The Danger of Detective Stories by GK Chesterton 1901
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I VENTURED to suggest in a former article that detective stories, which seem the most trivial and vulgar form of literature to that large majority which reads very little else, had, as a matter of fact, certain distinct, serious, and ethical merits. The first of these was the fact that they did for the modern city what the old ballads and the old pastoral plays did for the greenwood—they vivified whole tracts of desolation with the hope of one inspiring accident; that, indeed, the romance of the city was richer than the romance of the wilderness, that a man might find romances in a forest, but that in a city it was not a question of finding romances, but of choosing from them. The second merit was that by turning the policeman into a hero of romance the detective story pointed out the single thread of peril and personal fidelity upon which all our civilisation hangs, and gave to humanitarianism all the courage and loneliness of crime.
I wish now to point out certain dangers in the popularity of detective stories, but I doubt if they will be the dangers upon which those works are commonly called to account. That the detective story is sensational, that it works up the human imagination to an artificially acute state of attention, that its scenery is darkness and its end explosion; all these seem to me not a fault, but a virtue. We have nowadays far too little sensationalism, strictly speaking, far too little the habit of bringing home to ourselves ancient influences or eternal facts as matters dramatically dominating the moment. We say that life is a riddle, but it does not practically puzzle us like a riddle. We say that faith is a revelation, but it does not stun and thrill us like a revelation in the divorce court. The incalculable value of all the old religions was that they made the universe sensational, that the nameless creator was sought for in Nature with the same kind of immediate and terrified intensity with which the nameless criminal is sought for in a detective story.
One of the practical dangers of the popularity of this form of romance lies in the fact that it is bound to attach so much importance to that somewhat trifling incident of human life which is called success. It is true that all romance, as distinguished from other forms of art, must involve the ideal of success: it would be ridiculous to maintain that the legend of St. George and the Dragon would be the same thing if the dragon ate St. George, or that the story of Quentin Durward would answer its purpose equally if in the last chapter Louis XI. clapped the hero and heroine into one of his iron cages for life. But the success of these heroes does not stimulate the modern man to worship success. No gentleman of our century is disturbed by the thought that he may be eaten by a dragon or imprisoned in a cage. But the fact that in the detective story hero and villain alike talk his own language, wear his own clothes, profess his own social ideals, does make it practically possible that the absence from popular fiction of pity for the evil and reverence for the weak may encourage a similar meanness in his own soul. There can be little doubt that all the superficial dangers of our day, all sanguinary enthusiasms or preposterous fashions, dwindle into nothing compared with the supreme danger of the growth of a certain cockney materialism, not a scientific, but an uneducated and almost innocent materialism- a materialism which has not studied the long chronicle of the vanity and fall of kings, which has not learned from history that there is nothing that fails like success. The devil of our day is a Mephistopheles who is not even like Goethe’s, a gentleman—a plotting, a sneering, and, moreover, an underbred Mephistopheles. In a book recently published, and purporting to give advice to journalists, the author mentioning the name of some famous millionaire with the grotesquely reverent intonation with which such men are spoken of by their admirers, described how he had once been privileged to ask this flower of the human race to what he attributed his success. If I remember rightly the reply of the holy one was, “I attribute my success to a resolution I formed even when a boy, never to have any dealings with unsuccessful people.” I will not attempt so far to dip my pen in earthquake and eclipse as to picture for a moment the boy who made that remarkable vow. I will merely suggest that the millionaire was probably unaware that he himself was one of the most thoroughly unsuccessful people that ever went into the dust-bin of the universe.
No one can have failed to observe behind a vast number of the police romances on which our illustrated magazines depend largely for their popularity, the presence of this curiously arid spirit, a levity like the levity of dust and laughter scarcely more human than that of the hyena. It is strangely difficult to sympathise with any figure in the scene. The criminal seems as cold as the law, the law seems as bestial as the criminal. The whole is subtly dominated by that cynical philosophy of “taking human nature as it is,” which means describing it as everything except human. It may be said that the very nature of the police romance demands this heartless and mechanical movement. But this is not so. In the detective stories of Gaboriau and other French writers the atmosphere is charged with cheap but healthy human passion. That profound sense of the poetry of every trade, which is the best of French civic virtues, causes the policeman without any sense of absurdity to commune with himself under the stars upon the majesty of his calling as the obscure guardian angel of civilisation. In one of Gaboriau’s novels several pages of the description of an inquest are taken up by an amazingly flowery and rhetorical argument between a policeman and a parish doctor as to which holds the holier priestly office towards humanity. And just as in these French romances even the policemen are poets, so the criminals are poets also. Passion is assumed as the probable basis of human action far more naturally and automatically than self-interest. But the spiritual nature of the actors in the English detective story never rises so high as lust. They never give themselves away, even in the grossest sense, and their lawlessness is only a kind of experimental prudence. It is not, therefore, I think, the nature and scope of the particular form of literature which gives this heartless and hopeless jauntiness to the story in the English magazines. It is the presence of a new worship of hurry and egotism and triviality upon which the temporarily disenchanted and disinherited children of heaven have for a time fallen back. It is the dislike of being sentimental which is the last and blackest of all the forms in which asceticism has made war upon love and joy. That extinction of all that makes life worth living which was effected only partially by fanaticism is now to be effected by flippancy. In so far as the romance of smartness, intrigue, and success does mean the ousting from simple minds of the old romance of school-girl emotion and schoolboy valour, I venture to call it an unqualified calamity. Perhaps nothing has done so much to keep vast masses of men and women above base despair and base contentment as the thing which is called sickly sentimentalism, and is, as a plain matter of fact, the most healthy and the most; universal of the dreams of humanity. A Bow Bells novelette has behind it the same truth as a poem by Mr. W. B. Yeats, that a certain state of feeling is the only good and goal for man, that all civilisation and all intellect form only a broken and rambling road to it. The only harm which the police romance, as it now dominates our magazines, is likely to do is the harm of spreading that worship of the intellect which now makes the educated classes so foolish a spectacle among the vast mass of tolerably stupid people who have always had a very straight and a very beaten path to the door of the heart of things.
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