The Real Detective vs the Fictional Detective by Carolyn Wells 1913
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The all-important character of the Detective Story is, of course, the Detective. He is not only the Star Performer, but the reason for the Detective Story itself. What Mr. Hawthorne calls the Transcendent Detective is the detective of fiction. Such a one is made, not born.
As Mr. Vance Thompson puts it:
"Readers who pant breathlessly after Sherlock Holmes and his like should give thanks to Edgar Allan Poe; when he invented Dupin in the 'Murders in the Rue Morgue,' he created once for all the type of the detective in fiction. In all the years it has not changed very much. Sherlock Holmes still sits in his dark, super-heated chamber; he is drugged with tobacco and opium; he maintains the 'profound silence' that distinguished Poe's cold analyst; indeed, one may be sure that the type will live for another eighty years."
But we have already agreed that this fiction detective has little or nothing to do with the real detective. When M. Goron, one of the greatest of French detectives, was asked concerning this, he replied:
"I dare say I have read nearly all the detective stories, those of Poe and Gaboriau, and 'Sir Doyle's' clever tales. Like every one else I love to follow the twists and turns that lead to the end of these apparently inexplicable problems. It is a good intellectual sport—like playing chess. But do not imagine for a moment," and M. Goron was emphatic, "that it has anything at all to do with practical police work. Nothing at all. It is not by such subtle, opium-bred guesswork and fine-drawn deduction that criminals are detected."
M. Goron's theory is that in thief-taking, as in everything else, system is of prime importance; and after that the most effective auxiliary of the detective is Chance. Almost always it is by a lucky hazard that the shrewd criminal is brought down. For instance, the taking of Magne; it was tragically absurd—for the farce ended in the basket of wet sawdust under the guillotine.
In fact, detectives of real life invariably scorn the transcendent detective of fiction, and, in his turn, the story-book detective scoffs at the methods of the Central Office men.
Mr. Arthur C. Train, in "Courts Criminal and The Camorra," thus mildly satirizes our detective of fiction and sets him quite apart from the genuine article:
"The sanctified tradition that a detective was an agile person with a variety of side whiskers no longer obtains even in light literature, and the most imaginative of us is frankly aware of the fact that a detective is just a common man earning (or pretending to earn) a common living by common and obvious means. Yet in spite of ourselves we are accustomed to attribute superhuman acuteness and a lightning-like rapidity of intellect to this vague and romantic class of fellow-citizens. The ordinary work of a detective, however, requires neither of these qualities. Honesty and obedience are his chief requirements, and if he have intelligence as well, so much the better, provided it be of the variety known as horse sense. A genuine candidate for the job of Sherlock Holmes would find little competition. In the first place, the usual work of a detective does not demand any extraordinary powers of deduction at all.
"There are a very large number of persons who go into the detective business for the same reason that others enter the ministry—they can't make a living at anything else. Provided he has squint eyes and a dark complexion, almost anybody feels that he is qualified to unravel the tangled threads of crime.
"The real detective is the one who, taking up the solution of a crime or other mystery, brings to bear upon it unusual powers of observation and deduction and an exceptional resourcefulness in acting upon his conclusions. Frankly, I have known very few such, although for some ten years I have made use of a large number of so-called detectives in both public and private matters. As I recall the long line of cases where these men have rendered service of great value, almost every one resolves itself into a successful piece of mere spying or trailing. Little ingenuity or powers of reason were required. Of course, there are a thousand tricks that an experienced man acquires as a matter of course, but which at first sight seem almost like inspiration.
"There is no more reason to look for superiority of intelligence or mental alertness among detectives of the ordinary class than there is to expect it from clerks, stationary engineers, plumbers, or firemen. While comparisons are invidious, I should be inclined to say that the ordinary chauffeur was probably a brighter man than the average detective.
"The telephone is the modern detective's chief ally, and he relies upon rapidity more than upon deduction. Under present conditions it is easier to overtake a crook than to reason out what he will probably do. In fact, the old-fashioned 'deductive detective' is largely a man of the past. The most useless operator in the world is the one who is 'wedded to his own theory' of the case—the man who asks no questions and relies only on himself. Interject a new element into a case and such a man is all at sea. In the meantime the criminal has made his 'get away.'
"In the story-books your detective scans with eagle eye the surface of the floor for microscopic evidences of crime. His mind leaps from a cigar ash to a piece of banana peel and thence to what the family had for dinner. His brain is working all the time. His gray matter dwarfs almost to insignificance that of Daniel Webster or the Hon. Benjamin F. Butler. It is, of course, all quite wonderful and most excellent reading, and the old-style sleuth really thought he could do it! Nowadays, while the fake detective is snooping around the back piazza with a telescope, the real one is getting the 'dope' from the village blacksmith or barber (if there is any except on Saturday nights) or the girl that slings the pie at the station. These folk have something to go on. They may not be highly intelligent, but they know the country, and, what is more important, they know the people. All the brains in the world cannot make up for the lack of an elementary knowledge of the place and the characters themselves. It stands to reason that no strange detective could form as good an opinion as to which of the members of your household would be most likely to steal a piece of jewelry as you could yourself. Yet the old-fashioned Sherlock knew and knows it all.
"There is no mystery about such work, except what the detective himself sees fit to enshroud it with. Most of us do detective work all the time without being conscious of it. Simply because the matter concerns the theft of a pearl, or the betraying of a business or professional secret, or the disappearance of a friend, the opinion of a stranger becomes no more valuable. And the chances are equal that the stranger will make a bungle of it.
"The national detective agency with its thousands of employees who have, most of them, grown up and received their training in its service, is a powerful organization, highly centralized, and having an immense sinking fund of special knowledge and past experience.
"This is the product of decades of patient labor and minute record. The agency which offers you the services of a Sherlock Holmes is a fraud, but you can accept as genuine a proposition to run down any man whose picture you may be able to identify in the gallery. The day of the impersonator is over. The detective of this generation is a hard-headed business man with a stout pair of legs."
Thus, the reader will observe that there are just a few more real detectives still left in the business—if you can find them. Incidentally, they one and all take off their hats to Scotland Yard. They will tell you that the Englishman may be slow (fancy an American Inspector of Police wearing gray suede gloves and brewing himself a dish of tea in his office at four o'clock!), but that once he goes after a crook he is bound to get him—it is merely a question of time. I may add that in the opinion of the heads of the big agencies the percentage of ability in the New York Detective Bureau is high—one of them going so far as to claim that fifty percent of the men have real detective ability—that is to say "brains." That is rather a higher average than one finds among clergymen and lawyers, yet it may be so.
Mr. John Wilson Murray, one of the noted detectives, says simply in his "Memoirs of a Great Detective":
"There is no magic about the detective business. A detective walking along the street does not suddenly hear a mysterious voice whisper 'Banker John Jones has just been robbed of $1,000,000.' He does not turn the corner and come upon a perfect stranger, and then, because the stranger has a twisted cigar in his mouth, suddenly pounce upon him and exclaim: 'Aha, villain that you are! give back to Banker Jones the $1,000,000 you stole ten minutes ago!' The detective business is of no such foolish and impossible character. Detectives are not clairvoyants, or infallible prophets, or supernatural seers. They possess no uncanny powers and no mantle of mysterious wonder-working. I remember a few years ago I was subpoenaed before a grand jury in the City of New York to testify on a matter pertaining to a prisoner, whose record I knew here in Canada. The foreman of that jury was a man prominent in New York's business life. When I was called he looked at me and suddenly said:
"'Inspector Murray, what crimes have been committed within the past hour in New York, and who committed them?' "'I have not the slightest idea,' I replied.
"'Oh, ho! So you cannot go out and put your hands on every man who has committed a crime? You are a detective, yet cannot do that?' he said.
"'I am not that kind of detective,' I replied. 'When I get a guilty man it usually is by hard work or good luck, and often by both.'
"'Thank the Lord we've found a detective who is not greater than God,' he said.
"As a matter of fact the detective business is a plain ordinary business, just like a lawyer's business, a doctor's business, a railway manager's business. It has its own peculiarities because it deals with crime, with the distorted, imperfect, diseased members of the social body, just as a surgeon's business deals with the distorted, imperfect, diseased members of the physical body. But it is not an abnormal or phenomenal or incomprehensible business. There is nothing done in it, nothing accomplished by any detective, that is not the result of conscientious work, the exercise of human intelligence, an efficient system of organization and intercommunication, and good luck. A good detective must be quick to think, keen to analyse, persistent, resourceful, courageous. But the best detective in the world is a human being, neither half-devil nor half-god, but just a man with the attributes or associates that make him successful in his occupation.
"The best detective, therefore, is a man who instinctively detects the truth, lost though it may be in a maze of lies. By instinct he is a detective. He is born to it; his business is his natural bent. It would be a platitude to say the best detectives are born, not made. They are both born and made for the business. The man who, by temperament and make-up, is an ideal detective, must go through the hard years of steady work, must apply himself, and study and toil in making himself what he is born to be. Sandow was born to be a strong man, but, if he had not developed himself by hard work, he would not have become the strongest man of his time. As a detective advances in his business he will find that the more he studies and works, the stronger his powers of intuition, of divination, of analysis become. A very simple broad illustration will prove this. If a detective is chasing a criminal from country to country, and has learned, by study of the extradition treaties, that a certain country offers a better haven than another, he may save himself many a weary mile by going to the country where his common sense tells him his man is more likely to be. A mechanical knowledge of the use of tools, a knowledge of the effects of poisons, a knowledge of the ways of banking, of the habits of life of the various classes, in various callings, a knowledge of crooks, and, above all, a knowledge of human nature, in whatsoever way manifest, are invaluable elements of the equipment of a good detective."