Monday, April 10, 2017
Real Detectives and Detective Fiction by JC Cummings 1910
DETECTIVE STORIES BY. J. C. CUMMINGS (Chief of the New York Special Agents of the United States Secret Service) 1910
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THE chief difference between the contemporaneous detective of fiction and the real detective is that the former's most important clue rarely reveals itself until about page No. 180, while, in the actual pursuit of crime, the living pages from one to five frequently uncover an important element in the trail for the real sleuth. In fiction, it may always be taken for granted by the reader that the long chain of initial clues will lead to nothing. In the real work, however, many cases have been solved from early clues.
I realise, of course, that if first clues counted for anything in detective novels, we would not have many of the latter. Why? Not because a good detective story could not be developed from a first clue, but rather because readers are so used to fooling themselves (with the help of the authors) that they would be unforgivably angry both with themselves and the writers if first clues turned the trick finally on the criminals about whom they are reading. This state of affairs in detective fiction may be attributed to habit. The authors of the style of stories under discussion are afraid to break away from the established fiction way of tracing crime and, as a result, those who are fond of the detective in fiction must necessarily read, if they read at all, of the sleuth whom the author purposely keeps in acute suspense until the last page. Thus has there been brought about this habit of which I speak.
I should like to see an able writer of detective fiction put himself to the task of evolving a specimen of this form of literature along strictly real lines. In other words, I would like to read a detective novel with a central figure detective who solved his mystery step by step from the first clue instead of, as in so many cases in fiction, step by banister. The detective of fiction takes one step, two steps, and then usually slides back down the “suspense banister” to where he started. Of course, I am speaking generally. In a number of works of detective fiction the sleuth hero does start out ably from one of his early tracings, yet, even in these latter instances, I believe he would make more effective reading if his author did not attempt to check him by various incongruous subterfuges that are intended to add to the reader's excitement.
To illustrate what splendid, intense reading a real detective story can make, I need only refer to the stories of the actual experiences of the Pinkertons, collected in book form and published, if I am not mistaken, under the title of the vigilant eye that is used by that organisation as its trade-mark.
With most other readers of detective fiction I suppose I shall be in accord when I say that among the best is the series exploiting “Sherlock Holmes.” The fluency of Conan Doyle's literary style has a great deal to do with Holmes's fascination, naturally, and yet, aside from that, the detective-hero himself has many qualities to recommend him to even his living detective critic. In the first place, Sherlock Holmes is more natural than most of his brother fiction sleuths. Inasmuch, however, as Doyle modelled him after a man in real life, this is probably to have been expected. So many fiction detectives are more like Hindu magicians than the men we are accustomed to.
Sherlock Holmes stands forth in prominence firstly, because his creator has not muddled him up in any silly romances with women; secondly, because he works his way up faithfully from early clues; and thirdly, because he keeps his mouth closed most of the time. A great many fiction detectives are responsible for most of the “conversation” in their respective books. Sherlock Holmes's method of deduction, so called, makes interesting analysis on the part of the man whose profession is the detection of wrong-doing in one channel or another. His deduction really owes much to his standardisation. He makes standards of various clue elements, such as cigar ashes, footprints, etc., and, instead of using these as conclusions, he makes use of them only as premises from which to infer possible associations with individuals whom he has “diagnosed” from other sources of information or intuition. Sherlock Holmes uses his brain where many other detectives of fiction use their legs. He would have made as great a newspaper reporter as a detective. He could have gathered the threads of a news story and focused them with rare finesse.
Nick Carter, who, I understand, has been elevated recently from the dime class to the French stage, is more of a prize fighter than a detective. Where Holmes uses his brain, Carter uses his fists. He seems to be prouder of his prowess with the latter than of his ability in the solution of crime. He is just the sort of detective, however, whom small boys and their unworldly big brothers regard as the “real thing.” A majority of readers, I thoroughly believe, are convinced that the detective in real life is a spectacular character like Carter. If they only knew the prosaicism of the actual sleuth! And yet, to be sure, it is the case rather than the detective that makes for interest. A case of deeply entangled mystery arouses tense excitement without regard to how or by whom it is being unravelled—both in and out of fiction.
Probably the most interesting case in my own thirty years of experience was that of the old City of Merida, a vessel that once ran between New York and Havana. We received word that the ship had left the Cuban port with tens of thousands of cigars aboard. These cigars were to be smuggled into this country. I was assigned to keep my eyes on the vessel when it arrived. I did, but nary a cigar could I find. I saw a man on the ship, however, whom I recognised as an old smuggler, but against whom we were never able to get any evidence. Not finding the cigars, I watched this man. Seeing that he made no move to betray the cargo of cigars—if there really was a cargo of them on the shipI did the next best thing. I went back to Havana with him on the same ship. We became friendly and joked about the cigars, but I could not draw him out. I felt sure, finally, that the tobacco was somewhere about the vessel, but, search as I might, I could not locate it. At Havana, no attempt was made to take the cigars off, and again the smuggler and I started back for New York.
It was a case of the man against myself and I assure you neither of us kept our eyes off the other. To cut a long and intricate story short, however, a fire broke out during the trip near one of the boilers. The passengers were called upon to aid in extinguishing the blaze, and I followed the rest to the scene. Seizing a fire axe, I swung with all my might against a hot steel coil on one side of one of the iron boilers. Smash! The “iron” gave way and a cataract of the hidden cigars tumbled down upon me. They had been concealed for smuggling purposes in a dummy boiler.
I quote this experience so that the reader of this article may judge without comment from me just how good a plot a real adventure in Secret Service work would afford for a detective novel.
It has been asserted that there are only three great detectives in fiction—Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin, Emile Gaboriau's Lecoq and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The latter I have already spoken of. Lecoq is primarily a detective for fiction purpose only. Dupin, however, is a wonderful creation, wonderful indeed, because his solutions, in the spectacular instance of The Mystery of Marie Roget, were subsequently shown to have been absolutely accurate in real life. The story mentioned, you know, was a transcript of the real story of the murder of a New York shop-girl named Rogers, and, long after the publication of Poe's novel, the actual solution of the real mystery proved to be precisely the same as Dupin, through his creator, had figured it out. More remarkable than this, however, was the fact that the final clearing of the real case worked itself out exactly as Dupin had indicated in detail, a long time before, in the novel.
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