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Grant Allen: Canada's first crime writer among the most prolific authors of the Victorian period

In his book Canadian Crime Fiction 1817-1996, David Skene-Melvin devotes considerable space to Wolfe Island son and pioneer Canadian crime writer, Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen.

"Grant Allen was a very important figure," said Skene-Melvin. "His short story collection An African Millionaire is one of the cornerstones of the crime writing genre."

Allen was born on Wolfe Island on Feb. 24, 1848, at his family home Ardath Chateau. The house has long since been torn down but locals still refer to its ruins as "the castle."

The family's Wolfe Island connection dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, when Allen's great-grandfather, David Alexander Grant, bought a large chunk of the island. Grant's wife -- who had the charmingly impressive handle of Marie Charles Joseph Le Moyne de Longueuil, Baroness de Longueuil -- belonged to a family historians consider one of "the most truly eminent in Canada."

Grant Allen was the second son of Wolfe Island's first Anglican minister, the Rev. Joseph Antisell Allen, who had married into the eminent family. The Reverend Allen's wife Catharine Ann Grant was the only daughter of the fifth Baron de Longueuil, and the Island's Trinity Anglican Church was built in 1845 on land granted by the Longueuil family in a rather obvious bit of nepotism.

Wolfe Islanders like to think that Grant Allen's love of adventure stories came from his childhood on the island, for he was educated at home.

Certainly the life of an Islander in the mid-1800s, even one from an eminent family, was rugged and robust. There were no roads when Allen was born, sleds drawn by oxen were the main mode of travel, and fish and game fed most of the local families. The frontier atmosphere must surely have fuelled the young imagination.

But Wolfe Island must have seemed a long way away in later years, when Allen moved to England to study at Oxford. He never returned to the island of his birth; after completing his education he remained in England, then the centre of the literary world, ultimately becoming one of the most prolific authors of the Victorian age.

At first Allen turned his pen to such weighty topics as evolution, science and philosophy, but these serious tomes made little money. It was not until 1880 that he found a more lucrative outlet with magazine fiction. His work was so successful that he churned out a total of 40 novels, sometimes as many as four titles a year. His fiction writing career also proved lucrative enough for him and his wife to spend every winter in the South of France.

When he died at 51 in 1899, Allen left behind an unfinished work, Hilda Wade, that was completed by his good friend and neighbour Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and published the following year.

"Sir Arthur did not do his late friend a favour," notes Skene-Melvin. "The book was not worth finishing."

Other works, however, guarantee Allen a place in crime writing history. He was the first author to make a hero out of a thief in An African Millionaire, a collection of stories about Colonel Clay, a conman and master of disguise who repeatedly cheats the millionaire of the title.

No less an authority than Ellery Queen thought Allen should have received more credit for inventing this conceit. (The credit usually goes to E.W. Hornung's A. J. Raffles, the well-mannered burglar.) This honour placed him on the most prestigious list of crime books ever created, the 101 books that make up Ellery Queen's Quorum.

Queen's Quorum, A History of the Detective-Crime Story is considered the last word in detective academia, offering an in-depth historical and bibliographical look at the world's most important short-story crime writers from 1845 to 1967. The Quorum is used by serious collectors as a must-have "shopping list."

"The collector's Holy Grail is to get a first edition of the 101," says Skene-Melvin. "If you find a copy in grandma's attic, you can retire. Collectors will beat a path to your door."

(For more information on Grant Allen and Canadian crime writing, see Canadian Crime Fiction 1817-1996 by David-Skene Melvin, published by George A. Vanderburgh, ISBN 1-896648-60-6, George A. Vanderburgh, P.O. Box 204, 420 Owen Sound St., Shelburne, ON L0N 1S0. The book is available for $125 Cdn, $100 US, plus $10 postage.)


Photo: Grant Allen.

Grant Allen: International man of mystery.