Before the Fact
Rodriguez Ottolengui
Introduction by Douglas Greene


Quality   Trade Paperback, 95 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55246-975-0     $18.00


Introduction by Douglas Greene

Frederic Dannay (the bibliographic half of the cousins who were "Ellery Queen") chose Rodrigues Ottolengui’s Final Proof; or The Value of Evidence (Putnam’s, 1898) for Queen’s Quorum, an annotated description of the most important detective short-story collections. Yet, wrote Dannay, Ottolengui is "one of the most neglected authors in the entire history of the detective story." Dannay said that Ottolengui was "unappreciated in his own time,"—which may be a bit overstated as his four novels and his single short story collection were reprinted on several occasions, and were translated into several languages, including French, German, Danish, and Polish. Nonetheless, he remains a very obscure figure. Dannay quoted an unidentified collector who said that his name is reminiscent of prehistoric animal.

Benjamin Adolph Rodrigues Ottolengui (known as "Rod" to family and friends) was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 15, 1861, of a Sephardic Jewish family. Before the arrival of Ashkenazi in the 1830’s, Charleston had the largest Jewish population in the United States, and in 1861 it was still a center of Jewish life and culture. How the Civil War affected the Ottolengui family, I do not know. Rodrigues’ grandfather, Benjamin, was one of the first dentists in the area, and his father, Daniel, was a newspaperman. Sherman’s invasion almost leveled the city, but Rodrigues was able to attend The College of Charleston. In 1877, at the age of 16, he traveled to New York City to become apprenticed to a dentist, and in 1885 he received the degree of Master of Dental Surgery.

Ottolengui was a man of many interests and accomplishments. He was one of the first to use x-rays in dentistry, and he pioneered methods of filling teeth, especially root canals. He also developed methods to restore cleft pallets. His book, Methods of Filling Teeth (1892), was a standard textbook for several decades, and for thirty-five years he edited and wrote for a journal, Dental Items of Interest, resulting in a collection, Table Talks on Dentistry. He may have been one of the first in fiction to use the patterns of dental fillings as a way to identify a corpse.

Ottolengui’s hobbies included taxidermy (which plays a rôle in some of his fiction), entomology, and photography. He was especially interested in the Plusiide moths, writing a number of articles about them beginning in 1893. He was Vice President of the New York Entomological Society. As a photographer, he contributed articles with such titles as "New York With a Camera," "Feats of a Camera," and "Afield with a Camera."

In 1893, Ottolengui added to has manifold activities the writing of a detective novel, An Artist in Crime, featuring two—sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing—sleuths, Jack Barnes (a professional private detective) and Robert Leroy Mitchel (a wealthy amateur). Why Ottolengui turned toward fiction is not known; three years earlier he had written a novel, Conya: A Romance of the Buddhas, which was serialized in a Charleston newspaper. Perhaps, like Dr. Conan Doyle, he needed to occupy his time while waiting for patients. He had long read detective fiction in his spare hours—much to the surprise of his friends who asked why he enjoyed "a low order of literature." He replied, "I am not reading detective stories to improve my knowledge of literature, but because these stories help to increase the analytical quality of the mind which is an essential faculty in connection with diagnosis, interpretation of radiographs, etc." His first detective novel was followed by A Conflict of Evidence (1893), A Modern Wizard (1894), and The Crime of the Century (1896). These four books included various forms of 1890’s sensationalism, and they have enough fantasy and science fiction to be discussed in E.F. Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years. Ottolengui combined Holmesian-style deductions with drugs, hypnosis, glandular experiments and a lost Aztec temple under New York City. It is little wonder that (according to the preface to The Crime of the Century) a friend complained to him about his "stupid soaring into the realm of the impossible ... your stories are not within human probability." Ottolengui replied that fiction should be "something a little different from the realm of daily experience," and challenged his friend to find anything in his books that was not borrowed from life. He didn’t say how his ideas about Aztecs under New York could have been found in daily life.

In 1895, Ottolengui began writing a series of short stories about Barnes and Mitchel. At least four of them were published in Jerome K. Jerome’s London magazine, The Idler, and another appeared in the US magazine The Black Cat. They were collected in the 1898 volume Final Proof — and that book seemed to conclude the cases of Mitchel and Barnes, as Ottolengui returned to dentistry — "He gave up the sleuth," Anthony Boucher said, "for the tooth." Ottolengui received several honorary doctorates in his later years, before dying in New York City in 1937, at the age 76.

A recent discovery, however, has shown that Ottolengui did not desert the detection field in 1898. In 1901, Ainslee’s Magazine published six additional stories under the series title "Before the Fact," based on Mitchel’s claim that he could detect crimes before they took place. (Ottolengui, nevertheless, did not consistently use this conceit throughout the six stories.) Like the novels and earlier stories, the 1901 series varies in quality, but it contains some of Ottolengui’s best writing. "A Problem in Smuggling," though it has a mystery which even the dullest policeman should have been able to unravel, includes an evocative description of the Maine woods—where Ottolengui himself spent time fishing. The final two stories, "The Art of Forgery" and "The Whirlpool of Society," are especially strong in genuine detection.

Frederic Dannay, who revelled in discovering lost stories that he could reprint in early issues of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, never knew about the six stories in "Before the Fact." But we have the good fortune to be able to read them in this handsome edition one hundred and ten years after they were first published.

— Douglas G. Greene

August 2011

Other Volumes of Victorian Detective Fiction from The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box