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THE MASTER OF MYSTERIES
by Gelett Burgess
Introduction by Richard A. Lupoff
THE MAN WHO WAS ASTRO
What a trio they must have been, rollicking and roistering and rioting from Palo Alto, up the Peninsula to San Francisco, then crossing the Bay to Berkeley and Oakland! What a gang! Think Athos, Porthos, and Aramis . . . Manny, Moe, and Jack . . . Curly, Larry, and Shemp . . . Groucho, Harpo, and Chico.
They were Willie, Wally, and Gil.
Willie was Will Irwin, Wally was Willie’s little brother Wallace Irwin, and Gil was their pal and co-conspirator Gelett Burgess.
The Irwin brothers were born in Oneida, New York, Will in 1873 and Wallace in 1875. Their family moved to Leadville, Colorado, and later the brothers wound up attending Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. They were a pair of irrepressible cut-ups. They wrote for the Stanford Chaparral, the campus humor magazine, and for the Stanford Daily. When Will was summarily dismissed from the University’s student population in response to the material he circulated through these publications, Wallace managed in short order to duplicate his elder sibling’s feat and get himself expelled for a similar offense.
Undeterred, the brothers moved on to parallel literary careers, the height of which might have been Wallace’s stint creating comedy skits for the Republic Theater in San Francisco. Both brothers wrote humorous verse, both had careers working in Hollywood, served time as serious journalists, and produced numerous novels.
The oddest of these was The Julius Caesar Murder Case, by younger brother Wallace Irwin. An astonishing combination of social satire, murder mystery, and hilarious jape, the book was out of print for more than seventy years. It became a fabulously rare collectible, fetching prices as high as $550.00 for a good copy in dust jacket. It was reissued by Ramble House in 2007.
The third member of this jolly crew, Gelett Burgess, was the oldest member. Born in Boston on January 30, 1866, he earned a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, eventually, became a Professor of Technical Drawing at the University of California, Berkeley.
We now shift our focus—only temporarily, rest assured—to one Henry D. Cogswell, a dentist who practiced his trade in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, becoming a millionaire not by extracting precious metal from the earth but by inserting it into the teeth of those who did.
Dr. Cogswell was a firm believer in the beneficial effects of cool drinking water, and used his well-earned fortune to erect public drinking fountains in cities throughout the United States. A few of these fountains survive to this day. Not lacking in self-esteem, he founded a college which he named after himself. He also erected statues of himself throughout the City of San Francisco, and designed the tomb in which he now lies in Oakland.
The tomb is described by journalist Abby Cohn as comprising “a 400-ton granite tower, complete with fountains and statues of Hope, Faith, Charity, and Temperance.” The present author has visited Dr. Cogswell’s tomb and can testify that this description does not begin to do justice to this hilarious monstrosity.
An unsigned piece in the distant Washington Post described that city’s Temperance Fountain as “the city’s ugliest statue.” Journalist Greg Kitsock states that the fountain in San Francisco was torn down “by a lynch party of self-professed art lovers.”
While we do not know whether Professor Gelett Burgess was a member of that “lynch party” (ah, you knew we would return to him) history does record that Burgess was deeply offended by Dr. Cogswell’s self-glorifying statuary. Clearly a believer in direct action, Professor Burgess took sledge-hammer to statue.
Iron trumped marble. The statue was destroyed. But the administration at the University of California, learning of the Professor’s anti-Cogswellian crusade, promptly terminated his faculty appointment.
The University’s loss was the world’s gain.
Burgess turned from teaching to writing and drawing for publication. He was a trained draftsman. San Francisco architect Grant Canfield says that the modern word is “drafter,” avoiding the sexism of the older term, but Burgess was a man of another era. He would create a popular series of humorous books featuring the Goops, described by cartoon scholar Don Markstein as “boneless creatures with three eyes and no mouth.” These odd beings were reflected in many later cartoonist’s creations, including Al Capp’s shmoo and the famous Springfield three-eyed fish.
A man of many talents, Burgess was the founding editor of a humor magazine called The Lark. Between 1895 and 1897 he contributed many poems to this magazine, including his most famous composition, the full title of which was, “Purple Cow: Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, At Least.” One wonders if Dr. Suess had read Burgess in his formative years.
I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.
The Lark ran for twenty-five issues, during which time Burgess was not only the editor but the most prolific contributor, under his own name and several pseudonyms. Complete sets of The Lark are occasionally offered at truly staggering prices. A complete reissue, preferably in facsimile form, might be too much to hope for, but I hope for it anyway.
It seems inevitable that Burgess would hook up with the Irwin brothers, and before long he did. They must have been a trio of kindred souls. Soon they were working together in various combinations. Burgess illustrated at least two books of poetry by Wallace Irwin, The Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum (1901) and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Jr. (1902). He collaborated with Will Irwin on the Reign of Queen Isyl (1903) and The Picaroons: A San Francisco Night’s Entertainment (1904).
As far as I have been able to determine, no full-length biography of Burgess exists, which is surprising in view of his great popularity at one time, and his lengthy career. Brief biographical essays and incidental references to him provide only a sketchy picture. It is known that he married Estelle Loomis in 1914. Apparently the marriage was without issue. Gelett Burgess died on September 18, 1951, at the age of 85.
He wrote more than thirty books as well as numerous magazine pieces and short works of fiction. He is credited either as screenwriter or as having provided a story or novel upon which another writer based a script, for no fewer than ten motion pictures, released between 1914 and 1945. The 1936 film, Two in the Dark, is a crime drama involving an amnesia victim. The film anticipates the Evan Hunter novel Buddwing to an astonishing degree. The 1936 film involves an unpublished script titled Two O’Clock Courage. Burgess had written a novel of that title, which was itself filmed in 1945.
In addition to the famous purple cow, Burgess made another contribution to popular culture. While seeking promotional copy for his 1907 book Are You a Bromide?, Burgess created an outburst of praise for himself. Unwilling to appear a braggart, he attributed this to the fictitious Miss Belinda Blurb. Thus was the English language enriched.
Originally published in 1912, The Master of Mysteries was an example of a frequently practiced literary form, a cycle of short mystery stories featuring an eccentric amateur sleuth or consulting detective. The fad had of course been instigated by the immense popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Burgess was neither the first nor the last author to try his hand at the form, which held sway until the 1920s, when it was largely supplanted by the hardboiled private eye.
Astrogon Kerby, or Astro, was Burgess’s detective hero. He was noteworthy because he was a scientific detective, gathering clues, questioning witnesses, conducting physical research, having his assistant scan newspaper files, searching for hints and evidence to use in solving his cases, and engaging in logical deduction. But all of his scientific detection was masked by his pretense to be a mystical seer. As Ellery Queen pointed out in the classic Queen’s Quorum (1948, ff) Astro “ . . . pretends to be a palmist and crystal-gazer who affects a jeweled turban, flowing silk robes, silver-mounted water-pipe, and even a pet white lizard . . . .”
All good amateur sleuths need their assistants, and Astro’s is the beautiful and brilliant Valeska Wynne. It is obvious from the outset that a powerful attraction exists between the two, and Valeska is a more fully developed character than many others in her position. She plays an important, active role in many of Astro’s cases. And Burgess even furnishes Astro with his own contact in the police department, his “Inspector Lestrade”—Captain McGraw.
The Master of Mysteries was first published anonymously. However, the first letters of the first words of each story in the book form a cipher revealing the identity of the author, while the last letters of the last words contain a message to the reader. For nearly a century, scholars have puzzled over the alleged “third cipher” in the book. No less a personage than mystery writer Lillian de la Torre commented upon this in an undated letter to mystery authorities Cedric and Jan Clute, from whom she had borrowed a copy of the book. “I have greatly enjoyed revisiting The Master of Mysteries,” she wrote, “and I am still chewing over the third cipher (if any).”
The stories take place in New York, and it is obvious from passing references that Burgess knew the city, down to its many neighborhoods, its transit system, and even its telephone exchanges. Burgess would return to the theme of crime and detection, and the scene of New York City, in his much later mystery novel, Ladies in Boxes (1942).
As the editor of this new edition of The Master of Mysteries as well as the author of this introduction, I should add a few words about the new edition of the book. The 1912 Bobbs-Merrill edition contains many oddities of spelling and punctuation. Or, rather than oddities, I should say simply that practices of spelling and punctuation evolve as our language does. We no longer hyphenate up-town or to-morrow, nor do we precede dashes in the middle of sentences with commas, as in the expression quickly,—and with a silent tread . . . .
If the Surinam Turtle Press edition of The Master of Mysteries were intended for scholarly research, I would have retained these practices and even the few typographical errors that I found in the 1912 printing. However, the Surinam Turtle Press edition is intended for the pleasure of a new generation of readers, nearly a century after the book was first issued. I have therefore adopted modern spelling and punctuation conventions where appropriate.
— Richard A. Lupoff
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