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Introduction to








by Richard A. Lupoff


Wallace Irwin was born in Oneida, New York, on March 15, 1875. A few months later he moved to Leadville, Colorado along with his parents and older brother, Will Irwin. Fast forward a couple of decades and both Irwin brothers are attending Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Will and Wallace both went in for satirical journalism and both were shortly expelled by Stanford for lampooning their professors in campus publications. This was probably not the first instance of its sort, but it is surely an unusual achievement, for which the Irwins should be fondly remembered.

Leaving Stanford, Wallace Irwin traveled a few miles north to San Francisco, where he wrote comic sketches for the old Republic Burlesque Theatre. He applied his journalistic talents in behalf of The San Francisco Examiner, News Letter, and Report. He then became editor of the onetime prestigious Overland Monthly. His forte was humorous verse, particularly sonnets written in what the University of California Library calls “tough American slang.”

This led to the publication of Wallace Irwin’s first book, The Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum. In later years he would add more books of light verse, but his greatest success came with a series of humorous pieces for the old Collier’s magazine, an immensely influential slick weekly. Titled “Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy,” these stories provided a satirical look at American life from the perspective of an immigrant trying — with at best mixed success — to understand a strange new world.

No fewer than four volumes of these ongoing memoirs by the fictitious Hashimura Togo were published. The imaginary Mr. Togo was immensely popular. Wallace Irwin’s fans ranged from Gelett Burgess to Mark Twain. In later years, Irwin would be criticized for his caricature of Japanese-Americans, but in Irwin’s own era such ethnic humor was commonplace. Hashimura Togo was brought to the screen as early as 1917, when he was portrayed by the great Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa.

In 1923, Time magazine ran a profile of Will and Wallace Irwin, their respective wives and their niece, all of whom were pursuing successful literary careers. The anonymous reporter for Time (he signed his work simply, J.F.) offered this description:

“Wallace Irwin is short, stoutish, always smiling through his glasses and snapping his eyes as he talks in little grunting periods. He will slouch down on a couch, then tell you a story as though it were being shot at you from some great distance.”

By 1935, at age sixty, Wallace Irwin was far from slowing down. To his humorous writing, both in verse and in prose, he had added more serious novels. He had written well over a score of books when he produced The Julius Caesar Murder Case. The fact that his own birthday fell on March 15, the fatal Ides of March, may have inspired him to write the book.

He may also have been feeling nostalgic for his old days as a reporter, for the protagonist of this new book, Publius Manlius Scribo, is a reporter for the Evening Tiber. Through the eyes and in the voice of Mannie Scribo he goes out of his way to lampoon craven editors, ruthless publishers, and Roman politicians.

He also manages to include offensive caricatures of blacks, Greeks, Jews, Britons, gays, Chinese, and little people. If Wallace Irwin was a bigot, at least he was an equal-opportunity bigot. But in fact, careful reading of the book would suggest that the author was merely utilizing the ethnic stereotypes that were so popular in his era. If fish are unaware of the water in which they swim, Wallace Irwin was so thoroughly immersed in a culture of stereotypes that he simply took for granted the images he perpetuated.

Wallace Irwin continued to produce books for several decades. He moved to the hamlet of Southern Pines, North Carolina, where he died on February 14, 1959.

The Julius Caesar Murder Case was surely not the first novel set in ancient Rome, nor was it the first literary murder mystery. But it is surely one of the first instances — perhaps the very first — of a genre that has come to be known as “toga mysteries.” It is indeed a detective story cast in the classic mold, and offers a solution that is as logically plausible as it is surprising.

First published by the D. Appleton — Century Company in 1935, there is no indication of any later publication until the present Ramble House edition. Copies of the Appleton edition are seldom seen and a copy in dust jacket was recently offered by a leading book dealer for $550. Gavin O’Keefe’s new design for the Ramble House edition of The Julius Caesar Murder Case was inspired by the clever but regrettably anonymous dust jacket of the 1935 publication.


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