ART AND THE DETECTIVE by Cecil Chesterton 1906
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There is perhaps no superstition which has had so mischievous an effect upon criticism as the modern habit of dismissing whole departments of art as intrinsically bad and unworthy. We constantly hear people stigmatize a play as “a mere melodrama" or "a mere farce.” They might as well call a poem “a mere epic." Our individual taste may lead us to prefer comedy to farce or melodrama. just as it may lead us to prefer ballades and romdeaux to epics. That is a matter of private preference with which criticism is not concerned. The function of criticism is to distinguish good from bad in any art, and to deny the possibility of a good melodrama is to destroy all criticism, including the right to condemn a bad one.
No form of artistic effort has suffered more from this indiscriminate condemnation than the type of narrarative which we commonly call the Detective Story. That a very large number of people write bad detective stories is true; perhaps an even larger number write bad sonnets. But that does not prove that “Avenge, 0 Lord, thy slaughtered Saints" is not a great poem. neither does it prove that “Le Crime d’Orclval" is not a great novel. If the average level of detective-story writing is peculiarly low, may not this fact itself be attributed to the refusal of literary criticism to take its artistic qualities seriously? Where there is no recognition of merit there can be no standard. Consequently the workmanship of many even of the best contemporary writers of this class is often careless and hasty to an extent which would have shocked Poe and Gaboriau, who put into their tales of mystery as much care and artistic conscience as a modern writer would put into a “problem” novel. dealing with the delicate psychology of a man who thought he was made of glass.
The detective or mystery story need not, of course, be primarily concerned with detectives. Some of the best stories of this type, like “The Woman in White," have not the shadow of a detective from cover to cover. The real distinguishing feature is that the reader should be confronted with a number of mysterious facts of which the explanation is reserved till the end. Now this reservation of the final solution, in order to pique the reader’s curiosity, excite his ingenuity, and lead him on to an unexpected climax, is a quite legitimate artistic effect. The only question to be asked about it in any particular instance is whether it succeeds, whether the effect is really accomplished? And for its success two primary qualifications are necessary,— firstly, that the mystery should really be mysterious; secondly, that the explanation should really explain. These conditions may appear at first sight somewhat elementary. Yet I know few modern detective stories that do not violate one or other of them, while a great many persistently violate both.
In regard to the first condition. English writers who aspire to popularity are severely handicapped by the characteristic sentimentallsm of their countrymen. The British public likes to have its vice and virtue clear-cut and unmistakable. It likes the hero to be consistently heroic, the villain to be well marked by his black moustache. his cigarette and his easy laugh. Now this is all very well in melodrama, but it is fatal to the mystery story. There it is essential that the hero should look as much like a villain and the villain as much like a hero as is possible. They must be ready to change characters at any moment. But English readers do not like to have their sympathies switched on and off in this manner. And English writers have to stultify their art in order to please them. When, in one of the Sherlock Holmes tales. a beautiful and appealing girl begs Holmes, whatever the evidence may be, not to believe in her lover's guilt, we know with absolute certainty that her lover is innocent. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would not dare to make him guilty after that appeal. But Gaboriau would have dared. He would have made the beautiful and appealing girl guilty too, if it had suited his purpose. The French public is, I suppose, much less sentimental and much more discriminatingly critical than the British. The great French masters of the police novel never hesitate to make the noble and generous young man a murderer, or the heroic and long-suffering wife an adulteress and accomplice of assassins.
The second condition is even more constantly violated. I have read hundreds of such tales which made excellent reading so long as the mystery subsisted, but of which the conclusion was unspeakably weak and farfetched and in some cases absolutely unintelligible. Nothing is more irritant in a detective story than that even one mysterious circumstance should remain at the end unexplained. Yet the writers appear to imagine that it is quite sufiicient if they have thought of some sort of explanation of the central mystery. while a hundred attendant facts, introduced soiely to puzzle or mislead the reader, are left without even a suggestion to illumine them.
Indeed the conclusion ought to be not merely plausible, but in a sense inevitable. The reader ought not indeed to expect it, but he ought to feel afterwards that he ought to have expected it. To explain the problem at the last moment, as is often done, by introducing new circumstances at which he could not possibly have guessed, is merely to leave him laboring under a half-conscious sense of injury and resentment, and rightly so, for he has been cheated into attempting to solve a puzzle which, as it turns out, was for him quite insoluble. In an ideal detective story all the clues to the true solution ought to be there from the first, but so overlaid as to pass unnoticed. If any one wishes to see how this can be done, let him read attentively the first two or three chapters of “The Moonstone,“ wherein, for example, the all-important conversation between Franklyn Blake and the doctor is given at length, but in such a context as to appear a mere incident designed to throw light on a phase of Franklyn’s temperament.
Of course the worst and commonest temptation of the writer of detective stories is to the spendthrlft use of coincidence. Let me take a very bad example from one of Mr. Arthur Morrison's stories. It is the story of a negro who throws a tortoise at a French servant and kills it. The Frenchman, who is much devoted to the tortoise, is bitterly angry and vows vengeance. The next day the negro is found murdered with an inscription pinned on him, “Revanche pour la Tortue." It eventually turns out that the reference is not to the slaughtered tortoise, but to the massacre of La Tortue, an island of Haiti in which the negro had borne a part. Now this is quite intolerable. If it were a dog or a cat we might just pass it, but a tortoise! It is not common for men to be devoted to tortoises, and the coincidence of a man being so devoted to a tortoise as to swear vengeance for its death, and of the man who killed it being a man who had incurred the anger of people in an obscure island called the Tortoise is too much for any reader to swallow with ease.
I know that it is sometimes urged in extenuation of such flctions that very remarkable coincidences do occur from time to time in real life. This is true enough, but it is nothing to the purpose. The old proverb that truth is stranger than fiction may be put more soundly in the form that fiction must not be so strange as truth. And this is obviously so, since fiction has to create an illusion of reality, while truth, being true, can be as improbable as it chooses.
In all the technical craft of mystery making Gaboriau stands first and almost without rival. He excels especially in avoiding all the errors of which I have spoken. His mysteries are really mysteries; his solutions are really solutions. He is baffling, but he is never unnatural. He leaves nothing unexplained. He never stretches the long arm of coincidence. Suspicion shifts naturally from culprit to culprit as it would in real life. Sometimes, as in “La Veuve Lerouge," a single unnoticed circumstance will turn the whole story upside down. But the circumstance is not in itself unnatural or even startling. We feel rather foolish not to have thought of it ourselves.
Wilkie Collins was inferior to Gaboriau in the special technique of the detective story. But he had immense compensation in his superiority in the larger art of creation. The characterization of Gaboriau, though by no means as wooden as some of his English imitators, is comparatively faint and pallid. Collins, on the other hand, could, when he chose, create great comedic figures worthy to rank with those of Dickens. There is no Count Fosco, no Captain Wragge, no Miss Clack in Gaboriau. Nor is Lecoq so picturesque a figure as Serjeant Cuff.
I know that this kind of interest is generally thought to be unnecessary, if not absolutely out of place in a detective story. No mistake could be more disastrous; it is responsible for more than half of the appalling dulness of modern mystery novels. Unless you are interested in the characters in a story you cannot be interested in what happens to them. Fosco is arresting before he has done or suffered anything, and therefore any mystery in which Fosco is involved makes one hold one’s breath. But the ordinary hero of sensational fiction is so signally uninteresting in himself that one really cannot pretend to be excited as to whether he is or is not guilty of the death of his equally uninteresting uncle.
Poe had perhaps less ingenuity than Gaboriau, and certainly less power of creative characterization than Collins. Moreover his output was small and his fiction like his poetry is all splendid fragments—reminders of what he might have done but for the curse of Reuben that lay always upon him. But he was what neither Gaboriau nor Collins could claim to be, a poet and a man of abstract thought. Such a conception as that of “The Purloined Letter” is imaginatively beyond the reach of any other writer of the kind. And Dupin is more than a great detective, he is a great rationalistic philosopher, the incarnation of the logical and scientific conception of life.
A criticism of modern detective fiction would obviously be inadequate without some appreciation of the great Sherlock Holmes cycle. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is at least entitled to claim the honor of being the only novelist since Dickens, one of whose creations has become a popular proverb. It is easy to test this. Mr. Rudyard Kipling is generally considered a popular writer. Mulvaney is probably Mr. Klpling’s most popular creation. But let any one say in an assembly of twenty average men chosen at random from the street— “That man is quite a Mulvaney." Perhaps two men will understand the reference; perhaps one: quite possibly none. But let him say “That man is quite a Sherlock Holmes." The recognition will be instantaneous and unanimous. A man who had not heard of Holmes would be more singular than a man who could not sign his own name. Sir Arthur is the only writer of our time who has done this, and he has never done it twice. He has done more ambitious work than the Sherlock Holmes tales, but none of it has passed into the language.
And they fully deserved their popularity. They were excellent stories, admirably conceived, and in the great majority of cases admirably executed. But their charm was not wholly or even mainly the charm of the pure detective story. One or two, like “Silver Blaize," for instance, were admirable even from the technical point of view, but for the most part,—well, you have only to compare them with Gaboriau to feel the difference. The fact is that Sherlock Holmes was too perfect a defective for the stories of which he is the hero to be perfect detective stories. The conception of the ideal reasoner, the man in whom the powers of observation and deduction had become so acute that he saw instantly the remote causes and the remote consequences of every fact. was a fine one. Poe had conceived it before, but Sir Arthur amplified and popularized it, making the drawing and coloring broader and leaving out the philosophy. The whole figure of Holmes is intensely picturesque. his violin, his cockaigne, his fits of lethargy and energy, his egotism, his contempt for passion. And through it all ran a sub-current of irony mirrored in the admirable fatuity of Watson, which made the flavor more delicate. But this idealization of the detective is in a way fatal to the art of the detective story. That the true solution may be absolutely hidden from the reader it is necessary that it should be only slowly and partially revealed to the detective. Holmes sees everything in a moment, and so leads us to see too much. That is where Gaboriau’s hero has the advantage of him. In one of his conversations with Watson, Holmes is, I remember, very severe on Lecoq, whom he pronounces “a bungler.” Certainly Lecoq had no pretence to the faultless insight of his critic. He was a clever and energetic detective, but no miracle worker. He made mistakes, he followed false scents, he led the reader astray. And so he made the story. In a word Lecoq was a bungler because Gaboriau was an expert.
If we want to find the best contemporary mystery stories,—the best, I mean, considered simply as mystery stories—we shall not go to the famous cycle of Sherlock Holmes. Still less shall we go to Mr. Arthur Morrison, whose experiments in this direction. with the one exception of “The Dorrington Deed Box,” are of little value, and whose real and quite unquestionable talents lie in a different direction, or to Mr. Fergus Hume, who wrote one good detective story, followed by a number of negligible ones. We shall. I think, turn to the work of two women, Mrs. A. K. Green and Miss Florence Warden.
It may seem curious that women should be successful in a branch of fiction which many would be disposed to pronounce a masculine specialty. Perhaps Mrs. Green has herself supplied the explanation. In one of her best stories, "That Affair Next Door." she introduces us to a very commonplace old maid, like most old maids curious, secretive, keenly observant of her neighbors‘ affairs, and fond of speculating about other people’s business. Circumstances throw her into the very centre of a mysterious crime, and suddenly reveal in her all the qualities of a great detective. All the characteristics which made her a nuisance to her neighbors make her an invaluable ally to the police. The conception is a daring, and, I think, a true one. I fancy that the two faculties which the great Sherlock declared to be the prime necessities of a detective, observation and deduction, are feminine rather than masculine faculties. It will hardly be disputed that it is so in regard to the former; while, as to the latter, what man ever discovered as much about the inhabitants of the house opposite as any woman will deduce from the shape of their window blinds? Most women quite habitually indulge in the sort of ratiocination that Holmes practised over the old hat. Be that as it may, Mrs. A. K. Green herself has certainly as much right as any contemporary writer to claim the mantle of Gaboriau for stories the excellent technique of which should put some popular writers on this side of the Atlantic to shame.
Miss Florence Warden is in many ways even more worthy of note, and would, I fancy, have her merits more generally acknowledged, if criticism did justice to the mystery story. Also, I think, she would do better work. Almost all her defects arise from a lack of artistic seriousness, due, it may be, to the knowledge that the sort of story she is writing will never have either its merits properly acknowledged or its faults properly criticized. She writes, I should say, too much. But, when all has been said, it remains true that her work has qualities strikingly absent from that of her rivals. For one thing she has grasped the fact to which I referred in speaking of Wilkie Collins, the fact that good character draughtsmanship is a necessary element in good sensationalism. She interests you in her creations before she attempts to interest you in their adventures and perplexities. There are in her stories several figures that one remembers when the plot is forgotten. Moreover, she has a real sense of romance, a rare and a most essential gift. For romance is no easy thing to achieve, and has nothing whatever to do with sensational incident. You may have a romance without any incident at all as in E. Nesbit's novel, “The Red House." Or you may have battle, murder and sudden death every ten lines without a spark of romance, as in the novels of Mr. Stanley Weyman. Miss Warden has got the real thing. The first chapter of “The Mystery of Dudley Horne,“ the first two or three chapters of “No. 3 The Square” strike the note that gives the thrill. They are genuinely romantic.
It is a pity that Stevenson‘s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” has been spoilt as a mystery story by passing into a proverb. I, like most persons, I suppose, of my generation, knew the explanation before I read the story. To those who have had the good fortune not to know it, it must be, I should imagine, an extraordinarily exciting mystery, as well as an admirable parable and a quite unrivalled piece of writing. That Stevenson could have written a very fine detective story, it he had chosen, no one who has read the tense and fascinating chapter in “The Wrecker," where Nares, and the hero overhaul the derelict wreck, will be disposed to doubt.
The mention of “Dr. Jekyll" recalls the possibility of the philosophic detective story. The idea that you cannot put good philosophy into certain artforms is as absurd and mischievous as the idea that you cannot put good workmanship into them. Mr. Shaw, for example, has put his philosophy into the form of ordinary melodrama in “The Devil's Disciple." Ibsen has put his into the form of pantomian extravaganza in “Peer Gynt." There is no earthly reason why a man with a specific talent for the work should not put ideas as profound into the form of the detective story. For after all the essence of the detective story is the presence of visible phenomena with a hidden explanation. And that, when one comes to think of it, is the essence of all the philosophies. Cecil Chesterton
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