Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Average Jones by Samuel Hopkins Adams

Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958) was a colourful American muckraking journalist who also wrote successful fiction in a number of genres, including detective stories. His most notable effort in the latter category was his 1911 short story collection Average Jones.

The hero of these stories is actually a wealthy young man by the name of A.V.R.E. Jones who has inevitably acquired the nickname Average Jones. Like many young men in his position his otherwise comfortable life is marred by one great affliction. He is bored. He is an intelligent man who has never found anything that has really captured his interest. One day as he is taking at ease in his New York club his newspaper proprietor friend Waldemar suggests that he should consider becoming a crank. This is in his view virtually a guarantee of a happy and contented life. He points to the example of an acquaintance who collects scarab beetles and another who collects medieval musical instruments. Their hobby-horses give them unending pleasure and intellectual stimulation. Waldemar even has a hobby-horse in mind for his young friend. He has often thought that an obsession with curious and/or fraudulent advertising could prove to be a satisfying and possibly even remunerative career.

Jones is bored enough to act on Waldemar’s suggestion. He sets himself up in an opulent office and embarks on his new career as New York’s resident expert on peculiar advertisements. This will lead him into a second unexpected career, as an amateur detective. Perhaps not entirely unexpected - it stands to reason that behind an eccentric or bogus advertisement it’s quite likely there will be a crime.

Waldemar has shown shrewd judgment in choosing a hobby for Jones. For a young man being rich, intelligent and easily bored can be a dangerous combination and could easily lead him into a life of dissipation and viciousness. What Jones needs is an occupation that will offer both mental stimulation and the ability to do some good in the world, and to feel that he is doing something worthwhile. 

Jones has a bit of a personal motivation as well. His wealth comes from an inheritance from his uncle, a notoriously corrupt and grasping businessman. The old man used his will as his final means of expressing his contempt for humanity. The will leaves his entire vast fortune to Jones on the condition that he must complete five years’ continual residence in new York City. The old man reasons that five years in New York will be enough to corrupt the morals of any man and he is confident that his nephew will subsequently squander his fortune. Jones is an easy-going fellow but he does like the idea of proving his uncle wrong by not making a mess of his life.

The newspaperman Waldemar is a kind of ideal self-portrait of the author - they are both men who make a good living from muckraking journalism but also have a genuine zeal for exposing corruption and sharp practice. Waldemar clearly hopes that Jones will absorb at least a little of that same zeal from his new hobby.

These stories were published in 1911 and therefore pre-date the age of the fair-play detective story. In this earlier era the rules of the game were simpler but there were still some rules, these being essentially that however outlandish the plot it should have at least some tenuous plausibility and more importantly that the reader should feel that the detective really could have solved the puzzle based on the clues available to him. Adams adheres to these rules quite faithfully.

The B-flat Trombone introduces us to our detective. His first case comes about by accident. An odd and rather bizarre crime stirs a memory in Jones, a memory of one of the first eccentric advertisements that came to his attention. There has to be a connection and he is determined to find that connection, between an advertisement seeking a trombone player and an explosion which propels a crooked politician from a third floor window. It’s a complicated but extremely clever crime, the main weakness of the story being that the reader is almost certain to see the connection before the detective does. The ingenuity of the idea is still admirable and the story is very entertaining.

The Red Dot is even more ingenious but this time the reader will find himself facing a tougher challenge. In fact in this case the clues that lead Jones to the solution are all clearly laid out. The outrageousness of the plot is an absolute delight. It starts with a young chemist whose dogs have been poisoned but not with any of the more commonly encountered poisons. Other dogs have met similar fates elsewhere in the country. Dogs aren’t the only animals involved - moths also lay a part in the story. Much suffering might have been averted but for the weather.

Open Trail isn’t particularly challenging as a mystery but there is high adventure that takes Jones to the wilds of Baja California. Gold mines can be lucrative but there’s even more money in water, in the right circumstances. Quite an entertaining tale.

In The Mercy Sign a young scientific assistant disappears. A cardboard box with the label Mercy is the chief clue that helps Jones avert a diplomatic incident. This is a classic example of the sort of outrageous plotting that was popular in detective stories of this era and it’s great fun.

The Blue Fires of the story of the same name are stones. Not very precious stones but a couple’s happiness depends on them and they have been stolen. Bed knobs, torn curtains and milk vendors play key roles in this case. The solution is very far-fetched but it’s fun.

Pin-Pricks is a story of persecution. A man has no idea why anyone would want to persecute him, and in such a strange way, by means of coded messages using pin-pricks in old advertising material. Codes of some kind were a staple of pre-golden age detective fiction but Adams finds a new twist. In this story Average Jones discovers that it is possible to be a professional stamp eraser. A basic knowledge of fishing is also always useful to a detective.

Big Print tells the story of the celebrated Harwick Meteor, and the disappearance of a young boy. Objects falling from outer space might not seem to have an obvious connection  with vanishing 14-year-old boys but remember that Jones has that theory that detective work is all about seeing patterns in apparent coincidences. This is a charmingly over-the-top romp.

The Man Who Spoke Latin is a very quirky tale. Lots of people speak Latin but in early 20th century New York it’s decidedly unusual to encounter a man who speaks no other language but Latin. Even more unusual is that he claims to be the only man who speaks Latin with the correct accent of Cicero’s day. It’s enough to arouse our detective’s curiosity.   It’s a story that could almost have been too offbeat for its own good but it works.

The One Best Bet throws Jones into the middle of a struggle between a reforming politician and a gambling boss and Jones finds that photography can be a deadly pastime. Not one of the stronger stories in the collection.

The Million-Dollar Dog involves a very wealthy dog, an heiress, a crooked judge and several hundred small black beetles.

Average Jones is an engaging detective hero. He might be wealthy, well-educated and cultivated but he lacks the extreme affectations of a Lord Peter Wimsey or a Philo Vance. He feels no need to bludgeon others into admiration of his obvious intelligence. He does have one amusing quirk - you can tell that his mind is working at top speed when he starts to speak even more slowly than usual. Jones also has his own theory of detection which is that the successful detective is a man who has the ability to discern a pattern in what would appear to be others to be merely a chain of curious coincidences.

Curious advertisements provide more than just clues in these tales - the advertising columns are also among the chief tools employed by Jones in gathering his evidence. 

Adams has a bit of an axe to grind in regard to political corruption but unlike so many politically motivated writers he never lets this get in the way of telling a good and clever story.

This is a strong collection of consistently interesting stories with an emphasis on quirkiness and a somewhat tongue-in-cheek flavour. Highly recommended.


  1. This is one of my favorite of the early American detective novel short story collections --- or any American detective short story collection, for that matter. Rightly deserving of a place on Queen's Quorum, the seminal list of notable detective story collections, AVERAGE JONES is filled with utterly strange, weird and wonderful crime plots. The stand-outs for me are "The B Flat Trombone" (reminiscent of the lunacy one finds in Harry Stephen Keeler mystery novels), "The Man Who Spoke Latin", and "The Mercy Sign." I also liked "The Red Dot" but compared with the others it's just a runner-up.

    1. I believe that Adams wrote a couple of other mystery novels. Have you read them? Are they any good?

    2. The Secret of Lonesome Cove and The Flying Death are good each in their own way. I've written about both. A review on The Flying Death, a detective novel featuring some very bizarre murders and an over-the-top fantastical finale, can be found on my blog, while an in-depth essay on ...Lonesome Cove which discusses the entire novel (including the solution) appears in the essay anthology MURDER IN THE CLOSET published just this year. Of the two I have special fondness for The Secret of Lonesome Cove because of how Adams addresses a couple of radical ideas. At least they were radical for 1917. There is a third novel Adams wrote in collaboration with Stewart Edward White. Though it's titled THE MYSTERY, it leans heavily on adventure and fantasy and less on crime and detection.

    3. Thanks for that. I've decided to grab a copy of The Flying Death.