THE ROMANCE OF THE DETECTIVE STORY By D. Carroll McEuen 1906
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IT is no easy matter to define a detective story. Everyone is familiar with them; everyone realizes that they differ from the ordinary novel. But it is hard to put one's finger directly upon this differentiation and analyze it accurately. One may say in general terms that it is a story the interest of which is centered in the solution of a mystery. But this is not strict enough, for it will include such books as Dumas' "Black Tulip" and Hawthorne's "Great Carbuncle," which are not detective stories at all. The trouble lies in the fact that detective stories trespass on many fields of literature and we cannot distinguish their respective elements. It would not be fair to say that it is a shoot from any one stem of fiction; to call it a kind of tale of adventure, or a character sketch of a certain type of man, is stretching terms too far. Its indebtedness to various forms must be admitted, but never to the point of merging its identity in some kindred class of novels. It draws from many sources but like a chemical compound has distinctive qualities of its own. It is a pot-pourri with its own flavor. It is akin to the tale of adventure and sometimes akin to the conventional love story; it often drags in out-of-the-way facts of natural science; it is built with a due regard to the laws of logic, and its structure is always dramatic. With all these collateral relatives it had no direct ancestors. We may find prototypes for its parts but none exist for its complete self. There are not even any books which can be reasonably called incipient detective stories. From the foundation—the corresponding side of real life—to the fully developed tale, the links are missing. Poe, Collins and Gaboriau exhibit only the final stage of its evolution. It seems to have had no childhood. In the writings of these earliest authors we find it already at man's estate with all the complexities and niceties of construction displayed by the human frame itself. The advent of these tales was an anomaly in literature, and their reception was enthusiastic, for they sprang into popularity as soon as they sprang into being. And this popularity has never waned. If anything, it has lately been revivified and strengthened. All Poe's writings pleased the public and are still read. Wilkie Collins' reputation is somewhat faded, though Gaboriau' has been translated into our language and in cheap editions is very widely circulated. But the Sherlock Holmes stories made a sensation. They out-sold even the popular novels; they largely increased the circulation of the periodicals they ran in; they were even successfully staged in a play that had little to recommend it save the acting of Gillette. Anna Katherine Green's books, too, have a host of readers who eagerly wait for each new volume. Her latest, "The Woman in the Alcove", indeed ranked high as a good seller. Now a hundred volumes could easily contain all these stories, yet they have created a literary sphere of their own; given a definite value to the phrase "detective story", and the best known character in fiction of the last decade. Now they could not attract so much attention and still escape the literary critic. But they never received serious consideration. Their ingenuity and interest were acknowledged without dispute, but the reviewers treated them as entertaining fiction, or well written dime novels, and the public acquiesced.
No one sought the reason back of their popularity except to catch the trick for imitation. Yet what interests an age must be in its nature typical of it, or a reflection of it. This is peculiarly true of the detective story; it is the secret of its charm. Their settings and their heroes are unmistakably modern. Realism is one of the stamps of our times and they are the most realistic of fiction because the development of clues requires the greatest attention and accuracy in details. But this does not imply that they are necessarily great books, though a great book is always typical of its age. The florid, blatant poetry produced in America at the beginning of the nineteenth century by such men as Percival Gates certainly reflected our national life at that period; but posterity has forgotten it. Except perhaps in style no great claims can be made for these stories, yet we shall see that they have their own function in our literature, and that their construction presents an interesting study in synthesis.
All these stories are essentially realistic; by their very nature they have to be. They aim to put a problem before the reader and to thrust the key before his face if he has the eyes to see. As this key is usually a trivial detail, and the solution must be deduced by a combination of details, it follows that the whole tale must be microscopically told so that the key may be hidden in a multitude of clues. So the detective story gives us a very vivid picture of the life we lead, and its atmosphere is very intense. Certain features should be noticed. Our transportation facilities are impressed upon us. Sherlock Holmes makes a railroad trip or takes a cab in almost every adventure. All of us travel more or less and Holmes becomes the more real as we find him doing what we are accustomed to do. When a man is murdered, all his insignificant acts for the previous day or so are minutely chronicled for us, and we are unfortunate if this man's conduct does not suggest to us that of some real person. Real places are depicted and the characters are faithful reproductions of real types, as the thug, the banker, or the actress. Electric buttons, bicycles, automobiles, are introduced and anything else that can make the picture true. It is this very portrayal, even in the commonplace, of our life that justifies us in calling these stories typical.
It is not too much to say that a good detective story could not have been written seventy-five years ago, or even considerably later. We can hardly realize the difference between the antebellum days and our own; we do not forget that the telegraph and telephone are recent, but many subtler advances escape our notice. They occur, however, again and again in these tales; they are often the turning point and they supply the color. There have always been mysteries and crimes, but many modern ones are of another sort or executed in another way. The complexity of modern life gives a new setting, sometimes a new motive. Take, for example, a murder. In the old days a man made no secret of his enmity but accomplished his purpose with a dagger and usually left the mutilated body where it would be soon found. At a later stage he pretended friendliness toward his victim and tried to make away with his body, being perfectly willing that people should suspect foul play if they did not suspect him. Nowadays the clever man makes his victim die by a seemingly natural death. In the middle ages, when there was an epidemic of poisoning, they rarely accomplished this. They displayed wonderful ingenuity in reaching their victims, particularly when of high rank, using such schemes as the poisoning of a horse's trappings so that the rider would touch it and so convey the poison to his lips. But most of the poisons they knew threw the taker into convulsions and revealed the truth. Occasionally they poisoned the food of a gourmand and his death was laid to acute indigestion: occasionally, when a man fell sick, his medicine was doctored. But they were not acquainted with the insidious poisons we know. We read tales of strange oriental drugs, but it is hard to believe them true in an age when Paracelsus drank himself to death on wood alcohol in the belief that it was the elixir of life. Even anaesthetics were not known a century ago. Certainly they could not have had any such mysteries as the case of Patrick and Rice, which is still in the public eye, and the internationally famous case of Mrs. Maybrick. Many of our detective stories hinge on the problem of murder or suicide, death by accident or design, in circumstances which could not have existed until quite recently. Many of Conan Doyle's methods are of this style; in "The Sign of the Four" an Andaman Islander kills a man with a native weapon: not so very long ago the presence of such a person in England would have been so improbable as to make the story absurd. Anna Katherine Green is fond of machinery of such intricate and delicate construction that it can only be conceived of in the days of equally marvellous printing presses. In another way our thoroughly organized and omnipotent police have put another aspect on crime. Counterfeiting is no new sin, but the devices used to delude the secret service must be unique to be successful. Robbing a bank from the inside is quite different from blowing open a safe. This increased police efficiency makes the work of criminals more difficult and they resort to more intricate operations. These are obviously better fitted to be the basis of a tale. To sum up, we may say that the modern criminal has a greater variety of means at his disposal for concealed crimes and that the police vigilance forces him to adopt the most ingenious plans he can devise. This marks a great advance beyond its predecessors in the diversity and interest of its raw material.
Their origin does not go back beyond the last generation. Of course, there have always been forms of literature appealing to a similar interest. Riddles go back as far as folklore, and many a novel turns on the disclosure of some secret. But in all the interest centers on the effect of the discovery upon the hero and not upon the method of solution. There are no stories previous to Poe's in which the "science of deduction" is exploited for its own sake. But there is a good deal of literature that preserved public interest in mysteries and perhaps suggested the detective stories. There are many historical puzzles, as the identity of the "Man in the Iron Mask" and the fate of the Dauphin in the French Revolution. There are also many court memoirs which recount many ingenious plots and crimes. There are some autobiographies of criminals themselves. Early in the nineteenth century there lived in France a famous criminal, by name Vidoque; he was won over to the government's side and was for years a chief of police. He has left two volumes of memoirs which abound with tales that might be developed into detective stories. But the greatest source is the newspapers. These in the early half of the nineteenth century were progressing fast toward being quick, reliable dispensers of news. Many large dailies were established during that period and the press in the time of Poe gave very accurate accounts of the investigations into crimes. Poe in his "Mystery of Marie Roget" supposes all the information to he gleaned from newspapers and finds in them more than enough data to solve the problem. Besides furnishing ideas to authors, the newspapers helped create a reading public who from their familiarity with the newspaper accounts of crime and the work of the officers of the law, could appreciate the ingenuity and fine strokes in a detective story. But Lecoque and Sherlock Holmes show so remarkable a likeness to a great character in fiction that we may reasonably believe that Gaboriau and Conan Doyle had him in their minds. Who is this stalwart man wrapped close in a great ulster, coming out of an obscure house in Paris, this man who acts on the principle that none are too high in rank or reputation to be watched? Who is this tall gaunt figure strong enough to bend an iron poker, likewise in a long coat with the collar about his ears, who threads his way along the London streets, in rain or shine, with a tenacity of purpose and demoniacal divination of facts that is the terror of evil doers? Might not either of these be the reincarnation of Javert?
All this while we have left our reader without an answer to the question suggested at the beginning,— what is a detective story? Briefly we would define it as a story which gives us an opportunity to use our analytical faculty, which we sometimes forget we possess; in most books the analysis of character or situation is done for the reader; it is the characteristic of a detective story that it is left for him to unfathom himself. Thus a detective story is nothing more than an elaborate puzzle. Most detective stories present pros and cons and hold the solution to the last minute. Some detective stories do relate the process of reasoning; where this is powerful enough there is the same stimulus to the analytic faculty. We have chosen this definition because we can account in it for the varied types of stories. We can easily show that all are reducible to a problem to be analyzed plus certain additions. We may trace the gradations from a bare tale of mathematical principles such as some of Poe's to the complicated stories of Anna Katherine Green. As an illustration of the first stage consider Poe's "Purloined Letter." This consists of a long discussion of the doctrine of chances as a criminal would use it to conceal a certain letter. Dupin argues that it would be left in open sight, as less likely to be found so than to survive a thorough search which was sure to be made, and he turns out to be right. The interest is simply in the analysis of the criminal's mind. This might be termed a pure detective story. The next step is to heighten the interest by introducing the element of surprise. Anna Katherine Green's work shows this well. In her stories you suspect every character in turn and the criminal is either the only person you were sure was innocent, or sometimes a character not introduced until the very end. The element of surprise leads easily to the bizarre. Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue", where an ape is responsible, belongs to this class. Conan Doyle uses it very frequently, for example in the "Red Headed League" and the "Speckled Band", where a trained cobra is brought in. Finally in the course of this synthesis comes the human element. First this appears in making the detective a hero, as Dupin, Sherlock Holmes and Lecoque. These stories have human interest, but it is largely confined to the chief character. Then came stories of which Collins' are a good example, where the human interest extends to many individuals and there are other plots. Here we begin to trespass on the novel, for as soon as the detection becomes a subordinate interest, the detective story is gone, and, vice versa, any story whose chief interest is in the analytic faculty is a detective story, which is the definition we started with.
Having now obtained an insight into their construction, we are in a position to take a brief survey of the authors and their works. We will confine ourselves to the five great writers, Poe, Gaboriau, Collins. Anna Katherine Green, and Conan Doyle. Poe is eminently the exponent of the purer type. He wrote only five short stories of this nature, three about Dupin, the "Gold Bug", and "Thou Art the Man." The "Gold Bug", however, is as much a tale of adventure as a detective story and the dramatic ending of "Thou Art the Man" holds our attention equally with the proving of the guilt. But in the other three, with the exception of the ape, and a slight interest in Dupin as a man, we have nothing but bare analysis, balancing of probabilities and keen observations, all written in Poe's wonderful style with all his keenness. In their line they are in a class by themselves. Collins' stuff is poor. His plots are too melodramatic and his style is not of the best: we will not use them much harder than they deserve if we call them trashy. Gaboriau had the best mind for constructing a story; despite their length and countless ramifications, the thread is remarkably well kept. His stories are perhaps the most all round stories. He appeals to all the varied interests of analysis, surprise and sympathy, all in one book. On the other side, his stories are long drawn out and there is a certain sameness about them all. Anna Katherine Green usually has a love story hanging on the issue and tries to keep you guessing as long as she can. But her hooks are often melodramatic and she sometimes commits the fault of never bringing her criminal into the story until the end, which is unpardonable, as it puts a problem before the reader whose answer he never had the material even to guess at. Conan Doyle is the acknowledged past master of the art, and while it would be superfluous to point out his virtues, it may not be amiss to mention some of his faults. His worst fault is well illustrated by the "Study in Scarlet." He catches his man and explains how he caught him afterward, which is an obvious anti-climax, though the cleverness of Sherlock Holmes' deductions to some extent conceal the blunder in construction. Again, many of his plots are very similar. He has a fondness for old men returned from the colonies and blackmailed by some old companion in crime. Then consider this inconsistency between Sherlock Holmes' talk and the stories. Sherlock Holmes over and over again asserts that a crime with an odd feature is the simplest of all, and that the unravelling of ordinary crimes demands the most skill, yet almost every story turns upon some abnormal feature. But we might forgive much more than this to the man who has given us Sherlock Holmes.
The final question is their significance in literature. Are they going to last? We think Conan Doyle's and Poe's tales will, for they have a worthy literary style; Sherlock Holmes at any rate will last several generations. They have no moral strength to perpetuate them; they are non-moral. They were written simply for amusement, but they were so well done that we can safely prophesy some duration to their fame. What do they do for the reader? G. K. Chesterton says they throw a romance about the ugly city streets and open a field of imagination to the urbanite. But this is not a quality peculiar to them, for Lamb in quite a different way made the city romantic and in still another way Thackeray and Dickens accomplished the same thing. But its deeper significance lies in its relation to romance. Crimes, particularly the strange ones of detective stories, are abnormal in actual life and by their nature romantic, for one of the fundamentals of romance is that it be abnormal. These stories are really romances in disguise. In a day of realism in the drama and fiction, they are built upon the imagination; that is, the happenings are imaginative though the setting is unusually true to life. W hen we enjoy a detective story we are indulging under a different shape the same feelings that enjoyed the chivalric romances of the middle ages.
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