Louis Joseph Vance's mystery novel, The Brass Bowl,
published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company in 1907 is a book that
stands as a highly acclaimed work of the time, but one that it
appears only briefly enjoyed best-selling popularity. The Brass
Bowl was frequently advertised and marketed by The Bobbs-Merrill
Company in Publishers' Weekly, beginning with the novel's
publication in March 1907 and lasting throughout the calendar
year. However, extensive research into contemporary and
subsequent advertising publications and books documenting
best-seller status, do not highlight the novel as one that
claimed a place in novella notoriety.
Although originally published by The Bobbs-Merrill
Company, two other editions of The Brass Bowl issued by The A.L.
Burt Company and McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie were also located.
Physical differences between the first edition and subsequent
reprinted editions issued by the other publishers will be
discussed further in the essay. In addition, the literary
success of Vance's alliterative trio - The Brass Bowl, The Black
Bag, and The Bronze Bell will be compared and discussed. Then,
the bizarre circumstances regarding Vance's unforeseen death will
be revealed exposing a mystery much more chilling and outrageous
than any of Vance's celebrated works.
The Brass Bowl, one of Vance's earliest works, was
produced after years of hackwork drudgery. Prior to its
publication, Vance devoted six hours a night to write short
stories after working a full day for his salaried job. He
claimed that he produced some of the "most awful stuff that has
ever been printed." He said, "Every time I wrote a short story
I learned something about what is should not have been. I
learned the principles of construction and something about style.
I abandoned the short story forever. And then I wrote The Brass
Bowl" (Kunitz and Haycraft 1441).
According to Alice Hackett's 60 Years of Bestsellers,
The Brass Bowl reached Number 5 on the 1907 Annual Best-Seller
List of Fiction with sales of 184,071 copies (107, 56). However,
it did not make the overall mystery best seller list of the year
which required sales of one million.
The qualities that reviewers most praised in The Brass
Bowl included Vance's ability to keep the reader's attention
through plot complexities and to write with a sensational flair.
The book review found in the November 30, 1907 edition of the
British journal, The Academy, stated that it would be hard to
find "a more amusing and ingenious shocker than this [novel]"
Interestingly, The Academy review recommended The Brass
Bowl for "railway journeys" and claimed that the novel gave
"interesting glimpses into American life" (193). During the
beginning of the twentieth century, railway travel became
increasingly popular, especially in Europe. A whole new genre
of books termed "railway fiction" became faddish from
approximately 1890 to 1930, a period often called
"The Golden Age of Railroad Literature." People not only
traveled by rail; they avidly read novels and short stories about
railroads (Barefield). Although, The Brass Bowl has not been
categorized as railway fiction, another one of Vance's books, The
Trey O' Hearts written in 1914 was cited as belonging to this
genre of stories, both fact and fiction, about the railroads
during this period ("Railroad Stories").
Other Reprinted Editions of The Brass Bowl
Two reprinted editions of The Brass Bowl published by The
A.L. Burt Company and McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie were also
located. After careful review, it appears that The A.L. Burt
Company issued the novel with a different and more ornate title
page (which can be viewed in the supplementary materials) and
incorporated only half of the black and white water color
illustrated plates that were found in the Bobbs-Merrill edition,
which used seven of these plates. Both publishers included the
same illustrated frontispiece which was located opposite of the
title page and incorporated the same illustrations on pages 162,
230, and 377 (however the last illustration was reversed in the
A.L. Burt publication). In addition, A.L. Burt issued The Brass
Bowl with the same illustration on the book cover, however it
was of far less quality than the Bobbs-Merrill edition.
McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie issued the novel with a third, unique
title page and incorporated only one illustration (used as the
frontispiece) in the whole novel. This frontispiece was not
included in either of the Bobbs-Merrill or A.L. Burt editions
and it is questionable if this illustration was even done by
Orson Lowell, the artist who had illustrated Bobbs-Merrill's
In addition, the McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie edition did
not include the quote "Is this a shape for reputation and modesty
to masque in?" attributed to More Dissemblers Besides Women; and
the dedication page which plainly read "Dedicated to N.E.V."
that was found in both the Bobbs-Merrill and A.L. Burt editions.
It is also interesting to note that the McKinlay, Stone &
Mackenzie edition did not include an illustrated book cover and
that the pages have succumbed to foxing and appear to have
deteoriated much more extensively than either the Bobbs-Merrill
or A.L. Burt editions, indicating that subsequent publishers of
this novel did not seem to place large importance on the visual
aesthetics of the book.
The Alliterative Trio
Vance's most successful books prior to the appearance of
his most celebrated thief in The Lone Wolf series first
appearing in 1914, includes the alliterative trio of books -
The Brass Bowl, The Black Bag, and The Bronze Bell (Kunitz and
In 1908, Vance followed the success of The Brass Bowl by
publishing The Black Bag, which according to Alice Hackett's 60
Years of Bestsellers, reached Number 8 on the Annual Best-Seller
List of Fiction that year with sales of 35,247 (56,109). This
novel was followed the next year with the publication of Vance's
The Bronze Bell.
According to the abstracted reviews found in the Book
Review Digest 1908, The Black Bag, published in 1908, is a novel
written in a similiar vein to The Brass Bowl. It's plot revolves
around an abosrbing romance and another diamond smuggler. This
smuggler attempts to convince an English girl named Dorothy Calendar
who has recently inherited a large fortune, that he is her
long lost father. The smuggler then tries to rob Calendar of
her most precious item - a black bag of jewels. Unfortunately,
the novel did not enjoy the same level of positive reviews that
its predecessor, The Brass Bowl, did, even though it incorporated
similar themes of diamond smuggling and romance.
Some reviews abstracted in Book Review Digest 1908,
include a March 12, 1908 review in The Nation, which remarked
that "The Black Bag is probably not a masterpiece, but it has
certain very pleasing qualitites (366); and a review done by
Outlook magazine in February 1908 that stated,"As a sensational
narrative of crime attempted and frustrated it is ingenious
enough, but it does not come within sight of the remotest borders
of real literature (366)."
The 1909 Book Review Digest noted the following abstracted
reviews on The Bronze Bell: a June 1909 review in the American
Library Association Booklist stated, "[The Bronze Bell] has no
literary merit, but possesses the same qualities that made the
author's ?Brass Bowl' and ?Black Bag' popular (447)." The
Independent followed with another review in April 1909 that
stated, "It is not great art, it does not pretend to be, but it
is a rattling good story (447)." And, The Spectator critcized
the book two months later by saying, "The book is at least
picturesque and exciting, though the adventures are sometimes a
little confused (447)." The Bronze Bell's plot did not revolve
around diamond smuggling, but a duck hunting excursion that ends
up taking the protagonist halfway around the world to India (1909
Book Review Digest 447). One can only surmise that since all
three novels revolved around a romantic theme and had catchy
three-word titles that they were marketed as a trio.
All three novels were illustrated by different artists.
The Brass Bowl included illustrations by Orson Lowell, who
became a celebrated artist for magazines such as Life, The
American Girl and Judge, once the market for illustrated novels
diminished in the early 1920s ("An Illustrated Biography of
Orson Lowell"). The Black Bag also published by Bobbs-Merrill,
was illustrated by Thomas Fogarty (""An Exciting Yarn"). The
Bronze Bell, published by Dodd, Mead & Co., was illustrated by
Harrison Fisher, another artist known for his talent for drawing
beautiful women. Fisher did cover illustrations for the majority of
The American Girl magazine and for many years and was under
exclusive contract to do covers for Cosmopolitan magazine ("The
Works of Harrison Fisher").
Vance's Mysterious Death
The unusual circumstances surrounding Vance's death on
December 16, 1933, have spurred rumors, some of them as chilling
and unbelieveable as the plots in many of his novels. The morning
after Vance's death, The New York Times ran his obituray on it's
front page and became one of the main perpetrators of a the
theory that Vance perished as the result of a purported
phenomenon called spontaneous human combustion - when a human
body catches on fire and the source of the fire cannot be stated
According to a November 4, 1998 article in the New
Zealand newspaper, The Dominion, the concept of spontaneous
human combustion was first made popular by Charles Dickens with
his horrendous description of the death of a rag dealer named
Krook in his novel, Bleak House (13). Currently, there have been
at least 400 worldwide anecodatal accounts of spontaneous
combustion taking place, according to an April 10, 1999 article
appearing in The South China Morning Post (10).
Vance's obituary in the New York Times, stated that he
was discovered in his town house apartment on Thirty-eighth
Street in New York City by William McCoy, assistant manager of
the apartment. The author's body was found encircled in flames
that surrounded an upholstered armchair. Detectives summized
that the author had fallen asleep with a lighted cigarette in his
hand. Several of Vance's friends commented to detectives that
this was a common occurrence with Vance who even once said in an
interview three months prior to his death that it was his
ultimate ambition "to be so rich that I may lie in bed and smoke
Vance lived alone in his three bedroom apartment.
The fire that ultimately caused Vance's death strangely burned
all the upholstery off the chair he was sitting in, leaving only
the wooden frame. It was also reported that Vance's torso which
was found bare, was severly burned, with his head and right
shoulder found resting on the seat of the torched chair. Dr.
Robert C. Fisher, the asssitant medical examiner present at the
scene of death and who had Vance's torched body sent to the
hospital morgue to be examined, noted that it appeared as if
Vance's torso had been shoved into a blazing furnace or had been
bathed in combustible liquid. In addition, it appeared that
Vance had suffered very minor, if any, burns below his torso and
none of the other furniture in the room (besides the upholstered
chair he was sitting in) had caught on fire (The New York Times
A chemical analysis on Vance's blood and organs was
performed by Dr. Harry Schwartz, an assistant city toxicologist.
According to Schwartz, Vance tested negative for any type of
posions, however Vance did have "three plus ethyl alcohol" in
his brain at the time of his death. It seems that Vance was
most likely in such a drunken stupor that he was unable to call
for help. However, since he was purportedly alone at the time of
his death, we may never know the real circumstances for sure.
If the theory of Vance's death by spontaneous human combustion is
indeed true, then his bizarre death would undoubtedly be his most
shocking and sensational story ever.
Assignment One Works Consulted:
Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography.
New York: Oxford, 1972.
RLIN database (Library of Congress)
WorldCat database (Library of Congress)
Assignment Two Works Consulted:
The American Catalogue 1905-1907 New York: Peter Smith, 1941.
Catalog of Copyright Entries Cumulative Series: Motion Pictures
1912-1939. Washington: Library of Congress, 1951.
Chicorel, Marietta, ed. Chicorel Theater Index to Plays in
Anthologies, Periodicals, Discs and Tapes Vol. 3. New York:
Chicorel Library Publishing Corporation, 1972.
Hackett, Alice P. and James Henry Burke. 80 Years of
Bestsellers 1895-1975. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1977.
Hackett, Alice P. 70 Years of Bestsellers 1895-1965. New York:
R.R. Bowker, 1967.
Hackett, Alice P. 60 Years of Bestsellers 1895-1955. New York:
R.R. Bowker, 1956.
Library of Congress Card Catalog
The National Union Catalog 1942-1962: A Master Cumulation. Vol.
142. Detroit: Gale,1969.
Potter, Marion E., ed. The U.S. Catalog. 3rd ed. Minneapolis:
H.W. Wilson, 1912.
Publishers' Weekly. 1907. Microfilm. (2 reels).
Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature 1905-1909. Vol. 2.
Minneapolis: H.W. Wilson, 1910.
Assignment Three Works Consulted
"Louis Joseph Vance." Gale Literary Databases. Online.
http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD. Internet. 25 Mar 1999.
Soto, Mari. "Did Mystery Book Author Joseph Louis Vance Die of
SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion)?" Online.
Internet. 25 Mar. 1999.
Steinbrenner, Chris and Otto Pengler, eds. Encyclopedia of
Mystery and Detection, New York: McGraw, 1976.
Ward, A.C., ed. Longman Companion to Twentieth Century
Literature. London: Longman,1981.
Who Was Who in America, Volume I: 1897-1942, Chicago: Marquis,
Assignment Four Works Consulted:
"A Story of Crime" Rev. of The Brass Bowl, by Louis Joseph Vance.
The New York Times 6 Apr. 1907: 229.
Book Review Digest 1907. Minneapolis: H.W. Wilson, 1908.
Rev. of The Brass Bowl, by Louis Joseph Vance. The Academy.
30 Nov. 1907: 193.
Rev. of The Brass Bowl, by Louis Joseph Vance. The New York
Times 15 June 1907: 386
Publishers' Weekly. 25 May 1907: 1573.
Publishers' Weekly. 1 Jun. 1907: 1677.
Publishers' Weekly. 28 Sept. 1907: 747.
Assignment Five Works Consulted:
"An illustrated biography of Orson Lowell". Online.
http://www.bpib.com/lowell.htm. Internet. 25 Apr. 1999.
Barefield, Jack, Whipering Smith Rides Again. The Railroadiana
Express. Spring 1997. Online.
http://www.papertig.com/fsrvtre.htm Internet. 26 Apr. 1999.
Book Review Digest 1907. Minneapolis: H.W. Wilson, 1908.
Book Review Digest 1908. Minneapolis: H.W. Wilson, 1909.
Book Review Digest 1909. Minneapolis: H.W. Wilson, 1910.
Harrison, Michael. Fire From Heaven: A Study of Spontaneous
Combustion in Human Beings. New York: Methuen, 1978.
Martin, Yvonne. "Spontaneous Combustion Has Fired Many
Imaginations, including Charles Dickens's." The Dominion 4
Nov. 1998, natl. ed.: 13.
Maynard, Roger. "Mysterious Blaze Linked to Paranormal." The
South China Morning Post 10 Apr. 1999, natl. ed.: 10.
Railroad Stories. Online. http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/dabr/rrstorys/rrstorys.htm
Internet. 26 Apr. 1999.
Rev. of The Brass Bowl, by Louis Joseph Vance. The Academy.
30 Nov. 1907: 193.
Kunitz, Stanley J. and Howard Haycraft,ed. Twentieth Century
Authors. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1942: 141.
"Vance, Author, Dies of Burns in Home: Writer of Adventure
Stories Found in Blazing Arm Chair in 38th St. Apartment."
The New York Times 15 June 1907: 386.
"The Works of Harrison Fisher." Online.
Internet. 27 Apr. 1999.