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Brooding pen and ink sketch of a man in late 19th century apparel, with topcoat and long cloak, walking past a streetlight on a foggy eetlight at dusk. A bat flies in the background
“In the Fog,” the newest Library of Congress Crime Classic. Cover: Oliver Hereford. Prints and Photographs Division.

Crime Classics: Richard Harding Davis Gets Lost “In the Fog”

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This is a guest post by Zach Klitzman, a writer-editor in the Library’s Publishing Office.

A dashing explorer returned from an African expedition. A fabulously wealthy and fabulously beautiful princess. A jealous younger brother, angling for the family fortune. Smoky rooms in social clubs. Jewel thieves on trains. And the foggy streets of Victorian London.

These elements form the backbone of “In the Fog,” the latest Library of Congress Crime Classic. This 1901 novella is by Richard Harding Davis, the influential war correspondent, author and playwright. He might be largely forgotten now, but Davis was a Renaissance man of his era, as renowned for his battlefield escapades, famous friends and good looks as he was for his literary and journalistic success.

Davis starts off “Fog” with a framing device: A member of Parliament is enjoying an evening in an exclusive club in London as fellow members regale him with three interweaving tales of murder, robbery and betrayal. Davis also uses a familiar trope of the era — London draped in darkness and fog — to kick things into gear. The first story begins when its narrator, an American naval attaché to Britain, stumbles upon a murder after getting lost one foggy night.

This mysterious atmosphere appeared widely in late 19th- and early 20th-century fiction, series editor Leslie Klinger writes in the introduction. Heavyweights such as Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker often invoked London’s fog and smoke to signify danger, mystery and foreboding. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, has his famous detective observe that the city’s fog could be so engulfing that “the thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim.”

Richard Harding Davis, ca. 1901, the year “In the Fog” was published. Photo: Burr MacIntosh Studio. Prints and Photographs Division.

Davis knew this sort of fog firsthand. In 1897, after leaving a Christmas party with the renowned actress Ethel Barrymore (the great-aunt of Drew Barrymore), Davis remembered that “we rode straight into a bank of fog that makes those on the fishing banks look like Spring sunshine. You could not see the houses, nor the street, nor the horse, not even his tail.” After a memorable encounter with an unexpecting family who believed Barrymore and Davis to be minor royalty, they returned home safe and sound.

Clearly, the episode stirred Davis to imagine a more violent fog-bound incident for the opening of “Fog.”

In fact, many of Davis’ fictional works were inspired by his personal experiences as a journalist abroad. His novel “The Princess Aline,” about an American artist who goes to Europe after falling in love with a portrait of the titular princess, was based on his own infatuation with the empress of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna. Many of his other books — including “Soldiers of Fortune,” “The King’s Jackal,” “Captain Macklin” and “The White Mice” — were based on his travels.

The book cover shows a line drawing of a young woman in profile wearing a tiara.
“The Princess Aline,” 1895. Aline was based on the empress of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna. Artwork: Charles Dana Gibson. Prints and Photographs Division.

Davis specialized in war coverage, including the Boer War in modern-day South Africa, the Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. He counted Theodore Roosevelt as a friend and rode with TR’s Rough Riders in Cuba — even becoming an honorary member after rescuing wounded soldiers during a raid.

Stereograph showing Roosevelt journalist Davis speaking together near an encampment with horses eating hay in the background
Davis posing with Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Publisher: Strohmeyer & Wyman. Prints and Photographs Division.

His journalistic and literary fame led him to the top ranks of celebrity; he befriended Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator who created the “Gibson Girl” drawings that were the turn-of-the-century paradigm for female beauty. (Gibson later used Harding’s clean-shaven good looks as inspiration for his “Gibson Man” ideal.)

Gibson, a groomsman in Davis’ wedding party, also illustrated several of the writer’s works, including the 1891 story collection “Gallegher and Other Stories.” The title story from that collection, about a newspaper office boy in Philadelphia, is also included in “Fog,” showing that Davis could spin a good yarn set on both sides of the Atlantic.

Harding died of a heart attack in upstate New York in 1916, when he was just 51. He had recently returned from the eastern front in Greece during World War I.

“In the death of Richard Harding Davis, the commonwealth of letters has lost its most picturesque and romantic citizen,” the New York Times Review of Books wrote in a posthumous review of his work.

Though his name has faded in popular culture, his adventures in Central America, Cuba, Europe and Asia — not to mention his tale of mystery in foggy London — live on in his many articles, books, plays and film adaptations.

Library of Congress Crime Classics are published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in association with the Library. “In the Fog” is available in softcover ($16.99) from booksellers worldwide, including the Library of Congress shop.

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