Friday, February 14, 2014

"A Suspension of Disbelief Is Required"

When fiction and fact collide in detective stories, critics prefer to slam the fiction for being unrealistic—and this despite how unrealistic so-called "realistic" fiction can be. Take, for instance, this fellow, who just doesn't seem to get it. A few excerpts:
If you are plotting a murder, don't follow the scientists—they are second only to the detective novelists and Broadway playwrights as bunglers.
In a mechanized age such as this, it is believed that elaborate technical ingenuity, the employment of strange chemicals and complicated engines, make a detective story interesting. And, perhaps as a result of this fallacy, people indulge in gossip about the perfect murder, and fearfully imagine that we may soon live in constant danger of murder through some contraption invented by the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics.
Does it occur to anybody that what chiefly makes crime worth reading about, either as fiction or fact, is the human element, the strange problems it presents in human conduct, the revelations it makes of the dark recesses of the human heart?
. . . consider the novels of Miss Dorothy Sayers. It seems possible that many people read every one of them, first, because in Lord Peter Wimsey the author has created the most amusing, human, and likeable detective since Sherlock Holmes; and, second, because of the background. In Gaudy Night, it was of Oxford; in The Nine Tailors, it was change ringing in a rural English church. As for the plots, they are often of the painfully involved sort, used so much in American crime plays and films. At the end, I am not sure whether A killed B, or if both were killed by Q, and if so, why? And, to be frank, I don't care. Murderer and murderee, to use the terms coined by Miss Tennyson Jesse, have become puppets. Lord Peter is delightful entertainment; but the details of the murders, their methods and causes, make you reach for the aspirin.
It is probable that the authors of detective novels will continue to write as they choose, since their ingenious scientific plots do interest many readers. It does not follow, however, that when novelists invent elaborate and abstruse methods for committing murder they are basing their work on the facts of actual contemporary crime. There is reason for believing that the direct opposite is the truth, that murders are becoming more and more simple, direct, and brutal. 
When people talk of the perfect murder they mean something more sly and sinister than these. Thanks to the efforts of the writers of detective stories, they think of delicate machinery, of mysterious poisons from South America, trained spiders from Sumatra, "death rays" wielded by mad scientists, and all the rest of the armory of weapons which have been invented by novelists.
It is hardly realized how greatly this enormous mass of fiction—some of it very entertaining—has affected the public attitude toward crime. Many people seriously try to apply some story-book clew toward the solution of every notorious murder. They forget that the creator of the greatest of all the imaginary detectives, Conan Doyle, acknowledged that when in his own person he tried to solve a local police problem and find out who had committed a burglary, he arrived at the sole conclusion (perhaps doubtful) that the offender was left-handed. But by the time the mind which evolved Sherlock Holmes had made this deduction, the village constable already had the culprit locked up.
. . . writers of fiction, in stories, novels, plays, and films, have continued to present the threadbare situation of a prisoner at the bar who is the spotless and pitiable victim of brutal police, ruthless prosecutors, and savage judges. Fiction about the criminal character—or ninety per cent of it—is designed to please emotional rather than rational folk.
A little reading in the fiction of crime, and still a little more about the facts of crime, in England and America, ought to convince anybody that the myth of the marvelous amateur detective has been built up at the expense of the ordinary and frequently honest policeman. It is amusing to have Sherlock Holmes expose Inspector Lestrade as an ass, and to see Philo Vance show up Sergeant Heath as a blustering nincompoop. But it has furnished a little bit too much ammunition to those who are over-ready to work themselves to a boiling point of indignation in behalf of any and every hoodlum and killer who has at last been run down and put where he belongs.
. . . clergymen, I have observed, are assiduous and intelligent students of crime.
Final advice to those contemplating murder would be: Don't follow the detective novelists. Avoid elaborate and "scientific" methods. Be direct and ruthless, and, instead of fearing witnesses, get as many around you as possible. The more, the luckier. — Edmund Pearson, "The Perfect Murder," SCRIBNER'S (July 1937)
The classic mystery novel has been criticized for years (e.g., by Raymond Chandler) for being unrealistic. Nobody who wrote them would ever say they were intended to be. This genre (sub-category, sub-species, whatever you want to call it) operates under rather strict rules, like the form of a sonnet or a limerick, a Racine/Moliere or classic French play, an Aesop fable, a fairy tale with elves and ogres, princesses and heroes—basically a fantasy story. One has to accept this or else go read something else. Modern versions have been updated of course to allow explicit sex, swearing, real gore and gruesome insanity, but the format remains the same. A good mystery is an escapist reading experience, not involving abdication of intelligence or critical viewpoint as with a Harlequin romance or a shoot-em-up of either the sadistic Mickey Spillane or comic-book superhero Doc Savage type, but a suspension of disbelief is required. — Wyatt James, "What Was the Golden Age of Detection?", GAD Wiki

Category: Detective fiction

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