Created by M. McDonnell Bodkin, K.C.
“The devilish ingenuity of Mr. Bodkins’ criminals is such as to make the nervous tremble for a world without Paul Beck.”
— The Yorkshire Daily Observer
PAUL BECK and DORA MYRL would have been interesting enough on their own: two prime examples of early fictional detectives, each successful in their own right, worthy rivals of Sherlock Holmes and all that, but then their creator did something unprecented in crime fiction: he married them off to each other.
Yep, before there were Tommy and Tuppence or Nick and Nora, there were Paul and Dora.
(Well, actually, Alfred and Dora. In the original short stories that appeared in assorted magazines of the time, Paul Beck was initially called “Alfred Juggins.” It was only when the stories were to be collected that the publisher insisted the character’s name by changed. they also, at that time, shaved a few years off his age).
Paul (or Alfred) popped up first, in a string of short stories, the most popular format of the times. Many were published in the fiction magazines of the time, most notably Pearson’s Weekly.
A “rule of thumb” detective, he was intentionally put forward as a toned down, regular kinda guy sort of detective, a working class dick who favored legwork and common sense. A dullish plodder, and a little on the plump side, Beck was no man of action — he was clearly meant to offer a vivd contrast to the lighnting bolt flashes of genius and aristocratic eccentricity of Holmes and the other “Great Detectives” of the time.
As Leroy Lad points out, however, in After Sherlock Holmes (2014), “all of this is amusingly disingenuous,” as Beck is actually something of a genius himself, a master of disguise, a crack puzzle-solver, and the possessor of an encyclopedic knowledge of all sorts of arcane minutiae and scientific know-how, even employing x-rays to solve one of his cases. He was also pretty well off, with “comfortable lodgings” in Chester.
Nor was Beck all science and logic — Bodkin often used magic and illusions in his stories — and so Beck was a master of legerdemain, while many of the stories were presented as pure conundrums deliberately presented as challenges to the reader. There was even a recurring villain in many of the stories: the nefarious Monsieur Grabeau, whose skills as a magician were secondary only — of course — to Beck.
The Beck stories proved popular enough that twelve of them were soon rounded up and presented in book form, appearing in 1898 as Paul Beck, The Rule of Thumb Detective.
Dora made her debut two years after Paul, in the twelve story collection Dora Myrl, Lady Detective (1900), the author no doubt hoping to cash in on the relative uniqueness of a female sleuth.
Bodkin seems to have succeeded — The Spectator, in their February 24, 1900 issue, raved on (and on) about this very accomplished and successful private detective, deeming her “one of the most remarkable examples of new womanhood ever evolved in modern and ancient fiction.” A far more dashing and romantic figure than Beck, Dora was presented as an attractive and vivacious young woman in ankle-showing skirts, a graduate of Cambridge (her father was a professor), a whiz at math who received a degree in medicine (“but practice wouldn’t come, and I couldn’t and wouldn’t wait for it”), working at various times, as she puts it, as “a telegraph girl, a telephone girl (and) a lady journalist,” admitting “I liked the last best.”
There’s a subtle attempt at social commentary here in pointing out both Dora’s impressive qualifications and the sad lack of opportunities for her to use them. Fortunately, she realizes her gift for detection while working as a companion to an elderly woman who was being blackmailed.
Having solved the case, she set up on as a professional detective, parlaying her keen intellect and a knack for disguises into a lucrative practice that catered mostly to high society, often relying on a bicycle for transportation and, just in case, a gun for protection. The Spectator at the time went on to point out that her adventures were “full of absurdities and solecisms” but nonetheless found its “simplicity and vivacity… irresistible.”
PAUL & DORA
Further stories featuring either Beck or Myrl wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to anyone, given their popularity, but Bodkin raised the ante considerably when he decided to feature both of them in The Capture of Paul Beck (1909).
In this groundbreaking novel, the two private detectives are rivals working the same case, and while Beck may get the title role, it’s Myrl who actually solves the case, and it’s nice to see Myrl treated with equal importance in the book.
Perhaps realizing he’s finally met his match, Beck and Myrl marry at the end of the book. As Dora confides to a friend in the last paragraph, “I was married… this morning. Paul said he had waited forty-one years for me, and he was in a hurry.”
Unfortunately for readers, the couple apparently still fly solo in most of their subsequent stories. The notable exception is Young Beck, A Chip Off the Old Block (1911), a collection which introduced their son Paul, who is also a detective (Boy, they grow up fast!). In this one, Dora and Paul Senior, now in their fifties, are retired to Kent, where their rivalry is confined to golf. Still, they don’t seem to mind lending a hand to Paul Junior on his cases.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthias McDonnell Bodkin was an Irish nationalist politician and Member of Parliament in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as a noted author, journalist and newspaper editor. he was also a barrister, King’s Counsel (K.C.) and County Court Judge for County Clare, from 1907-24. Bodkin wrote in a wide variety of genres, including history, novels, plays, and political campaigning texts.
Grouped by Collection, with original appearance, if known
- Paul Beck, The Rule of Thumb Detective (1898)
- “The Vanishing Diamonds” (January 23, 1897, Pearson’s Weekly; Paul)
- “The Miniature Halter”
- “By a Hair’s Breadth”
- “Murder by Proxy” (February 6, 1897, Pearson’s Weekly)
- “Greased Lightning”
- “The Dog and the Doctor”
- “Under His Own Hand”
- “The Poisoner”
- “The Slip Knot”
- “The Slump in Silver”
- “Cabinet Secrets”
- “The Two Kings”
- Dora Myrl, The Lady Detective (1900)
- “The False Heir and the True”
- “The Hidden Violin”
- “How He Cut His Stick”
- “The Palmist”
- “The Last Shall Be First”
- “The Clue”
- “A Railway Race”
- “The Pauper’s Legacy”
- “Was It a Forgery?”
- “Hide and Seek”
- “Weighed and Found Wanting”
- “The Wings of a Bird”
- The Quests of Paul Beck (1908)
- “The Voice from the Dead”
- “Trifles As Light As Air”
- “Drowned Diamonds”
- “The Spanish Prisoner”
- “The Murder on the Golf Links”
- “The Rape of the Ruby”
- “The Ship’s Run”
- “Driven Home”
- “‘Twixt the Devil and the Deep Sea”
- “The Unseen Hand”
- “His Hand and Seal”
- “Quick Work”
- Paul Beck, Detective (1929)
- “The Leaden Casket” (May 25, 1923, The Detective Magazine)
- “The Pearl in the Pill Box”
- “Two Penny Stamps”
- “A Wedding Tragedy”
- “The Phoenix”
- “A Dog’s Death”
- “The Dream and the Waking”
- “The Dead Hand”
- “A Snapshot”
- “A Bird of Prey”
- “The Eye of the Microscope” (May 11, 1923, The Detective Magazine; Paul)
- “The Electric Trap” (August 31, 1923, The Detective Magazine; Paul)
- Paul Beck, the Rule of Thumb Detective (1898; Paul) | Buy this book
- Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective (1900; Dora)
- The Quests of Paul Beck (1908; Paul)
- Young Beck, A Chip Off the Old Block (1911; Paul & Dora)
Twelve untitled stories, with Paul and especially Dora’s roles greatly reduced, as their son Paul, now a detective himself, dominates the show.
- Pigeon Blood Rubies (1915; Paul)
- Paul Beck, Detective (1929; Paul)
- The Beck-Myrl Family Omnibus (2005) | Buy this book
An impressive slab of a hardcover, rounding up all the books, and boasting an intro by Geoff Bradley, editor of CADS.
- The Capture of Paul Beck (1909; Paul & Dora)
- The Lady Detectives
Early Female Eyes