Richard L. Kellogg


It is frequently stated that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If this is true, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are the most flattered characters in literary history. Following the introduction of Holmes in 1887 with A Study in Scarlet, there was an avalanche of parodies, pastiches, and satires which borrowed from the adventures of the great detective. There were many fictional detectives whose exploits were popular during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Rivals of Sherlock Holmes included Loveday Brooke, Dr. Halifax, Madame Sarah, and Martin Hewitt.

Although he may be a forgotten author today, M.P. Shiel developed a remarkable rival to Sherlock Holmes by creating the mysterious Russian exile, Prince Zaleski. If Shiel had continued writing short stories about his detective, the public would have welcomed the eccentric Zaleski and made his name a household word. One can imagine the discovery of the prince by Hollywood in the 1940s and the subsequent call for Basil Rathbone to play the role of the sleuth.

One of ten children, Matthew Phipps Shiel was born in the West Indies on July 21, 1865. His mother was a mulatto and his father worked as a shopkeeper and as a lay Methodist minister. Shiel received his education at Harrison College in Barbados.

After he moved to England in the 1880s, Shiel studied at King’s College in London and developed proficiency in seven languages. He also studied medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, an institution familiar to both Holmes and Watson. Following periods of employment as an interpreter and a mathematics instructor, he turned his focus on writing and produced a torrent of novels, short stories, and serials.

Prince Zaleski was his first book and it contains three fascinating detective stories. It was published in England and the United States by John Lane in 1895. The influences of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle are evident throughout the volume.

Shiel received the most critical acclaim for his science-fiction novel titled The Purple Cloud. This book, published in 1901, describes a tragic and brutal world in which most human life has been eliminated by a toxic purple gas. The book became a movie in 1959 after being retitled The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. This dark and controversial film starred Harry Belafonte, Mel Ferrer, and Inger Stevens.

An unfortunate feature of Shiel’s life is that he was notoriously anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, and anti-Black. The obvious racism is apparent throughout his work. Shiel hated all organized religions and thought that scientific research provided the best hope for mankind. After a long and prolific career as an author, Shiel died in Chichester at the age of 81 on February 17, 1947.

As for Prince Zaleski, he arrived on the scene at the perfect time in the development of the modern detective story. In 1893, the British public was shocked to find that Sherlock Holmes had met a tragic fate during an encounter with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in 1891. This vacuum in detective fiction was partially filled with the appearance of Zaleski in 1895.

Mystery fans who have not discovered Prince Zaleski are in for a treat. The prince lives as a hermit on the top floor of a filthy and deteriorating abbey in England. He is surrounded by precious gems, rare antiquities, and partially unwrapped mummies. The room reeks of cannabis because the prince is a habitual user of hashish. Zaleski spends much of his time wearing a scarlet robe and reclining on a couch. He solves mysteries brought to him by M.P. Shiel through a combination of intuition and intense mental concentration.

Since the Prince Zaleski canon consists of only four short stories (“The Race of Orven,” “The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks,” “The S.S.,” and “The Return of Prince Zaleski”), it is difficult to compare and contrast the methods and personality of the prince with that of Sherlock Holmes. One is left with a desire that Shiel had written more adventures about his rather bizarre detective. Perhaps additional stories about Prince Zaleski are stored in a secret vault and waiting to be discovered.

An important comparison between Holmes and Zaleski is that one individual serves as both narrator and author for both detectives. Just as Dr. Watson records his own experiences with Holmes, M.P. Shiel documents the mysteries which he brings to the attention of Prince Zaleski. Speaking in the first person gives the reader a sense of reality and immediacy about the exploits of both detectives.

It is noteworthy that Holmes and Zaleski concur that the ingestion of psychotropic substances appears to sharpen their senses and enhance their mental powers. Holmes is famous (or infamous) for his excessive use of tobacco as well as a fondness for the injecting of both morphine and cocaine. Prince Zaleski, on the other hand, is less active than Holmes and is often in a drug-induced haze from the chronic smoking of hashish. The curtains and the furnishings of his small room are saturated with the scent of the drug.

Followers of Sherlock Holmes respect Mrs. Hudson, the genial landlady who tends to the culinary and housekeeping needs of Holmes and Watson in their Baker Street flat. A similar role in the Zaleski mansion is played by Ham, a black Ethiopian servant. Since the prince rarely leaves his room, Ham usually provides his main contact with the outside world.

Music plays a vital role in satisfying the artistic appetites of the detectives. Holmes is a talented composer and a virtuoso on his Stradivarius violin. He and Watson derive pleasure from attendance at the opera and the concert hall. Similarily, Zaleski relishes the time spent performing on the organ in his apartment. He also likes to listen to the sweet strains of an invisible music box.

Holmes and Zaleski share an astounding talent for deciphering codes and secret messages. Holmes demonstrates his mastery of cryptography in “The Dancing Men,” “The Gloria Scott,” and several other adventures. Prince Zaleski, using a similar amount of expertise, interprets encrypted information to solve baffling crimes in “The S.S.” and in “The Return of Prince Zaleski.”

The detectives received royal recognition for their service to the nation. Holmes is honored by having a personal meeting with Queen Victoria in 1895 (“The Bruce-Partington Plans”). He is offered but declines the offer of a Knighthood in 1902 (“The Three Garridebs”). As for Prince Zaleski, he identifies Lady Poynting as the guilty party for a series of murders involving Spanish citizens living in London. In gratitude, the King of Spain awards the Golden Fleece to the prince for his great achievement (“The Return of Prince Zaleski”), but he decides to send it back.

The most obvious relationship between Holmes and Zaleski is that they have extraordinary mental powers which permit them to make brilliant deductions from a tiny amount of data. The detectives are skilled at discovering past events and predicting future events with uncanny accuracy. In “The Stone of the Edmundsburg Monks,” Shiel states that the prince always leaves you with “the confounding impression of mental omnipresence.” The cerebral abilities of Holmes and Zaleski are magnified by their extensive knowledge of such fields as art, history, science, religion, and literature.

The precise chronology of events in the adventures of Holmes and Zaleski is complicated. For example, it is generally believed that Holmes was the first consulting detective, that he began his professional career in 1878, and that he retired in the year 1903. However, if we accept the testimony of M.P. Shiel, Prince Zaleski was solving crimes several years before Holmes commenced his career as a detective. The Zaleski adventure titled “The S.S.” deals with a series of mass suicides occurring in France, Germany, and Great Britain. The prince reviews the evidence and deduces that sick and diseased individuals are being murdered by a secret organization called the Society of Sparta. This bleak story, which deals with eugenics and active euthanasia, takes place in the year 1875. As to whether Holmes or Zaleski was the “first” of the consulting detectives must be left to the judgment of the reader.

Whatever their literary merit, the detective stories penned by M.P. Shiel transport us back to that fascinating period at the twilight of the nineteenth century. It was an era when Holmes ruled as monarch in the world of detectives. However, he was a ruler with several worthy contenders. Prince Zaleski, the quirky Russian recluse, was such a rival to the throne. The tales of Zaleski’s ratiocinative methods provide compelling reading for the aficionado of the mystery genre.