Saturday, October 24, 2015
THE MYSTERY NOVEL by W Baird 1872
THE MYSTERY NOVEL by W Baird 1872
See also The 300 Oldest Murder Mystery and Crime Books & Stories on DVDrom
THE marvellous activity which distinguishes our age has been noted and commented on until every reader and hearer is naturally weary of the subject; nor is it our present purpose to try their patience further by dwelling upon this trite, though by no means exhausted theme. In none of the multiform channels of human thought and effort is this spirit more strikingly apparent than in that of literature. The literary activity, indeed, which finds vent in that class of works which we still by courtesy call novels, though if triteness and repetition could have produced such a result they would long since have forfeited all claim to the title, is positively enormous. Such as they are, however, we have them of all sorts and descriptions: society novels, political novels, religious novels, novels subjective and objective, grave and gay, philanthropic and misanthropic, sarcastic and sentimental. A benevolent gentleman insists upon treating us to an essay upon laws and customs which he deems objectionable, in the shape of a novel. An ambitious woman gives us a melange of slang, farriery and millinery which we are expected to accept as a genuine specimen of fictitious art. Perhaps of all books of the kind, the most remarkable are those in which monsters of combined elegance and strength make their appearance; who rise from a position of listless languor, and scarcely conscious of what they are doing, fell a prize-fighter to the earth with one blow of their feminine fists, or playfully toss a recusant bully over a wall or other unimportant obstruction. If they do not sleepily vault over the roof, or absently saunter away with the house, or rather castle, on their shoulders, it is only because the idea does not happen to strike their fancies. This however is scarcely to our present purpose, and would lead us, if pursued too far, from our immediate subject. We propose now to invite attention to a different section of this great division of the world of letters.
It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to divide all novels into classes, and to refer each separate work to one of such divisions. In effect, nothing nearer the truth than a loose approximation can be looked for in classifications of this nature; yet to serve our present purpose of distinguishing them, though but inaccurately, we think they may be divided into novels of character, novels of incident, and novels of plot. No doubt they will be constantly trenching upon each other's domain, the novel of incident will owe something to character, the novel of character something to plot, yet for our object at present this classification will answer well enough.
When we read a well-written novel of character, the perfect lifelikeness, the air of probability, nay of reality, is so carefully and successfully preserved, that it requires no great effort to glide gently into the quasi-belief that the events narrated really did take place, that the persons spoken of are or have been living and acting around us; that we have had a morning's interview with Mrs. Poyser, or attended the funeral of Lady Kew. There are novels, again, the merit of which consists chiefly in a series of well-chosen and probable incidents that give stir and movement to the story, connect it as it were with the real world, and constantly entertain without in any high degree exciting us. The novel of plot, pur et simple, cannot lay claim to the merit of either of the foregoing classes. Characters and occurrences are alike subordinated to the production of the denouement. The dramatis personae are merely pegs to hang the story on; as individuals we feel not the slightest interest in them. We care for them only as they affect the development of the plot. Nor, on the other hand, do we care anything for the incidents in these novels, except in so far as they tend to the gratification of our aroused curiosity. The best-imagined accident, the sprightliest conversation, the most amusing trait, we should feel to be out of place if it hindered for a moment our getting on with the narrative; we should be chafed and irritated as we are in real life by the pauses and comments of the bearer of some exciting intelligence. Hildegarde's sleigh-ride with Hamilton, or the expedition to Corrieandhu, would be intolerable in works of this class.
Without dwelling further upon the characteristics which distinguish these fictions, we will pass at once to the more minute subdivisions into which they naturally fall, one of the largest and most important of which may be designated as the Mystery Novel. The place which this species of fiction occupies in modern literature, the interest which it excites, and the number of readers which it attracts, whatever may be its intrinsic merit, render it well worthy of attention and examination. In the history of English literature, the novel of character precedes that of either of the other classes above-mentioned. Nor is this difficult of explanation. The first English novelists were the heirs and successors of the great English humorists. Though both plot and incident play a part no doubt, and sometimes an important and felicitous one, yet character is chiefly considered. It is upon this that the author puts forth his whole strength, and mainly rests his claims to favor and applause. The novel of plot, properly so-called, as a distinct variety, is of later growth. It cannot claim as its founders the great fathers of English fiction. Of that peculiar type which we have already designated as the mystery novel, the works of Mrs. Radcliffe are probably the first which attained any considerable degree of reputation and popularity. Into the merit of this kind of writing, and the rank in art which its successful votaries may fairly claim, we propose briefly to inquire. Of the German supernatural, or more properly extra-natural fiction, we do not design to speak at present, if indeed they could properly be classed under this head. The element of mystery which enters into their construction is of a different and higher order than that which pertains to the mystery romance in its more limited signification; the passions and faculties appealed to are of a more elevated cast. Moreover, there runs through them a vein of true poetry which places them in an entirely different rank. It would be unfair to both parties to compare these prose-poets, with their ideal imaginativeness, their dreamy and mystical fancies, with the mystery romancers. The Castle of Otranto, which seems to have set the fashion of ghostly, or quasi-ghostly mysteries in England, differs notwithstanding essentially from works of this description generally, and would require a separate examination. Of the picturesque type Mrs. Radcliffe's romances, already referred to, afford perhaps the best examples. The popularity which they attained on their first appearance would be difficult indeed to explain if we did not remember, first, that their peculiar merits were at that time new to the public, and secondly, that we have in our own time seen too many singular freaks of popular fancy to wonder at the taste of our ancestors. Before the appetite for such things had been worn out by endless and monotonous repetitions, it may have been natural for people to be interested or even excited about old desolate countryhouses or castles, secret passages, concealed doors, corpses that turn out not to be corpses, ghosts that prove to be very substantial, nay even rather heavy personages, etc. etc. Before the sensibilities of readers had been exhausted by constantly repeated demands, those marvellous heroines who go through the most startling adventures triumphantly by dint of fainting, or nearly fainting, on every other page, may have called forth sympathy instead of producing ennui. It was but fair that a few omissions and oversights should be forgiven in the conduct of such wonderful plots as those of Udolpho and The Italian. It was hardly in human nature to keep every thread in so intricate a web separate and in its proper place" to explain and account for everything, and finish off the work so neatly that no hanging end or clumsy knot should remain to vex the eye. There is a fashion in such things, and these works have had their day. Probably after all it would be less difficult for their admirers to defend their claims than for the eager readers of some modern fictions to support theirs.
We have neither space nor patience to proceed with a regular list, nor is it necessary for our present purpose. Before entering, however, upon an examination of that peculiar type of the mystery novel of which Wilkie Collins' works present the best and most striking examples, and to which we design particularly to invite the reader's attention, we would notice briefly a class to which a distinguished living writer a few years since contributed a not very successful attempt. We allude to A Strange Story. Lord Lytton's talents and long experience as a writer of fiction did not avail to save him from failure here. The attempt to combine preternatural phenomena with scientific or quasi-scientific solutions, did not prove a successful experiment. The difficulty of sustaining the interest in a narrative of this character, when extended to the length of an ordinary novel, was more than he could overcome. Hence we find the last part strikingly inferior to the first. An earlier story of the same cast, which appeared in Blackwood, and did not exceed the limits of a magazine article, was far more successful. Zanoni too, which preceded A Strange Story, and in which some similar characteristics may be discovered, is open to criticisms of somewhat the same kind.
We come now to the latest fictions of the modern mysterious school which have attained great popularity, and in some instances considerable reputation. Dickens late in life began to turn his attention in this direction, and seemed by the very title of the work which he left a fragment to have proclaimed his entrance into the lists hitherto kept by Wilkie Collins without a rival. There is enough in Edwin Drood to make us aware of this new ambition of its author. Jasper, who is the centre of the mystery, is a monstrous creation, worthy of a place beside Hester Dethridge et id genus omne, and the whole interest of the story turns upon the strange disappearance of the hero and the unknown cause thereof. The book, however, is a mere fragment, and for the present we take leave of it. Before proceeding farther we must pause to notice a celebrated instance of mysterious fiction with which the class of works we are examining might seem to claim some affinity; yet notwithstanding the points of resemblance, Godwin's famous novel must be placed in a separate category. For a minute examination of Caleb Williams we have not space here, if indeed it would not seem superfluous at this late period.
Before adverting to the defects and shortcomings with which they are chargeable, this meed of praise at least must be accorded to the best specimens of the school under review. Unquestionably they have interest. They stand remarkably well the test which Sydney Smith thought should be applied to all such productions, whatever that may be worth, and have much to answer for in the way of producing irritability, inattention, and want of punctuality. Collins's chefs d'oeuvre, for example, whatever may be their defects, at any rate fix attention, arouse curiosity, and effectually dispel ennui. This in an age when there is such a violent disposition abroad among people to lecture and reprove and reform their neighbors, and when essays upon prison regulations, upon biped suffrage, upon the sufferings of debtors and the claims of women, upon society, upon solitude, upon everybody's rights and everybody's wrongs, lurk like masked batteries under the harmless-looking covers of paper novels, is no small merit. Certainly this author does not make himself liable to a prosecution similar to the famous one which the Duc de Lauraguais is said to have actually instituted against a noted Parisian bore. In the beginning of The Moonstone, for instance, the latest of the author's works belonging to this class (for in Man and Wife he has adopted a different style), we discover that there is a mystery. Very soon we become involved in it. We are sorely puzzled, we peep at it, we think we see a gleam of light, we fancy we are on the track — before we have finished the page we shall know all about it in spite of the author. We read on to find our anticipations disappointed, our search constantly baffled. Considering hypothesis after hypothesis, we are forced to reject each in turn. We pause and attempt to reconcile the conflicting indications. Now surely the clue is in our hands, there can be no objection to this theory, this must be the true explanation, we have it at last; not at all—this is utterly at variance with what follows lower down on the same page. And thus we are beguiled chapter after chapter, hour after hour, until we arrive at length, breathless with curiosity, at the solution of the mystery, the discovery of the simple secret. In the progress of the story we are so violently hurried along that we can not take time to criticise or even to reflect. We have, as old Betteredge says forcibly and happily enough, the detective force upon us. We feel like thorough-paced professional thief-takers, and join in the chase with the keenest relish and the most eager avidity. It will be seen at a glance that the interest here called forth is of no very elevated character. It cannot be compared, for example, with that produced by an appeal to our desire for information in regard to the existence and nature of beings of a different order from our own, or concerning the modes of life and thought in a state of civilisation and under an organization of society remote from that to which we are accustomed. The interest excited here is of exactly the same nature with that which is felt when we are engaged in guessing a riddle, putting together a puzzle, or finding our way through a labyrinth. The author does not introduce us to fellow human beings and lead us to enter into their loves and their sorrows; he does not make us melt with pity or kindle with indignation. We feel neither interest in nor sympathy with the personages of the drama. Our curiosity is simply aroused and kept on the stretch with remarkable skill. In the work which we have just been considering, for instance, we are carried along so fast in pursuit of the thief who took the mysterious jewel that we do not pause to think whether Gabriel Betteredge is a natural steward or not. We have no time to object to his information or his metaphysics. What care we how incredible such a character may be? we only want to hear what this marvellous steward has to say about the circumstances attending the theft. It does not signify at all that the story taxes the powers of human credulity beyond all bounds, that the characters are unnatural, and the incidents to the last degree improbable. We want to know who the thief was, and yet we cannot possibly take breath and stop to think the problem out for ourselves. When we arrive at length at the solution, half angry with the author for puzzling us so long and disappointing us so often, our wrath is immediately turned against ourselves for the stupidity we have shown in blundering so long around the truth without finding it out. This self-blame, however, is not altogether deserved, for very considerable skill has been shown in throwing us off the track. The author points boldly in the direction in which what we are looking for is concealed, confident that we will not believe him. It is the very expedient so successfully adopted by Dupin in Poe's Purloined Letter. We are enveloped in such an atmosphere of mystery, we are induced to expect so much, that it is not natural for us to seek the object of our pursuit in what lies tossed carelessly in full view before our very eyes. Again, who stops in his perusal of the Woman in White to examine into the probability of the villain's character, or indeed of any of the characters, or the credibility of the events narrated? Let the hero be a nonentity for whom we feel a languid aversion, and the heroine, in good set phrase, an idiot; we want to know the secret which their actions are the means of concealing from or revealing to us. It is a curious instance of the influence of the mode of thought of his age over a writer that the author of such novels as these should think it necessary to attempt to persuade himself and his readers of the existence of an inner moral signification running through them. He takes pains in the preface of The Moonstone to inform us that his object had been "to trace the influence of character on circumstances." Certainly without the author's assurance we should hardly have suspected it. This is merely a concession to supposed necessity. In the days of Richardson and Smollett it would not have been thought of. So far of the writer who undoubtedly stands at present at the head of this school. When we turn to the examination of other works of the class, and even of Collins's-inferior productions, there is a descent indeed. We are plunged into a quagmire of absurdities, impossibilities, and repetitions. The imagination of one of these writers, distinguished by a portentous futility, seems utterly unequal to the task of conceiving any mystery save that involved in and growing out of a double marriage, and the apparent death, convenient or otherwise, of a previous husband or wife, as the case may be. In like manner the author of that clever little college story, Verdant Green, seemed unable to imagine any form of danger threatening his personages except one arising from the fury of some animal of the bovine genus. The heroes of these romances never by any chance meet with a misfortune or fall into a difficulty or embarrassment which does not commence with the marriage-service. Hymen, with her, is the very deity of mystery, and ought to be represented with a mask and domino. In the best of her books which we have read (and we by no means pretend to have read them all), the heroine commences her exciting and extraordinary career by falling in love, not with her grandmother's or grandfathers shadow, but — with her groom. With an utter contempt of conventional restraints she proceeds to marry him. After spending several months abroad in the enjoyment of this "celestial colloquy sublime," she grows tired of her bargain and returns to the arms of a very indulgent father. The inconvenient groom is afterwards comfortably disposed of, as every one thinks, by a lucky railway accident, and his by no means inconsolable widow in course of time fills up the vacancy by marrying the most confiding of lovers. An engagement with a previous admirer had in the meantime been broken off by the gentleman's not unnaturally requesting some information in regard to her life during her above-mentioned absence from home. This request his fiance, not without some reason all things considered, refuses positively and flatly to comply with, and the engagement is dissolved. While she is leading a luxurious and apparently happy life with her credulous and accommodating second husband, amidst such amusements as looking after favorite colts in loose boxes and correcting unruly grooms with her horsewhip, husband No. i turns up alive in the shape of a trainer highly recommended to and employed by husband No. 2. Husband No. 1 meets a violent death under circumstances very well calculated to direct suspicion towards the heroine. She flies from home, is pursued by her surviving husband, and at length by the assistance of her former less indulgent lover, the mystery is cleared up, she is proved innocent of murder, and remarried with all due ceremony to No. 2. Such is a rough outline of Aurora Floyd, which has, however, in spite of all its faults and absurdities, some interest attaching to the characters, however defective, apart from the mere curiosity excited and kept alive by the story. This may almost be called good by comparison.
In one of these novels the inevitable double marriage stops just short of completion because of the sudden reappearance of the first wife, who has lain perdu for two years, having been most marvellously spirited away by a certain pale, thin-lipped, white-haired artist who does duty as villain. In his schemes against the heroine who stands in the way of his acquisition of eleven thousand a year, Mr. Paul Marchmont is aided by the hero's cousin, his own cousin's widow, Olivia Marchmont, nee Arundel, who is actuated thereto by a quite unprovoked attachment to her cousin Edward Arundel, the hero. Mary Arundel disappears for the space of two years, and only makes her entree again when Olivia's jealousy is given a new direction by Edward Arundel's approaching marriage with another woman. As an explanation of the mystery we are asked to believe that in spite of every effort on her husband's part to find her, Paul Marchmont has been able to conceal his cousin, and subsequently her child also, first in a pavilion over his painting-room, and afterwards in a desolate farmhouse on her own estate. All this happens though Edward Arundel has from the first the strongest suspicion of the artist's guilt, and in the course of his ramblings, while remaining in the neighborhood for the purpose of discovering some trace of his missing wife, even hears the cry of his infant son in the aforesaid pavilion. The bald absurdity of this mystery makes it worth examination as an illustration; but it is not easy to know where to begin in the enumeration of its defects. The machinery is sufficiently old and clumsy when employed in a story of feudal life and distant countries, but in England and in the nineteenth century it is too preposterous to deserve serious discussion. It is enough to rouse the shades of Mrs. Radcliffe and Monk Lewis. The only possible explanation would be the idiocy or insanity of all the characters, and even then the outside world could hardly be expected to close their eyes and ears for the accommodation of non compotes dramatis persona. To do her justice, the authoress does seem to have reduced the actors very nearly to the requisite state of mental imbecility or alienation. This caps the climax. We beg pardon for having dwelt at such length upon this instance of what the mystery romance in some hands can become.
There is another class of novels, of which East Lynne may be selected as an example, in which also the interest arises in a certain degree from mystery. Here, however, while the actors perform their parts in the dark, the reader is introduced behind the scenes and supplied with a dark lantern. His entertainment consists, not in the excitement of his curiosity, the pleasure of guessing, knowing that he is finally to be told the secret should he fail to find it out for himself, but in watching the conduct of people involved in a labyrinth of which he has the clue, and seeing how they are affected by and act under the circumstances. While they are all blundering and situmbling about in their ignorance, he can please himself with the consciousness of superior knowledge, while his curiosity is gently titillated as to how the characters will finally come out of their entanglements and difficulties.
After this cursory and necessarily partial review of fictions of this order, the question naturally arises, What rank in art are they entitled to hold? As compared with the productions of the great masters of the craft, unquestionably a low one. Nor do we say this with reference to the absurd and repulsive machinery sometimes employed to veil the mystery and work out the denouement. We do not deny that in some of these stories considerable ingenuity and great labor is displayed in the pursuit of the author's darling object, viz. the mystification of his readers. The folds and intricacies of the knot evince rare skill; the labyrinth is hopelessly involved, and the guide makes his companion feel constantly that he would be lost at once if he were to attempt to advance a single step alone. In some novels of this class, in the construction of the plot, the creation and solution of the mystery, the powers of analysis and combination displayed are remarkable. It is the same power of which Poe has given so striking an example in his Murders in the Rue Morgue and other shorter tales. For the exercise of this faculty, and also for the power exhibited over the domain of the weird and the horrible, we are willing to give these works full credit. We look also with an indulgent eye upon sins against probability. We do not ask for strict probability, scarcely even for strict possibility, in stories of this kind; their peculiar merits are hardly compatible with that. This, however, cannot stretch to all such faults. We are willing to take certain characters and situations for granted without rigid inquiry, in order to give the author free scope for the exercise of his peculiar powers; but so much being conceded, we have a right to object to glaring violations of truth and nature.
Allowing, then, full measure to the peculiar merits of some of these fictions, and without designing to refuse to excellence of any kind in art its due meed of praise because it happens not to be excellence of another kind, this school of writing must yet be assigned a rank comparatively low. It appeals to our curiosity in one of its least elevated forms, and gratifies the passion it has stimulated without even the preliminary necessity of any mental exertion. It is a style much better suited to short stories than to fictions of the length of an ordinary novel, for the difficulty of keeping up the mystery and hiding the explanation through four or five hundred pages generally forces the author to resort to expedients awkward, mean, and ridiculous. We have already alluded to Mr. Dickens's unfinished story. Without of course attempting to give a critique of a book in so incomplete a condition, we may venture at least to say that the handling of the work, so far as it had gone at the time of the author's death, was by no means promising. Can it be true that we are to have it completed by another hand?
Humano capiti cervicem pietor equinam
Jamque si velit,—
the result may be looked for with curiosity at least.
See also The 300 Oldest Murder Mystery and Crime Books & Stories on DVDrom