Saturday, April 29, 2017
Literature and the Mystery Story by Carolyn Wells 1913
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What makes for worthwhileness in mystery fiction of any kind is the puzzle and its answer—not the gruesomeness of a setting or the personality of a hero or the delineation of a character.
A liking for mystery fiction is not a mark of poor taste or an indication of inferior intellect. Its readers form an audience greatly misunderstood by other literary people whose mentality lacks this bent. But what especial audience is not misunderstood? Do not many people say to music lovers, "I don't see how you can sit through Parsifal"? Do not some scoff at people who trail through art galleries, catalogue in hand?
Let us concede that a taste for mystery fiction is not universal. We will even admit that in its nicer points the riddle story may be "caviare to the general," but we will not agree that it is unworthy a place in literature or that it is outside the pale of art.
1. The Rightful Place of the Mystery Story in Fiction
Dr. Harry Thurston Peck says in "Studies In Several Literatures":
"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, illwritten, 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.
"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 skillfully 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 characterized by ingenuity, without transcending in the least the limits of the probable."
This is a clear and rational definition of the Detective Story as we propose to consider it, and it seems to justify the acceptance of such stories as literature.
But even in the complete absence of necessity for apology, we must consider the rightful place of the Mystery Story in fiction.
It is neither below nor above other types of story, but side by side with character studies, problem novels, society sketches or symbolic romances; and in so far as it fulfills the requirements of the best literature, just so far it is the best literature.
There are bigoted and thoughtless critics who deny the Mystery Story any right to be considered as literature at all. But better judges are better pleased. To quote from a personal letter of Mr. Arlo Bates: "As to whether a Detective Story is literature, it seems to me that the question is not unlike asking whether a man with blue eyes is moral. No story ever took a place as literature on the strength of its plot. I am in the habit of telling my classes that one can no more judge the literary value of a novel from its plot, than one can judge of the beauty of a girl from an X-ray photograph of her skeleton. To exclude detective tales would be greatly to diminish the world's literary baggage."
Professor Brander Matthews tells us in "Inquiries and Opinions" that "Poe transported the detective story from the group of tales into the group of portrayals of character. By bestowing upon it a human interest, he raised it in the literary scale."
But Mr. Matthews continues:
"Even at its best, in the simple perfection of form that Poe bestowed on it, there is no denying that the Detective Story demanded from its creator no depth of sentiment, no warmth of emotion, and no large understanding of human desire. There are those who would dismiss it carelessly, as making an appeal not far removed from that of the riddle and of the conundrum. There are those again who would liken it rather to the adroit trick of a clever conjurer. No doubt, it gratifies in us chiefly that delight in difficulty conquered, which is a part of the primitive play-impulse potent in us all, but tending to die out as we grow older, as we lessen in energy, and as we feel more deeply the tragi-comedy of existence. But inexpensive as it may seem to those of us who look to literature for enlightenment, for solace in the hour of need, for stimulus to stiffen the will in the neverending struggle of life, the detective tale, as Poe contrived it, has merits of its own as distinct and as undeniable, as those of the historical novel, for example, or of the sea-tale. It may please the young rather than the old, but the pleasure it can give is ever innocent; and the young are always in the majority."
Perhaps with his inerrant sense of terminology, Professor Matthews struck the right word when he called the Mystery Story inexpensive. It is that, but it is not necessarily cheap.
The indiscriminate critic who pronounces all detective stories trash, would be quite as logical and veracious should he call all love stories trash or all historical novels trash. The matter of a detective story is definite and easily invoiced; the manner allows scope as high as poetry or as deep as philosophy or as wide as romance. There is as true literature in Poe's detective stories as in Bacon's Essays, though of a different sort.
A recent well-known author published a book of clever detective stories anonymously. Asked why, he said that he considered the admission of its authorship beneath his literary dignity. "Because," he explained, "they are false to life and false to art."
As a generalization, nothing could be more untrue. A detective story may be these things, but so may stories in any other field of fiction. It depends on the author.
But to imply that a detective story is necessarily false to life and is false, per se, to art, is a mistake.
To quote Julian Hawthorne's very able essay on this subject:
"Of course 'The Gold Bug' is literature; of course any other story of mystery and puzzle is also literature, provided it is as good as 'The Gold Bug,'—or I will say, since that standard has never since been quite attained, provided it is a half or a tenth as good. It is goldsmith's work; it is Chinese carving; it is Daedalian; it is fine. It is the product of the ingenuity lobe of the human brain working and expatiating in freedom. It is art; not spiritual nor transcendental art but solid art, to be felt and experienced. You may examine it at your leisure, it will be always ready for you; you need not fast or watch your arms overnight in order to understand it. Look at the nice setting of the mortises; mark how the cover fits; how smooth is the working of that spring drawer. Observe that this bit of carving, which seemed mere ornament, is really a vital part of the mechanism. Note, moreover, how balanced and symmetrical the whole design is, with what economy and foresight every part is fashioned. It is not only an ingenious structure, it is a handsome bit of furniture, and will materially improve the looks of the empty chambers, or disorderly or ungainly chambers that you carry under your crown. Or if it happen that these apartments are noble in decoration and proportions, then this captivating little object will find a suitable place in some spare nook or other, and will rest or entertain eyes too long focused on the severely sublime and beautiful."
2. The Mystery Story Considered as Art
Yes, the detective story at its best is primarily and integrally a work of art. It is like those Chinese carved balls, referred to by Tennyson as,
"Laborious orient ivory, sphere in sphere,"
and as the mystery story originated in the Orient, there may be some correlation.
The detective story has been called "ingenious but somewhat mechanical." Here the stigma lies in the "but." The detective story is ingenious and mechanical. On these two commandments hang all the laws of mystery fiction writing. Also ingenious and mechanical are the Fixed Forms of verse. Who denies the beauty and art of sonnets and rondeaux, and even sestinas, because they are ingenious and mechanical?
As the mosaic worker in Florence picks out his colored bits with utmost skill, care and patience, so the worker in Fixed Forms selects his words and fits them into his inexorable pattern until he achieves his perfect and exquisite result.
Heraldic devices are not "artistic" in the accepted sense of the word, but they are an art in themselves; ingenious and mechanical, but still art. The Heraldic lions in front of the New York Public Library may not be true to nature's lions, may not be true to a poetic imagination of a lion, but they are true to the laws of the conventional lion of heraldry, and are therefore art.
Oriental embroidery is art as much as an impressionist picture, though of a different type, and characterized by ingenuity and mechanism.
If, as Lowell says, "genius finds its expression in the establishment of a perfect mutual understanding between the worker and his material," then we can exclude no serious endeavors from the possibility of being art.
And the qualities of ingenuity and mechanism are peculiarly fitted to bring about the establishment of just such an understanding.
3. The Claims of Antagonists and Protagonists
One reason for a sweeping denouncement of the detective story is the innate propensity of the human mind for bluffing at intellect. Many people would be glad to admit a taste for mystery fiction, but tradition tells them that such things are but child's play, while a love of ethics or metaphysics betokens a great mind. Ashamed then, of their honest liking for puzzle solving, they deny it, and pretend a deep interest in subjects which really mean little or nothing to them.
"How can you read such stuff?" they ask in shocked tones of the puzzle lover, who, with alert brain and bright eyes, is galloping through "The Mystery of the Deserted Wing," and then they turn with a virtuous yawn, back to the uncut pages of the erudite tome through which they are plodding their weary way.
To the truly great intellect who understands and knows whereof he thinks, the above does not apply. But so long as men are unwilling to be caught in a liking for "child's play," and so long as women yearn after that smattering of abstruse literature which represents to them "a breadth of culture," so long will the detective story be ostentatiously denounced on the corners of the streets, and eagerly devoured behind closed doors.
Of course there are plenty of people of real intelligence who have no taste for Mystery Stories. This proves nothing, for there are also plenty of people of real intelligence who like them. Again we might as well ask, "Does a blue eyed man like cherries?"
But, as many people are fond of the authority of the good and great, let us be definite.
In a personal letter, President Woodrow Wilson writes:
"The fact is, I'm an indiscriminate reader of detective stories and would be at a loss to pick out my favorites. On the whole I have got the most authentic thrill out of Anna Katharine Green's books and Gaboriau's."
Dr. William J. Rolfe, the famous Shakesperian editor, was exceedingly fond of Mystery Stories and puzzles of all sorts.
He especially reveled in the books of charades written by his friend and colleague, Professor William Bellamy.
Indeed, the hasty and inconsiderate judgment that relegates all detective fiction to the trash-pile, might be modified by the knowledge of the college professors and deep-thinking scholars who turn to detective stories for recreation and enjoyment.
A well known member of the English Parliament has such a taste for detective literature that his friend speaks thus of him:
"The weighty work in which the eminent statesman is so deeply engrossed," he said, "is called 'The Great Rand Robbery.' It is a detective novel, for sale at all bookstalls."
The American raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
"'The Great Rand Robbery?' "he repeated, incredulously. "What an odd taste!"
"It is not a taste, it is his vice," returned the gentleman with the pearl stud. "It is his one dissipation. He is noted for it. You, as a stranger, could hardly be expected to know of this idiosyncrasy. Mr. Gladstone sought relaxation in the Greek poets, Sir Andrew finds his in Gaboriau. Since I have been a member of Parliament, I have never seen him in the library without a shilling shocker in his hands. He brings them even into the sacred precincts of the House, and from the Government benches reads them concealed inside his hat. Once started on a tale of murder, robbery, and sudden death, nothing can tear him from it, not even the call of the division-bell, nor of hunger, nor the prayers of the party Whip. He gave up his country house because when he journeyed to it in the train he would become so absorbed in his detective stories that he was invariably carried past his station."
Perhaps such an inordinate relish is not to be entirely commended, but the fact remains that an analytical mentality gets an intense enjoyment out of the solving of puzzles or mysteries, that a differently constituted brain cannot in the least understand or appreciate.
It all comes back to the incontrovertible philosophy:
"Different men are of different opinions,
Some like apples, some like onions."
And this same thought Henry James voices thus:
"In a recent story, 'The Beldonald Holbein,' it is not my fault if I am so put together as often to find more life in situations obscure and subject to interpretation than in the gross rattle of the foreground." One could not find a more luminous comment upon his short stories than these words contain. The situations that he prefers are, as he says, "obscure" but "subject to interpretation." Hawthorne's situations, however, even when obscure, are always vital. We cannot imagine Hawthorne saying, as James says, "It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way."
If, then, Mr. James gets exquisite satisfaction out of the careful consideration of this incident, why may not another equally great intellect become absorbed in finding out who stole the jewels?
The curiosity aroused by Mystery Fiction is not then, a mere idle curiosity but an intellectual interest.
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