The Compleat Achievements of Luther Trant, Psychological Detective
Edwin Balmer and Wi
lliam B. MacHarg
With an Introduction by Douglas G. Greene


  Quality Trade Paperback, 278 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55246-976-7   $25.00

    Introduction by Douglas G. Greene
    I. The Man in the Room
    II. The Fast Watch
    III. The Red Dress
    IV. The Private Bank Puzzle
    V. The Man Higher Up
    VI. The Chalchihuitl Stone
    VII. The Empty Cartridges
    VIII. The Axton Letters
    IX. The Eleventh Hour
    X. The Hammering Man
    XI. A Matter of Mind Reading
    XII. The Daughter of a Dream

Introduction by Doug Greene

The late Victorian and Edwardian era was filled with confidence—indeed, bumptiousness—and the detective story was a part of that world. The progress of science and technology seemed inevitable, and the improvement of the human race appeared to march along in step. Even the mysteries of the human mind seemed susceptible to scientific explanation with the investigations of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. Fictional sleuths shared in this optimistic understanding of science. Sherlock Holmes is sometimes shown engaged in experimental science, though his activities are described so vaguely that he cannot fairly be called a scientific sleuth. The first genuine scientific detective was Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke created by R. Austin Freeman. He first appeared in 1907 in The Red Thumb Mark and two years later in the collection John Thorndyke’s Cases.

In December 1910, perhaps in response to the Luther Trant stories that we are about to discuss, Arthur B. Reeve introduced Craig Kennedy, who in fame (if not in quality) would become the dominant scientific detective, at least of the American school. In the December 1910 issue of Cosmopolitian, in a story called “The Case of Helen Bond,” Kennedy began his long career utilizing the most amazing gadgets in crime detection. Inevitably the stories became dated as the gadgets either were debunked or became old-hat. In 1946, John Dickson Carr wrote:

His laboratory flashed with stranger sparks, and bubbled with more weird beakers and test tubes, than the laboratory of late Dr. Frankenstein. For each occasion he has some new gadget, guaranteed sensational, to clap on someone’s wrist or wire underneath the chair. Square jawed Kennedy in his high collar ... has marched into limbo with his gadgets loaded on him.

Carr was premature. In these days of Print-on-Demand, Reeve’s short stories and novels are again available, and recently a volume of previously uncollected cases has been published. Michael E. Grost, one of the greatest experts on the development of the classical detective story, accurately summarizes the best of the Craig Kennedy stories: “In Reeve one gets the sense of massive waves of technological advance breaking on humanity’s shores.” This quality made Reeve popular through the 1930's, with a television series appearing as late as 1951.

But more than a year before Craig Kennedy first appeared, William MacHarg and Edwin Balmer published the first story about Luther Trant, the first fictional sleuth to use psychoanalysis in his detection, and one of the first to feature a lie-detector test. The story, “The Man in the Room,” was published in Hampton’s Magazine in May 1909. Hampton’s was a muckraking magazine, aimed especially at the abuses created by trusts; and (along with an emphasis on science and psychology) worry about the excesses of capitalism was another characteristic of the Edwardian era.

In 1907, Benjamin Hampton had taken over a magazine devoted to the New York stage, Broadway Magazine. In February 1909, he renamed it Hampton’s Magazine, “whose purpose (he announced) was to expose evil wherever we can; we are going to expose it calmly and truly; we are going to expose it in order that it may be replaced by good.” By 1911, its circulation was almost 450,000, and it had attracted some of the finest writers of the time – Witter Byner, Louis Untermeyer, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, O. Henry, P.G. Wodehouse, and others. Hampton’s emphasis was often on big business (“The Guggenheims and the Smelter Trust,” “The Mormon Church and the Sugar Trust”) and social concerns (“A Fighting Chance for the City Child”).

When Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg began the Luther Trant series they were in the early years of what would be successful literary careers. Balmer was born in Chicago in 1883. His father was Thomas Balmer, a businessman who developed psychological methods of advertising. The same year as the first Luther Trant story, father and son would collaborate on The Science of Advertising: The Force of Advertising as a Business Influence, Its Place in the National Development, and the Public Result of its Practical Operation. Edwin Balmer graduated from Northwestern University in 1902, where he studied under his father’s friend Professor Walter Dill Scott, who was a pioneer in the study of applied psychology. He was author of The Psychology of Advertising in Theory and Practice (1903); he later became President of the American Psychological Association and President of Northwestern University. Edwin Balmer went on the earn an advanced degree at Harvard, and became a frequent contributor to the major magazines of the time—Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and The American Magazine. In 1909, he married Katherine MacHarg, the sister of his soontobe collaborator, William MacHarg.

Born in 1871, MacHarg was a dozen years older than Balmer. After considering careers in engineering and architecture, he too became a fiction writer for such magazines as Munsey’s, Saturday Evening Post, and Scribner’s. Beginning in 1903, he was a staff writer for The Chicago Tribune.

The Luther Trant series began in the May 1909 issue of Hampton’s with a ringing proclamation from the publisher: “to make a bold statement, this new detective theory is as important as Poe’s deductive theory of ‘ratiocination,’ and may be pursued even further than that brilliant method in the actual practical business of thief-taking.” The opening of the first story is filled with the optimism of science: “Daily I have been proving,” says Luther Trant, “as mere laboratory experiments to astonish a row of staring sophomores, that which—applied in courts and jails—would conclusively prove a man innocent in five minutes, or condemn him as a criminal on the evidence of his own uncontrollable reactions.” In short, what Trant (and the authors) mean by “psychology” is one’s physical reaction in telling the truth or a lie, and upon the instruments that can measure that response. In the first story, “The Man in the Room,” the clues are provided by word-association as measured by a chronometer, giving the intervals between the word and its response. The second story, “The Fast Watch,” introduces a galvonometer, an early lie detector which Trant treats as infallible. Eventually, a great number of machines is either used or referred to in the stories: chronoscope, galvonometer, automatograph, electric psychometer (or “the soul machine”), sphygmograph, plethysmograph, kymograph, pneumograph. Not every reader was thrilled: Hampton’s published a letter from a reader objecting to “psychological research and nonsense.” A short while later, the authors sent the following comments to the magazine:

A misapprehension in regard to these stories has come to our attention and to that of Dr. Walter Dill Scott, of the psychological department of Northwestern University, which we would be glad to see corrected. Dr. Scott has been very kind in checking our work. We have all been asked time and again whether the machines spoken of in our stories (the galvanometer, chronoscope, etc.) are real machines, and we have been several times complimented on our ingenuity in inventing the machines. This is ridiculous, and if it were the case the stories as written would be almost pointless. Dr. Scott has helped us to make sure that all is psychologically correct. We have been careful to claim nothing in regard to the machines which has not been demonstrated over and over again in psychological laboratories. And though the detection of crime by this means is new to the police, it is not new at all to psychologists, and has been actually carried out in psychological laboratories just in the ways we show Trant carrying it out. Unless this is understood by the readers, it seems to us the stories cannot have the interest they ought to have.

Nowadays, we would find psychological interpretation to be less ab solute, and the lie-detectors and other machines to be less dependable, than MacHarg and Balmer believed. But the stories are more than just the application of gadgets (as Reeve’s Craig Kennedy stories too often are). Trant often makes subtle deductions from physical evidence before he employs the machines. His judgments in the first story that the death was not a suicide are excellent, and in perhaps his best story, “The Axton Letters,” the conclusions based on the different forms of observation in various letters are persuasive. The backgrounds of the stories are varied and colorful – Aztec magic, exotic ports, shipwreck, Russian radicals, the deep woods, mixed marriage. Although the stories appeared in a magazine deeply opposed to business practices, that issue is raised only a couple times. Several of the stories have a manufacturing or financial background, but only “The Man Higher Up” emphasizes corruption, and “The Empty Cartridges” shows how murder and betrayal were at the heart of a business enterprise.

After the publication of the Luther Trant stories, MacHarg and Balmer collaborated in a few additional tales –most significantly the novels Blind Man’s Eyes (1916) and The Indian Drum (1917)—but each made a success independently. Edwin Balmer became editor of Redbook magazine from 1927 to 1949, and one of his recorded advices to authors is available on the internet. He collaborated with Phillip Wylie on two catastrophe science fiction novels, When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide (both 1933). Edwin Balmer died in 1958.
William MacHarg continued as a prolific contributor to magazines. His series for Collier’s about the self-described “dumb cop” O’Malley began in 1930 and continued until the early 1940’s. Ellery Queen described the resulting book, The Affairs of O’Malley (1940), as “prose-lean ... with the clarity of a literary candid camera.” William B. MacHarg died in 1951.

The Achievements of Luther Trant was published as a book in 1910 after the first nine stories had appeared in Hampton’s. It included a few of the original illustrations by William Oberhardt; his later fame as a portraitist was already evident in many of the finely wrought illustrations for the Trant stories. The Achievements of Luther Trant, however, did not include all of Trant’s cases, and three more stories followed—all included for the first time in this volume. The book is entitled The Compleat Achievements of Luther Trant, but more honestly it might have been called Probably the Compleat Achievements ... In the September 1911 issue, Hampton’s announced: “Edwin Balmer and William B. MacHarg are starting on another series of adventures of ‘Luther Trant.’ To the old readers of Hampton’s Magazine nothing more need be said regarding this series. To the new readers it need only be said that ‘Luther Trant’ is the original psychological detective.” But Hampton’s was already in trouble. When Benjamin Hampton planned to publish an article on the New York and Hartford Railroad, he was warned that he would be forced out of business in three months. He went ahead anyway; his advertising dried up, and the magazine’s last issue was May 1912. The new Luther Trant series was never published in Hampton’s; it may never have been written. But it is possible that another group of stories remains to be discovered ...

— Douglas G. Greene
Norfolk, Virginia
September 2012

A note on the texts: We have chosen to use the magazine versions of the stories, which often differ in immaterial ways from those in the 1910 book.

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