Thursday, December 24, 2015
The Genius of the Detective Story by Harry Thurston Peck 1907
THE DETECTIVE STORY by Harry Thurston Peck
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Supercilious persons who profess to have a high regard for the dignity of "literature" are loath to admit that detective stories belong to the category of serious writing. They will make an exception in the case of certain tales by Edgar Allan Poe, but in general they would cast narratives of this sort down from the upper ranges of fine fiction. They do this because, in the first place, they think that the detective story makes a vulgar appeal through its exploitation of crime. In the second place, and with some reason, they despise detective stories because most of them are poor, cheap things. Just at present there is a great popular demand for them; and in response to this demand a flood of crude, ill-written, sensational tales comes pouring from the presses of the day. But a detective story composed by a man of talent, not to say of genius, is quite as worthy of admiration as any other form of novel. In truth, its interest does not really lie in the crime which gives the writer a sort of starting point. In many of these stories the crime has occurred before the tale begins; and frequently it happens, as it were, off the stage, in accordance with the traditional precept of Horace.
The real interest of a fine detective story is very largely an intellectual interest. Here we see the conflict of one acutely analytical mind with some other mind which is scarcely less acute and analytical. It is a battle of wits, a mental duel, involving close logic, a certain amount of applied psychology, and also a high degree of daring on the part both of the criminal and of the man who hunts him down. Here is nothing in itself "sensational" in the popular acceptance of that word.
The reasoning, for instance, in Poe's story of The Purloined Letter would excite the admiration of a mathematician or of a student of metaphysics. In the same author's most famous story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, there are to be sure some details that are terrible to read—hideous traces of a monstrous crime; but these details are necessary. The perpetrator of the crime is not a human being, but an orang-outang, and this fact compels a description of the unhuman and frightful manner in which the murders were committed. But in general, not only in Poe, but in Ponson du Terrail and Gaboriau and Boisgobey and Conan Doyle, the evil deed which is the cause of the whole action is usually passed over lightly, and very often it is not a crime of violence. Indeed, the matter may turn out to be no crime at all, but simply a mysterious happening, which the quick-witted, subtle hero is called in to solve, as in Doyle's The Man with the Twisted Lip, or the same author's slighter tale, A Case of Identity.
Therefore, when we speak of the detective story, and regard it seriously, we do not mean the penny-dreadfuls, the dime-novels, and the books which are hastily thrown together by some hack-writer of the "Nick Carter " school, but the skilfully planned work of one who can construct and work out a complicated problem, definitely and convincingly. It must not be too complex; for here, as in all art, simplicity is the soul of genius. The story must appeal to our love of the mysterious, and it must be characterised by ingenuity, without transcending in the least the limits of the probable.
The origin of the detective story is to be found in Voltaire's clever romance, Zadig, which he wrote under peculiar circumstances. He had fallen out of favour with the French court, because he had intimated that some of the members of the royal circle were guilty of cheating at cards. This brought upon him the keen displeasure of the queen. He feared lest at any moment he might be arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille. Within the hour, almost, he had his carriage prepared, and hurried away at halfpast one in the morning. Arriving at a little wayside inn, he sent a letter to the Duchesse du Maine, begging her to hide him in her chateau until he had been pardoned. For a month he lived in two rooms, which she provided for him, behind barred shutters, and with candles burning night and day.
There Voltaire wrote and wrote continually in his cramped hand, while his valet copied the sheets which his master kept tossing upon the floor with the ink still wet upon them. At two o'clock in the morning, Voltaire would go softly down to where the duchess was awaiting him, and eat a little supper in her presence, amusing her by his brilliant talk. Then he would creep back to his prison, and after a brief interval of sleep, would once more fall to writing. It was under these strange circumstances that he composed the miniature masterpiece of romance which he called Zadig. Zadig, of course, is not a detective story. It is an oriental tale, and its hero, Zadig, is a marvellous philosopher and acute observer. One passage in the story tells how he described to the Persian king's attendants a horse and a dog which had been lost, and which Zadig had never seen. Nevertheless, he was able by his powers of observation, and from certain indications, not only to describe the dog—its sex, size, and condition—but to tell correctly what sort of a bit was in the horse's mouth, and with what sort of shoes the animal had been shod.
It should be noted that the suggestion of this story, Le Chien et Le Cheval, was not original with Voltaire. The tale is found in a slightly different form in De Mailly's Voyage et Aventures des Trois Princes de Sarendip, which appeared in 1719, or twenty-eight years before Zadig was written, and was even rendered into English twenty-four years before Voltaire conveyed it. But careful investigation has shown that De Mailly himself was not the originator. His story professes to have been translated from the Persian, but was, in fact, taken from an obscure Italian writer, Cristoforo Armeno, whose book was printed in Venice in 1557, and translated into French as early as 1610. As a matter of fact, the episode with which we are all familiar in Voltaire has an oriental ancestry which can be traced through Arabic, Turkish, and Persian literature, and Talmudic Hebrew, until the clue is lost in the mists of a remote past.
In all these tales occurs the same kind of deductive reasoning which plays so great a part in the best detective stories of modern times. Just as Voltaire derived his hint from De Mailly, so Poe, who was steeped in French literature, must have drawn from Voltaire the same idea which he so brilliantly developed in his story, The Purloined Letter. It is interesting to remember that the scene of all three of Poe's most famous detective tales—The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, and The Mystery of Marie Roget—is laid in France.
As has been said elsewhere in this book, no one has surpassed the ingenuity of Poe in the construction of these stories. It was noted, however, that one's admiration ends with the matter of his constructiveness and reasoning, and I ventured to say that the defect in all these tales lies in the fact that their author could not create a living, breathing character. His personages are nothing but abstractions. He moves them about like chessmen on a board, and we are interested, not in them, but in the problem with which they have to do.
In order that the detective story should be something more than mathematics applied to fiction— or, perhaps, fiction applied to mathematics—it was necessary that what Poe did should be combined with a sympathetic understanding of human nature. This combination was effected—imperfectly, to be sure, but still with great ability—by Emile Gaboriau in the best of his detective stories, M. Lecoq.
Gaboriau was a journalist before he turned a novelist; and as a journalist he came to be interested in the problems with which the police of Paris had to deal. This was under the Second Empire, when Napoleon III., for his own personal safety, had established a marvellously elaborate system of espionage. The police records contained the daily history of almost every human being within the boundaries of France. Enrolled in the organisation were not merely the usual police, but a host of unknown spies. These might apparently be shopkeepers, janitors, labourers, or whatever else seemed best; but apart from their ordinary occupations, they were the eyes and ears of the men who controlled them all at the central prefecture of police or the mysterious Black Room in the Tuileries, and to whom they reported daily. Every foreigner, even though he were known to be merely a traveller for pleasure, was watched, and everything that he did was carefully recorded. An inquiry addressed to the minister of police could bring from him at once complete particulars concerning almost any man or woman—where they had been at a given time, who were their friends, how they amused themselves, and a great deal more besides. All this information might not be used, and much of it was never used, yet scarcely anything was unknown to the men who cast this great spider's web over France, and who could from their files produce facts which, if generally known, would have wrecked families, destroyed reputations, and laid bare the dark secrets of many a life that seemed wholly spotless.
Gaboriau became fascinated by the thoroughness and precision of this remarkable system. He studied it in all its phases, and with the greatest care. As a result of this study, he wrote the novels which, with all their blemishes, are still read eagerly in many countries and in many languages.
Of these novels, the one best constructed and most deserving of fame is that entitled M. Lecoq, which he published in 1869, not many years before his death. In it is seen an ingenuity equal to that of Poe, while there is also shown a fair success in sketching character. Moreover, the author has introduced a new type of deductive reasoner which suggested to Conan Doyle the interesting Mycroft Holmes, brother of Sherlock Holmes, and that great detective's superior in the subtlety of his intellectual processes.
It will be remembered that the story of M. Lecoq opens with the commission of a crime, which, on the face of it, was not mysterious, but was apparently just one of those everyday tragedies that take place in the lowest quarters of Paris. Several detectives are making their rounds in the outskirts of the city, on a winter night, when they hear cries and pistol-shots from a low drinking-den of evil repute, situated in an open field on which the snow lies deep. The detectives hurry to the scene, surround the house, break in the door, and see, by the light of some flaming pine knots upon the hearth, that an act of violence has been committed. Tables and chairs have been overturned. Two men are stretched dead, while a third is already in the throes of death. Behind an oaken table stands a young and stalwart man, clenching a revolver. His torn garments resemble those of a railway porter. He declares that he has shot the men in self-defence, because they made a desperate attack upon him, believing him to be a police spy.
On the face of it there is nothing improbable in this. His story is believed by the men who arrest him, and especially by Gevrol, a police-officer of some rank. The youngest of the detectives, however, whose name is Lecoq, feels a vague suspicion that the prisoner is not what he declares himself to be, and that underneath this crime there is hidden a tale of peculiar mystery. Two women are known to have been present, but they have escaped. There are also, to the mind of Lecoq, indications that the prisoner, in spite of his common clothing, is no common person; that he is a man of education, of great natural ability, and perhaps of rank; and finally that he had a male accomplice. These deductions of Lecoq are scouted by Gevrol; but nevertheless the young detective resolves to establish his theory and to solve the problem. From that moment there begins a conflict of wits between the prisoner on the one side and Lecoq on the other, the latter having the sympathy and confidence of the examining magistrate. The scene of the prisoner's examination by this magistrate is one of thrilling interest, and it gives to us Anglo-Saxons a vivid picture of the workings of French law in its assumption that a prisoner is guilty unless he proves his innocence. The long, searching inquiry in which the judge alternately pleads with the accused and browbeats, threatens, and tortures him, hoping at last to break him down and wring from him a full confession, is wonderfully written.
The prisoner tells the magistrate a perfectly straightforward story, and yet there are parts of it which, under a keen cross-examination, show weakness and self-contradiction sufficient to strengthen the suspicion of Lecoq. Nevertheless, the detective is for the time quite baffled. All the external evidence that can be found, curiously confirms the prisoner's story. Lecoq becomes convinced that there is a shrewd accomplice acting from without, who, in some mysterious way, is working as the prisoner's second self. The accused is kept in prison. His every action is watched, both night and day. Extraordinary tricks are devised to compel him to betray himself. They completely fail.
At last, Lecoq arranges matters so that the mysterious criminal may escape. Lecoq's plan is to follow him after he has escaped, and thus discover who are his friends and who he really is. The escape takes place. The prisoner threads his way through the most intricate mazes of criminal Paris, followed by Lecoq, who carries on the pursuit with the keenness of a hound; but at the end of the long hunt the object of it unexpectedly disappears over a high wall, which surrounds the magnificent grounds and mansion of the Due de Sairmeuse, one of the noblest members of the French aristocracy. Though Lecoq and the police at once enter the mansion, and search all the rooms in it, their bird apparently has flown. A ball and reception are in progress in the great house. There are no traces in it of the fleeing criminal; and Lecoq for the time confesses himself defeated, suffering in silence the jeers of his associates, and especially of Gevrol, who has become jealous of his able and enthusiastic subordinate.
Lecoq finally betakes himself to the house of an old retired tradesman, who is an amateur in criminology and detection. This person, named Tabaret, but known to the police as Pere Tirauclair, is much of the time confined in bed by gout. For his own amusement, however, he collects all the details of every conspicuous crime and studies them with intense avidity, not as crimes, but as psychological problems. Given all the facts, he can, by the unerring processes of pure reason, sift out the false from the true, the irrelevant from the essential, and go swiftly to the heart of any mystery. It is he who gives Lecoq the clue to the identity of the escaped prisoner.
Here is the original suggestion of Mycroft Holmes, who, it will be remembered, was fat and lazy, spending his spare hours in the Diogenes Club, of which no member ever spoke to any other member. Mycroft Holmes does not trouble himself with any active work. He relies entirely upon his deductive powers and relentless logic. It may be said that this is only a copy of Poe's Auguste Dupin, but such is not the case. Dupin did "outside work," personally visited the scenes of crimes, inserted advertisements in newspapers, and, in fact, employed the whole machinery of detection. But Mycroft Holmes, like old Pere Tirauclair, simply thought out the problem presented to him, and then directed others what to do. Here we find a conception more attractive even than that of Poe; and the literary touches of Gaboriau and Doyle give us a genuine personality that far surpasses the interest of a mere calculating machine.
It is true that Gaboriau mars his story by injecting into it a long secondary narrative. Conan Doyle made precisely the same mistake in his first successful detective tale, A Study in Scarlet; but it was a mistake which he never repeated. Gaboriau, therefore, is a link between Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle, just as Poe himself is a link between Voltaire and Gaboriau.
Conan Doyle is the supreme writer of detective stories. He, like Gaboriau, plays the game fairly, since he lets the reader have all the knowledge which Holmes himself possesses. It has been written of his tales:
"The really remarkable thing about these stories is that, before the mystery is solved, the reader is put in possession of every fact material to its solution. The Chinese puzzle is handed over with no missing pieces. We are freely offered every single bit of evidence which could convince the detective. That is, the reader has been kept in exactly the mental state of the ingenuous Dr. Watson, or the blundering officials, Lestrade and Gregson. He has seen all there is to be seen; and if he fails to interpret events aright, it is simply because his own acuteness does not equal that of the detective."
In other words, the cleverness of Doyle lies in his simplicity and frankness, and also in the fact that his people are living, breathing human beings. One grows fond of Sherlock Holmes, not only because of his wonderful mind, but because of his faults and failings. His addiction to the cocaine habit, his dislike of women, his skill as a boxer, his need when thinking out a problem of smoking great quantities of shag tobacco which he keeps in an old slipper, his trick of shooting bullets into his mantelpiece so as to form the royal initials (V. R.), the general disorderliness of his housekeepings—all these things give him individuality. We feel that we actually know him. We are almost as much interested in his personal whims and prejudices, and in his casual talks with Watson, as we are with his triumphs of detection.
And the same interest adheres to Watson, that admirable, commonplace, and usual Briton, and in a less degree to the official police who employ Sherlock's skill and then take credit to themselves. No imitators of Poe, or of Doyle himself, have been successful in this thing. They can think out problems, but they can not create men and women. Compare, for instance, the detective stories lately written by Mr. Jacques Futrelle and M. Gaston Leroux. Their work is purely machine work. To go further back, even Balzac, who made an attempt at detective fiction in his Ferragus, was wise enough to see that this was not his forte. He and Ponson du Terrail in this one particular field seem stodgy and mechanical. Yet even Gaboriau is superior to Poe. Had there been no Gaboriau, we might never have had that fascinating cycle of stories which Conan Doyle has written around the great detective who lived in Baker Street, and whose name is as well known all over the world to-day as that of Shylock, Falstaff, or any other creation of Shakespeare himself, with, perhaps, Hamlet as the one exception.
Of course, this seems extravagant; but the contemporary public is seldom a good judge of what is best or of what is worst in the writers of their own time. They either overpraise or underestimate. It is, or ought to be, a truism that professional critics of literature are generally the very last persons in the world to recognise the value of new literature when they see it. This is partly because such standards as they have are purely conventional, and partly because they themselves are timorous and mistrustful and afraid of making mistakes. Hence they hesitate to commit themselves to a definite opinion until they are pretty sure that they are on the side of the majority. The result is that they follow where they ought to lead, and are apt to come in at the tail of the procession when they ought to come in at its head. Just as the venerable Austrian commanders in Italy were convinced that Napoleon knew nothing about the art of war because he was defeating them in reckless defiance of the rules laid down in the military text-books, so our literary critics would not admit that Kipling's first five books had any value; for these were brilliant in an utterly new way, and not in the thoroughly recognised old way. Originality is terribly disconcerting to unoriginal people. They think it frivolous or "unsound" or "queer." They never quite approve of it. Therefore, they glorify Robert Louis Stevenson for those productions of his that are good in a conventional style, but ignore his one extraordinary tour de force which is unique in literature. For, a century hence, Treasure Island and The Master of Ballantrae and all the essays will be only names to the reading public, while Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will stand as the most striking allegory ever written on the curious duality of man's moral nature.
The case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is almost as interesting as the case of Mr. Kipling, in kind though not in degree. Sir Arthur does not take himself and his writings very seriously. Neither did Plautus or Shakespeare, for that matter. Sir Arthur Doyle is a genial, wholesome, sensible Anglo-Celt who turns off his work in a comfortable sort of way. He is not a genius of the highest order, but he has a leaven of genius in his make-up, and he is a born story-teller as truly as was Herodotus or Defoe. Most of his books are just admirable examples of the story-telling quality which in some mysterious fashion makes its possessor able to give real interest to even a commonplace narrative. In fact, the least important of his stories—as for instance some of those in Round the Red Lamp—are worth reading many times. They may be as improbable as the one about the resuscitated Egyptian mummy or the electrocution at Los Amigos; but all the same you will be glad to know them and you will wish for more. In his historical novels, The White Company and Micah Clark, this storytelling is of a high order, yet still not going beyond the limits of great cleverness. The critics, however, would select these books as containing the best of which Doyle is capable. The one thing of his that is really indicative of creative genius they merely smile upon indulgently, and pass by with as little notice as they would give to a dime-novel, and with much less notice than they often devote to some schoolgirl's machine-made historical romance. It never occurs to them that English fiction was permanently enriched when Dr. Doyle, as he then was, began the cycle of stories whose protagonist is Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
It is likely that most literary critics, if asked to give an opinion about these remarkable stories, would at once compare them with those of Gaboriau and feel that there was nothing more to say. But, as a matter of fact, the Sherlock Holmes stories are not only immensely superior to anything of Gaboriau's, but in some respects the best of them are better than those tales of Poe which treat of crime and its detection. Gaboriau is an excellent literary artisan. His mysteries are very neatly constructed. The parts all dovetail perfectly. But they have little artistic value, and the unravelling of their complicated plots is like the dissection of a Chinese puzzle which interests by its ingenuity, but appeals neither to the intellect nor to the imagination. Poe, on the other hand, is highly intellectual, and in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, for instance, he stirs the imagination very powerfully. He can rouse the sense of horror and make his mystery deepen into ghastliness and terror.
Conan Doyle, however, can do these things and give us still another ingredient—the human element. Sherlock Holmes, as has been said, would interest us simply as a man. His curiously varied tastes, his fondness for good music and rare books, his disorderly rooms, his utter boredom when not absorbed in disentangling mysteries, his prodigious consumption of shag tobacco when working out his problems, his addiction to the cocaine habit—a curious touch—all these things amuse or interest or pique us until we grow fond of him and get at last to know him almost as well as though we, too, shared his rooms in Baker Street. Watson is another creation. Like all true artists, who do their best work by instinct rather than self-consciously, it is probable that Doyle had no idea of how supremely clever a thing it was to make Watson the companion and chronicler and also the foil of Sherlock Holmes. Watson, the matter-of-fact, sensible, and friendly surgeon, always planting both his broad feet squarely on the earth, is a typically British character, and his lack of insight makes Holmes's wonderful intuition appear twice as wonderful by the force of contrast. Moreover, by letting Watson be the narrator of the stories, they are made to seem always plausible to the reader, because of their sober, unemotional manner. Lestrange and Gregson, of the regular detective force, are also types drawn adequately with a few broad strokes. Beside them Gaboriau's Gevrol is shadowy and unreal. The creation of Mycroft Holmes was a stroke of genius. That Sherlock Holmes should have had a brother, superior in inductive reasoning even to Sherlock himself, is interesting; that he should be fat and luxurious and far too lazy to use his gifts in any practical way, is delicious. The likeness of mind and the utter unlikeness of temperament between the indolent Mycroft and the keen, nervous, high-strung Sherlock is fascinating. That Mycroft Holmes is introduced in but a single story —that of the Greek interpreter —shows a remarkable artistic self-control on the part of Doyle. The glimpse that is given of him is tantalising. One longs to know more about him, but his creator very wisely stayed his hand.
The very best of all these stories are not the long ones—A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four —though each of these contains many very striking things, and the first of them (of which Dr. Doyle himself is said to have thought so little that he sold the manuscript outright for $125) introduces us to Sherlock at the outset of his career. There is no doubt that the most finished and most effective tale is that of The Speckled Band. This is a marvel of construction and of execution not merely worthy of Poe, but better than Poe's best. From the very first page the reader's interest is riveted upon a mystery which, as it develops, is utterly inscrutable and fascinates one by its undefined yet very evident horror. The inexplicable death of the elder sister, the warnings given to the surviving girl, the peculiar whistle in the night, the clanging sound of metal, the strange discoveries made by Holmes, and then that nerve-racking vigil in the blackness of midnight with the hideous revelation at the end of it—I know of nothing in fiction of this genre which possesses an interest so absorbingly intense.
Of a different character is The Naval Treaty, which I place next to The Speckled Band in merit as a story. This tale affords a good example of the method by which the circumstances of a mysterious event are set forth quite frankly and yet in such a way that the perfectly simple and obvious explanation never once occurs to you. The draft of a secret naval treaty between England and Italy is to be copied by young Phelps, of the British Foreign Office, who is a near relative of Lord Holdhurst, the Foreign Minister. No one but Phelps and Lord Holdhurst know of it. The reputation of both these men is at stake, if the terms of the treaty shall be discovered; and, moreover, serious diplomatic complications will ensue. Phelps has remained at his desk in the Foreign Office after every one but the janitor has left, and then he begins to make the required draft. Finding that it will keep him later than he had expected, he goes downstairs to ask the doorkeeper to get him a cup of coffee. While he is giving the order, he hears a bell in his room ring, and, rushing back again, he finds the room empty and the treaty gone. Now, in the first place, as no human being knew that the treaty was there, and, in the second place, as the thief, instead of stealing it and sneaking quietly away, rang the bell to announce his presence, the problem seems on the face of it insoluble; yet the explanation of it, when it comes, is really the simplest and most natural thing in the world. Herein Doyle's plots differ utterly from Gaboriau's. Those of the French writer are complex to a degree; those of Doyle are simplicity itself. The reader is just as hopelessly puzzled by them, but the solution, when it comes, comes not as a mathematical demonstration, but as a flash of light in a dark place—illumining, surprising, delighting, all at once.
After the two stories just mentioned, I should place, without attempting to assign them a definite order of merit, Silver Blaze, The Resident Patient, The Engineer's Thumb, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Five Orange Pips, The Reigate Puzzle, and The Final Problem. Three stories make too strong a demand upon the reader's credulity. These are, The Red Headed League, A Case of Identity, and The Man with the Twisted Lip, yet the first of them is none the less one of the most absorbing interest. There is, indeed, not one story in the whole cycle which does not contain many touches that positively fascinate one by their ingenuity and unexpectedness.
Doyle will sooner or later get the recognition from the critics which he has already won from the reading public. His hold upon that public is an extraordinary one. Many books of the day sell by the hundreds of thousands, yet they are not talked about and no one clamours for more from their authors' pens. But in the case of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, the public not only buys and reads, but discusses them continually; and it has so strenuously insisted upon having more that Dr. Doyle has been obliged to yield to the demand. This compliance has been most unfortunate for the author's reputation. He has written not because he wished to write, but because he was made to do so. Hence, the later stories about Sherlock Holmes are feeble trash with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Whatever is best in his studies of the great detective will be found in the Adventures and the Memoirs. The others will be forgotten, just as Dred has been forgotten, while Uncle Tom's Cabin is sure of immortality. But when the dross shall have been purged away, there will remain a group of stories so fascinating as to give their author the highest rank among those who have attempted this very interesting kind of fiction.
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