Bernard Capes (1854 – 1918)

NPG Ax39165; Bernard CapesBernard Edward Joseph Capes (30 August 1854 – 2 November 1918) was a prolific Victorian author who published more than 40 books, best remembered for his accomplished ghost stories. Capes was born in London, one of eleven children: his elder sister, Harriet Capes, was a noted translator and author of more than a dozen children’s books. His grandfather, John Capes, had converted to Roman Catholicism, so Capes was brought up a Catholic, and educated at the Catholic college Beaumont College. However, he rapidly ‘gave this up’.

Capes early writing career was as a journalist, later becoming editor of a paper called The Theatre, which was well known in late nineteenth century London. Other magazines for which Capes wrote included Blackwood’s, Butterfly, Cassell’s, Cornhill Magazine, Hutton’s Magazine, Illustrated London News, Lippincott’s, Macmillan’s Magazine, Literature, New Witness, Pall Mall Magazine, Pearson’s Magazine, The Idler, The New Weekly, and The Queen.

Capes wrote numerous ghost stories, which were later rediscovered by anthologist Hugh Lamb in the 1970s. Capes also wrote historical novels. He finally committed to writing novels full-time, taking around four months for each novel. On several occasions he had two or three novels published in the same year – and even four in 1910. The Skeleton Key was the first detective novel commissioned and published by Collins (1919); its success (8 editions in 10 years) paved the way for a century of crime publishing. it was Bernard Capes’ only book in the genre, sadly he died on 2 November 1918 in the influenza epidemic before his book was published. A plaque commemorating his life is in Winchester Cathedral.

The Skeleton Key has been re-issued as The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, HarperCollins, London, September 2015.

Introducing The Skeleton Key, G. K. Chesterton highlighted the quality of Capes’ writing: ‘From the first his prose has a strong element of poetry.’ Julian Symons, in his seminal study of the genre, Bloody Murder, described the book as ‘a neglected tour de force’.


Subtle touches of plotting as well as characterisation lift The Skeleton Key out of the ordinary. The story illustrates Chesterton’s claim that: ‘A detective story might well be in a special sense a spiritual tragedy; since it is a story in which even the moral sympathies may be in doubt. A police romance is almost the only romance in which the hero may turn out to be the villain, or the villain to be the hero.’ (Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books).

824b48e8-e32d-438a-868a-ba5accf51665The fourth in a new series of classic detective stories from the vaults of HarperCollins involves a tragic accident during a shooting party. As the story switches between Paris and Hampshire, the possibility of it not being an accident seems to grow more likely.

“The Detective Story Club”, launched by Collins in 1929, was a clearing house for the best and most ingenious crime stories of the age, chosen by a select committee of experts. Now, almost 90 years later, these books are the classics of the Golden Age, republished at last with the same popular cover designs that appealed to their original readers.

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, first published in 1919, has the distinction of being the first detective novel commissioned and published by Collins, though it was Bernard Capes’ only book in the genre, as he died shortly before it was published. This is how the Detective Club announced their edition ten years later:

“Mr Arnold Bennett, in a recent article, criticised the ad hoc characterisation and human interest in the detective novels of to-day. “The Mystery of the Skeleton Key” contains, in addition to a clever crime problem and plenty of thrills, a sensible love story, humour, excellent characterisation and strong human interest. The scenes are laid in Paris and Hampshire. The story deals with a crime committed in the grounds of a country house and the subsequent efforts of a clever young detective the track down the perpetrator. The Selection Committee of “The Detective Story Club” have no hesitation in recommending this splendid thriller as one which will satisfy the most exacting reader of detective fiction.”

This new edition comes with a brand new introduction by Capes expert and anthologist, Hugh Lamb. (Source: HarperCollinsPublishers)

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key has been reviewed, among others, at Mystery File, CrimeCross-Examining, the crime segments, and Classic Mysteries.

I’m personally not in a hurry to read it.

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