Old Bestseller: The Stories of the Three Burglars, by Frank R. Stockton
a review by Rich Horton
For Christmas my daughter bought me some very old books -- she knows me well! One of them was a pocket-sized edition of this novella by Frank R. Stockton. It's published by Dodd, Mead, copyright 1889. I'm not sure it's a first -- the cover decorations don't match others I've seen, but the size is consistent with the various firsts I've seen advertised, about the same as a contemporary mass market paperback. The flyleaf is inscribed twice: in what looks like a fountain pen, "Papa from Edna, Christmas 1897" (suggesting that this copy may date a bit later than the original publication), and also in pencil "Lorraine Dove".
Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902) was born in Philadelphia, the son of a Methodist minister. After his marriage he moved to New Jersey (not far from Philadelphia, after all), and lived there the rest of his life. He wrote widely, including a series of well-regarded fairy stories for children, that unusually for that time eschewed moralism, and were generally funny. He also wrote for adults, including a significant piece of proto-Science Fiction, The Great War Syndicate. These days is mostly remembered for the story "The Lady or the Tiger".
The Stories of the Three Burglars is a novella of about 30,000 words. It is told by a man, a successful lawyer, living with his wife, his Aunt, and his very young son in a country home outside of New York, presumably an early suburb of sorts. The town is subjected to a spate of burglaries, and the narrator plans to fortify his house against them. He also decides on an additional safeguard -- that may perhaps allow the burglar to be caught. He leaves an open bottle of wine in his study, with a sleeping draught included, in order to entice the burglar to take a drink, and thus fall asleep where he can be apprehended.
Presently exactly his happens, but when the man comes downstairs, he finds not one but three burglars. He ties them up, wakes them, and plans to call the police. But by then his wife and Aunt have come down, and the burglars beg to tell their stories. And the women insist that this be allowed.
So the three stories are told ... the first burglar confesses that his father introduced him to housebreaking when he was just a child. In the process he gained an appreciation for the finer things in life, but his father was caught and sent to jail, and he decided to go straight, but life has been hard. He swears that in this instance he was acting as an assistant to the real burglar, and that the third man is a journalist gathering information about the process of burglary.
The second burglar, the supposed real burglar, confirms this story, and tells his own, which is simpler -- he truly is a burglar, and he's perfectly matter of fact about it. It's just his business. He does tell a couple of amusing stories about jobs gone wrong, including a kidnap job in which the girl he kidnaps by mistake is happy to have been taken.
Finally the third man, the journalist, tells his story, which is much stranger. He was born in the US, but after his mother's death, he had to go to Europe with his father, an engineer. While his father is away at work, he lives in an isolated castle, and one day he meets a beautiful girl. (By this time he is a young adult.) They fall in love, but she is engaged to be married to a harsh older man, who discovers them and vows to kill the young man. He is saved from this older man by a strange creature -- an invisible dog-snake, of all things ... and by and by he and his love are able to escape to America and get married, and he becomes a journalist ...
There's more to all this than I've told, of course -- and then there's the denouement, where the man, his wife, and his Aunt must decide whether or not to let any of these burglars free ... which leads to a not too surprising and slightly anticlimactic twist ending. In the end, this is surely not among Stockton's best stories, though it is amusing enough.