Friday, February 14, 2014

A Defense of the "Puzzle Novel"

If you think good detective fiction is easy to write, just ask the experts. A few excerpts:
THAT popular maker of mystery stories, Louis Joseph Vance, some short time ago spoke up for the dignity of his trade. He was right to do this, but I am not sure that he did it in the proper way. Someone had asked him if the contriver of his sort of fiction had to take it seriously. Certainly, said Mr. Vance: "You can't do work of any sort that will gain a respectful hearing—and royalties—if you write with your tongue in your cheek." This is sound doctrine. Good stuff is turned out by the workman who believes in it. The cleverest imitations seldom carry far.
Here, I say, was and is the real and proper object of his devotion. At this point he begins to take his work with almost prayerful seriousness. "As a matter of fact," he says, "the construction and writing of a good mystery story is one of the most difficult and intricate forms of literary endeavor. The analysis of human character even in its psychoanalysis, and the narration of a chain of every-day events in daily affairs such as the ordinary reader will accept as not improbable is child's play compared with the labor and ingenuity and patience required to make the mystery story, so despised of the average, in any way acceptable."
The truth is, a writer of detective stories should have the tastes of a child and the mind of a chess player. That is why sex is of so little account in such stories. That it should have to be lugged in at all is one of the chief mysteries about the mystery tale. Nobody takes this "heart interest" seriously, it is about as real in this kind of fiction as it is in "The Young Visitors"—love viewed with a preoccupied infantile eye as a necessary but trivial counter in the game . . . And that is why character study is irrelevant to this kind of fiction. You add no merit to the puzzle of "Pigs in Clover" (or its current equivalent) by differentiating and analyzing—even psychoanalyzing—your pigs.
"Pigs in Clover"
What we have to deal with in most so called mystery stories is not mystery so much as quandary and surprise. "Mechanical romance" is not a bad term for them. They are built, not created, they run by machinery of a very intricate pattern. It is certainly true that a vast deal of ingenuity and patience go to their making if they are to pass muster with their audience of experts. For the confirmed reader of this fiction is a strict judge of plots. Mechanical romance is his avocation, and he is no mean critic of machinery.
As for the mystery or puzzle novel's being "despised of the average," there is something in it. It is far enough from being rejected by the average. But there are many to love and none to praise. The mystery novel flourishes in an atmosphere of general as well as official disdain.
The great Chesterton, stepping on our shores, confides to a pressman that he reads nothing but "dead authors and detective stories"; that is, a living writer of detective stories (including G. K. C. himself, who has written some pretty bad ones) cannot be dignified with the name of author. What he produces is not a book but a straw for timely tickling.
The proud fact is that a really good detective or mystery story offers diversion and solace for a grown man without requiring him to be a snuffling or a sniggling idiot. — H. W. Boynton, "In Behalf of the Puzzle Novel," THE BOOKMAN (November 1923)
Resources:
- "Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933) was an American fiction writer and creator of Michael Lanyard, 'The Lone Wolf'." — GAD Wiki
- Two previous ONTOS articles about Vance are HERE and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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