Thursday, January 14, 2016
Detectiveness in Fiction 1912
Detectiveness in Fiction, article in The Nation 1912
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Stories of crime and mystery form one of the streams of literature which show no signs of drying up. We do not mean shilling shockers, but the respectable novels of the season. Formerly these represented no particular fad, and the public found at least variety in them. Some years ago, when “The Mystery of the Yellow Room" appeared, it was generally assumed that nothing so good of its kind would be published for a long time to come. A detective story, in the popular estimation, was not to be rigged up out of hand, but required inspiration comparable to that of the poetic sort. But the past season has seen a somewhat changed attitude. There have appeared "The Mystery of the Second Shot," "The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet," and other thorough-going detective stories, besides a number of books, like "The Ealing Miracle," which, though not belonging strictly to that class, have made use of what one critic has termed a certain "detectiveness,” or zest for the professional manner of unravelling complicated episodes. We may hope that a most enjoyable type of fiction is not to be lost by being overdone or gradually merged into other sorts of tales.
For a good detective story affords a unique pleasure for certain moods. Precisely what its special virtue is can perhaps be best appreciated when the motive for a great crime, like the Rosenthal murder, is in the process of unfolding. Some people will have it that even the best detective story does not reflect actual conditions; that, as with Charles Lamb's well-known experience with Restoration drama, the reader is transported to a pleasant land of burglary and murder which is harmless because not real. But such a view is controverted by the attitude created by merely reading the newspapers these days. Interest is sharply centred upon the links of cause and effect leading to the conviction of the culprits; whereas the conditions of gambling in New York which have incidentally been laid bare, as well as outlying domestic tragedies connected with the crime, fall into the background. The public interest for the nonce has become relentlessly detective, with little sentiment to spare. A more complete picture of the crime will excite general interest only after the business of conviction is at an end.
For devotees the detective story sets a stirring mental exercise, with just enough of the complex background of life to distinguish it from a problem in mathematics. Whatever thrills of horror are excited come by way of the intellect, never starting directly in the emotions. The reader divests himself of sympathy, and applies to every situation the dry light of reason. It is only when one’s reason is bathed, leaving the murder unexplained or the ghost at large, that one feels privileged to shudder. And such a shudder is remarkably different from a start that is unthinking. The detective story applies reason to some of the big half-mysteries of human conduct; and the result for the ordinary reader is not dissimilar to that felt by the philosopher when trying to square with his poor apparatus the secrets of Nature and Providence.
In the best detective stories, intellect is paramount. Characters, judged by other standards, may seem unreal without disturbing the reader’s equanimity, provided the chain of causation is kept logically perfect. The disregard of this axiom has resulted in many failures. Gaboriau, not content to write a mere tale of mystery, tried to convert it into a well-rounded novel. But the most notable recent instance of the thing was the endeavor of Gaston Leroux in "The Perfume of the Lady in Black," the sequel of “The Mystery of the Yellow Room." Without knowing quite why, readers found their interest in it flagging. In some respects it is the subtlest story of its kind. The shifting semi-tropical atmosphere is finely caught and ought a priori to add intensity to the central mystery of doubtful identity. The mystery itself is developed with rare psychological insight, and the relation between a mother and son is so acutely defined as to make a certain noticeable halt in the process of detection seem perfectly natural. Yet impatience with the story is inevitable. From habit the reader holds his attention in readiness for running down a crime - for that and nothing more - and his mind relaxes when outlying material is brought in.
There is another feature which writers of detective stories would do well not to throw overboard. Sir Conan Doyle understood its value. Every such tale should have its confronting detectives. That they must always be an amateur and a professional is not so necessary, and that the professional should sometimes win out would make a desireable climax; if he happened to be a member of the regular police force, not a Burns man, and was still successful, the climax would be greater yet, and, on occasion, probably not undeserved. In any case, the reader is best served when the ratiocination is carried on in the formal way thus offered. If it is not, he has not the necessary spur to reason out every situation for himself, which is really the best part of the game.
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