Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Real Detective's Opinion

A Secret Service agent offers his views on fictional detectives, with Sherlock and Dupin rating high with him. A few excerpts:
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.
. . . 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.
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.
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 Hindoo 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.
. . . 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.
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. — J. C. Cummings, "Inside Views of Fiction: Detective Stories," THE BOOKMAN (January 1910)

Category: Detective fiction

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