A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Rodrigues Ottolengui’s resume isn’t what you’d expect from a mystery writer. He was the author of Table Talks on Dentistry and Methods of Filing Teeth and spent 35 years as editor of Dental Items of Interest. He was also one of the first dentists to make use of x-rays and had a curious kind of lineage in dentistry, being the cousin of Count Aguilar, King Alfonso of Spain’s dentist. No one seems quite sure what drove him to write fiction, but besides being an influential and pioneering dentist he also managed to create two lasting mystery characters, the rival detectives Mitchel & Barnes.
The Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th Century features two Mitchel & Barnes stories. “The Montezuma Emerald”—which sees the detectives teaming up to catch a murderer and jewel thief—is really the more exciting tale and definitely the better mystery. Yet, my favorite is still the “The Nameless Man.” Barnes is hired by an apparent amnesiac who simply wants to learn his own name. From the beginning Barnes is suspicious that the man isn’t telling the truth and eventually the whole story leads to the doorstep of his rival Mitchel. I doubt you’ll be too surprised by the outcome, and even less impressed by Barnes’ powers of observation and reasoning, which are barely put to the test. It’s just the tale’s charming sense of silliness and fun that’s hard to resist.
Next to the stories by Hawthorne, Poe, or Bierce that share space with it in this anthology, “The Nameless Man” is harmless fluff. We should all make a little room for fluff in our reading lives now and again. I’d be willing to bet that Rod Ottolengui, D.D.S wouldn’t mind a bit to know that his forays outside dentistry still survive, even as a kind of amiable aside in the history of crime fiction.
Review by Matthew