Friday, January 15, 2016
In Defense of the Detective Story By Arthur B. Reeve 1913
In Defense of the Detective Story By Arthur B. Reeve 1913
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[In spite of all criticism from the standpoint of literary art and all attacks on the ground of morality the detective story remains perenially popular. The "dime novel" of our boyhood has risen to the dignity of a dollar and a half, bound in cloth, and the most exclusive fiction magazines have opened their pages to the unraveling of mysteries and the pursuit of criminals. Still the question of artistic and ethical propriety remained unsettled and it is interesting to see what one of the most successful of modern writers of detective tales has to say in defense of his craft. Mr. Reeve is the author of The Silent Bullet, The Poisoned Pen and Adventures of Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective.—Editor.]
What is the psychology of the hosts of readers of detective stories? Is it that, as Paul Armstrong says, "we are all as full of crime as Sing Sing and we long to see those who have dared to do the things we all have had glimpses of, even a smothered impulses to do them ourselves—but we're 'too well civilized,' let us say?"
Now and then the newspapers report cases, or alleged cases, in which crooks "confess" to deriving inspiration from this or that literary source. Such was an example not long ago when the driver of a delivery wagon in Brooklyn was arrested as the culprit in a series of house robberies. What differentiated his from other arrests on similar charges was the reported fact that this young man had evidently studied for his criminal profession, as one newspaper put it, "in the most approved modern text-books," or perhaps what might be called the up-to-date correspondence school of crime.
The fact of the matter is that there are two kinds of fiction which every generation reads with avidity—the love story and the mystery story. If all the world loves a lover, so does all the world look with interest and curiosity on the criminal and the detective who traps him. To the normal mind the crook and his captor are always alluring.
I recall once asking Mr. Edison whether he ever read detective stories. With that magic smile that flits over his face when a question interests him, the great inventor replied, "That is about all the fiction I do read." Then he went on, a moment later, glancing about at the appalling mass of scientific books and periodicals in his library, "I don't think I ever felt so badly over the death of anyone not connected with me as I did when Gaboriau died."
Perhaps a little excursion into the history or rather the evolution of the detective story might clear the air a bit. An odd point, as someone once remarked in the New York Times, about the entrance of the detective into American literature is the fact that an American took him to France and the French writers sent him back to the land of his birth.
Poe's immortal mystery tales made but slight impression at first on his own countrymen, but they were received with applause in France and under the influence of the Purloined Letter Gaboriau wrote his Le 13me Hussards. This first of the French detective stories did not reach America, but it was the book of Gaboriau's follower, Du Boisgobey, which was the literary parent of the Old Sleuth tales. This was The Crime of the Opera House, which set all Paris agog, even after the Gaboriau thrillers, and started the cheap detective story in America.
Before leaving Poe, one cannot resist paying tribute to the real founder of the modern mystery story. Change the setting of the Purloined Letter and we have Gaboriau's inspiration. Change the setting of The Murders in the Rue Morgue and we have the inspiration for Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four. Poe's Dupin is the father of Sherlock Holmes; his "analytical reasoning" is the forerunner of "deduction." If we reimported Poe in the vastly inferior form of the dime novel from France, we reimported him in a vastly better form as Sherlock Holmes from England.
"Old Sleuth" was the nom de plume of Harlan P. Halsey, who was the first to introduce the detective story as the main element of the dime novel, and kept at it himself for twenty years, until a younger generation of writers of these penny dreadfuls took up the work. It is said that some of this new generation have composed sixty thousand words a week, providing a new plot every seven days.
The dime novel began about 1860 under the guidance of H. H. Beadle, a story of lurid western adventure, on the covers of which appeared a woodcut of a dime, hence the name. Halsey, who helped to throw discredit on the detective story by injecting it into this class of literature, is said to have received his literary training as a butcher in Washington Market. He overcame his fundamental failings in the matter of grammar and spelling after he "broke into" literature by dictating his stories. His first genuine hit was The Fastest Boy in New York, which caused him to branch out into more ambitious detective stories as a result of reading the book of Du Boisgobey, the literary parent of "Old Sleuth."
Halsey's success was instantaneous. Immediately another publisher copyrighted the signature "Nick Carter" and that was soon followed by "Old Cap Collier" and "King Brady." Under these names some hundred writers have at various times contributed to the world's supply of blood and thunder.
It did not take long for this "literary" output to slop over into Europe. In England, France, and Germany, translations and elaborations of dime novels have had a wide vogue. Indeed, a society was recently organized in Germany to discourage the publication and sale of the "Nick Carter" and other stories for the express reason that they were said to increase crime by suggestion if not by direct incitement. A large number of publishers have agreed not to have anything to do with such literature and booksellers have combined to discourage its sale.
In Russia nearly nine million copies of such books are sold annually, and are known as "Pinkerton stories." They are flimsy affairs, sold at about three cents a copy, with paper covers embellished with cheap colored pictures of crimes. The titles themselves are hair-raising: A Nest of Criminals, The Bloody Altar, Kidnappers of Girls, A Sect of Murderers, The Revenge of the Escaped Convict.
One may agree heartily with the unsparing critics of the dime novels and still disagree even more heartily with those who would condemn also the modern detective story as it appears from the presses of the hosts of reputable publishers. It is said that Nick Carter inspired one of the brightest and wittiest women who write detective stories. She saw the need and desire of readers for literature of that class and determined that it might be wholesomely supplied—and with marked success.
It is often the other elements (besides the high literary quality) that various writers add to detective stories which should be the saving grace even in the eyes of the sharpest critics. Law, justice, and the right triumph in ninety-nine stories out of a hundred of this class, which is a higher average than can be set by any detective bureau in actual life. Whatever the psychology of the reader of crime stories, it is the crime plus other elements that fascinate him. Mr. Arthur Train in a recent interview put it:
No story of crime or of criminal procedure is interesting because of this fact, but in spite of it. Crime and everything connected with it are at their best sordid and repellent. What makes a story based on them at all interesting is that which makes stories of any and all types interesting— interesting personality or conditions.
The criminal is interesting, despite the fact that he is a criminal, because of his personality. Conditions and incidents are interesting despite the fact that they are criminal conditions or incidents, and they must be uncommonly interesting to overcome the barrier.
Few stories of crime would be interesting that were accurate, true to life records. The story writing impulse must go hand in hand with the imagination. The setting, the background, and the foundation of the characters may be drawn from experience, but all that is only a beginning. The story writing impulse has to be there first and imagination always.
An example of the "other elements" which stories of crime and detection must possess may be cited in the scientific detective story which just now seems to be popular. It began when several writers tried to apply psychology, as developed by Prof. Hugo Muensterberg of Harvard and Prof. Walter Dill Scott of Northwestern University, to either actual or hypothetical cases of crime. Cleveland Moffet made an early use of it in a story, and some years ago two writers collaborated in the creation of a psychological detective for a popular magazine. But that was only a beginning. The fact is that the whole field of science lies open to be drawn on by the clever detective—from finger prints, the portrait parle, the dictagraph and detectaphone, to chemistry and physics in general. Not long ago an astronomer freed an innocent man by calculating the exact date on which a photograph was taken, using the shadows to guide him.
This latest development, far from being harmful, is a decided advance for both the detective story and the detective. More and more the discoveries of the scientists, romantic and thrilling in themselves, are being applied by the forces of law and order in the running down of the criminal. Fiction of this sort is a positive source of good. In the end it will make detectives more and more efficient; will tend to discourage criminals by the sheer weight of unescapable fact. In Europe there has actually grown up a class of scientific professors, a dozen of whom could be named, whose exploits read like fiction. The spread of such knowledge cannot do harm—unless indeed the spread of knowledge itself be harmful.
I recall that the very first scientific detective story which I wrote was returned to me by one editor of a popular magazine with what I considered the most complimentary letter he ever wrote me, that he "couldn't publish a story like that—some darn fool would go out and try to do it." Of course, he had put the cart before the horse. It was not the criminal who might profit.
In one case which "Kennedy" unravelled, he found that the criminal had broken into a safe by using thermite to burn thru the steel. Immediately several people wrote for the formula for thermite. It may be found in several scientific journals. There is not and never was anything to prevent a crook from using it, yet it is not regularly found in the cracksman's kit as a result of a story about it and the detection of the user.
In another story the method of preparation of "soup" or the nitroglycerine used by yeggmen, was mentioned. From the president of a large powder company came this letter:
I wonder if you have ever considered the possible effect of your stories upon the coming generation of up-to-date yeggs [burglars]. No doubt some of them combine with an honest desire to get something for nothing, enough intelligence to read high class detective stories. They may pick up a good many valuable little tips from your practical yarns. However, the preparation of "soup" (nitroglycerine) as you give it, while satisfactory, may have a discouraging effect on some inquiring souls. Rubbing dynamite in the bare hands long enough to effect a complete alcoholic solution will surely give the investigator a severe case of "powder headache" or nitroglycerine poisoning. While these attacks, as you know, are seldom fatal, they are always so excruciatingly painful that the chances are that the investigator will thereafter reform, or at least limit his attentions to those safes which may be opened with the teeth of a hairpin.
Every mention of the dictagraph, the detectaphone, and similar scientific eavesdroppers has brought eager inquiries. In one case a letter from a South Carolina man said: "I have a case in which I can use such a device in procuring the real truth. It will be the means of restoring the character of a young man who is now a victim of a foul conspiracy." In another case a man who was under indictment in Iowa wanted the author to come to his rescue with such of the scientific paraphernalia as Kennedy uses. "I think," he appealed, "that if you will bring the instruments named, I can get enough evidence to clear myself."
Whatever may be said of the cheap crime story, whatever may be said of the crime story of the past—and even that must be read with a sack of salt handy—it remains to be shown that the detective story as it ordinarily appears today is a force for evil. Much more often it serves a decided moral purpose.
Mr. William J. Burns is fond of reiterating the statement that every criminal leaves a track. If it has never been found, it is simply because no one has ever looked for it in the right way. He says that it is a good thing to tell people how hard it is nowadays in the face of modern organization and modern science to "get away with the goods." It is at least an even chance that a good detective story will help the detective as much as it will the criminal.
Today the scientist as well as the detective is on the trail of the criminal. If the fiction writer, by telling the facts in the only way that you can reach a large audience, is writing a "text book for crooks," let the crooks make the most of it. The detectives have been doing so for some time. New York City.
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