an escaped murderer, and to Freyr an inspector of the Paris prefecture to apprehend him. This is Inspector Joly, the third moving part, whose immediate purpose is defeated because the countess has used her influence with General Texier (yes, he is also the countess’s friend, because a tissue of acquaintance and coincidence also links Diane’s friends), who persuades the Minister of Justice to grant Le Vieux a pardon. The countess makes him her gardener.
Before he leaves Freyr, M. Joly picks up a clue to a Paris mystery that allows him to capture a bomb-throwing Russian revolutionary. Joly becomes an admirer of the countess and a friend of Diane. Joly is an unassuming but effective police detective who also finds the diamonds of the Vicomtesse Celimène de Caraman (another of Diane’s friends), and recovers the stolen plans for France’s defenses stolen from the War Ministry, where now Colonel Raoul Wimpffen works with General Texier. Inspector Joly is “clean-shaven, with round, rosy cheeks,” has a cardinal principle not to form an opinion prematurely” and a belief “that his best thoughts came, not logically from established facts, but from God knows where—motherless and fatherless offspring.”
The fortunes of Diane and Raoul and those of Madame and Inspector Joly are paralleled in the last couple of stories, where the two sets of parents deal, in very different ways, with the romances of their young daughters.
A soupçon of sentimentalism seasons the pages of Diane and Her Friends, probably more than is fashionable these days. But if you can stomach Dickens you won’t find it difficult to take here.