Saturday, April 26, 2014

"For Unity, Strength, and Integration of Detail No Better Story Has Been Written"

OUR SHORT STORY WRITERS.
By Blanche Colton Williams (1879-1944).
Moffat, Yard & Co.
1920, reprinted 1929. 357 pages.
Chapter XVII: "Melville Davisson Post" and Chapter XVIII: "Mary Roberts Rinehart."
Online HERE and HERE.
A survey of contemporary masters of the short form that includes two accomplished experts in the field of detective fiction.

Concerning Melville Davisson Post (1869-1930)—and beware of SPOILERS:
Of all American writers who have converted to fictive purposes the science of logic, two are preeminent. They grew up, some fifty years apart, in the same section of the United States, and by a pun the surname of one is the superlative of the other. They are Edgar Allan Poe and Melville Davisson Post.
The first of these formulated the laws of the short story. He originated the detective story, his model for which served writers half a century. That model is well known: a crime has been committed, or is about to be committed, and the agent of the law bends his efforts to apprehending the crime. It was left for the second to invent a new type of detective tale.
As Mr. Post has himself remarked, the flood of detective stories succeeding Poe's poured forth "until the stomach of the reader failed" [page 293].
Poe had required an acute and subtile intellect, a highly trained ratiocinative mind, for his detective. These he incorporated in Monsieur Dupin. Mr. Post required, first of all, an unmoral intelligence, preferably that of a skilled unscrupulous lawyer who would instruct men how to evade the law. Hence, arose the figure of Randolph Mason [page 294].
One does not like to read with the feeling that some criminal may profit by the plan unfolded; it is more pleasant to harbor the thought that the law will take note, as well as the lawless . . . In any event, Randolph Mason has the fascination, and the repulsion, of the serpent [pages 296-297].
[Post is quoted as saying] "The primary object of all fiction is to entertain the reader. If, while it entertains, it also ennobles him this fiction becomes a work of art; but its primary business must be to entertain and not to educate or to instruct him" [page 298].
[For Post] The plot is first; character is second. The Greeks would have been astounded at the idea common to our age that "the highest form of literary structure may omit the framework of the plot." The short story is to our age what the drama was to the Greeks. Poe knew this. And he is the one literary genius America has produced [page 299].
Mr. Post also holds a brief for his large employment of tragic incident . . . He pleases the popular audience because he writes of crime [page 299].
Motive and mystery, in short, are the sources of entertainment, rather than the crime itself. But murder is interesting because of its finality: it is the supreme crime, because it is irreparable [page 300].
Uncle Abner (1919) is proof that Mr. Post had by no means exhausted his fecundity in creating the unmoral Mason. His sense of justice and his sense of balance have produced a hero the antithesis of his hero-villain. Whereas Mason delighted in struggling against pagan Fate, Uncle Abner finds joy in furthering the beneficent operations of Providence. These two men express, respectively, the heathen and the Christian ideal; and they are as complementary as Jekyll and Hyde [pages 300-301].
The death of a criminal may be the subject of investigation, as in The Doomdorf Mystery [NOTE: The solution of this story, as well as several others, is revealed here] . . . For unity, strength, and integration of detail no better story has been written [page 302].
Dupin recalls to us the crime of the city; Sherlock Holmes lives in London. Abner is a man of the hills, whose detective work leads him among the hill people [page 304].
Concerning Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), who at this time was just getting started in mystery fiction:
No other writer reflects more accurately the age of the motion picture. This is neither to assert nor to deny that she has been influenced by motion picture technique. It is to say that, being a child of the twentieth century, she recognizes the demand for rapid action and the eagerness for one unique visual impression after another. She supplies the demand by unreeling film after film from a mind fertile in invention and prodigal of picture-story stuff which, translated in terms of black and white, reel off before the reader. There is the same lack of depth, or "thickness," in her narrative which the motion-picture play illustrates. It is art of two dimensions [pages 309-310].
[Rinehart's abilities include] deftness in plot construction, her skill in arousing suspense, her ability to hold off the climax relentlessly while apparently advancing relentlessly toward it, and her final seeming clever solution of the mystery [page 313].
[In The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry, 1911] the two hundred pages in which Letitia turns detective at the hospital are the most important. Mrs. Rinehart may have found the germinal idea in Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue. So similar is the likeness at one point that, just as the reader begins to wonder whether she will solve the story similarly, she takes the occasion to mention The Murders in such manner as to convey that her dĂ©nouement will be different. The solving, however, lacks the convincingness of Poe's story, as the manner lacks his clarity [pages 314-315].
Resources:
- On his megasite, Mike Grost has much more about Melville Davisson Post HERE and Mary Roberts Rinehart HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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