Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Lawyer Looks Askance at Detective Fiction

While it's slowly dawning on us in the 21st century that many representations of law enforcement in the media might not be true to life, a similar realization occurred to some folks back in the 20th.
SPOILER ALERT: The authors reveal much about J. S. Fletcher's The Strange Case of Mr. Henry Marchmont, Carolyn Wells's The Room with the Tassels, Edmund Pearson's Murder at Smutty Nose (nonfiction), S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, Earl Derr Biggers's Behind That Curtain, Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train, H. C. Bailey's "The Little House", A. E. W. Mason's The House of the Arrow, and Edgar Wallace's The Fellowship of the Frog.

A few excerpts:
IT IS an easy matter to convict a murderer—in books! The writer of mystery stories has only to set his dauntless detective spinning analyses and collecting evidence, and the culprit is inevitably led repining to the death cell.
The chief reason justice is so much better served in fiction than in reality is that the mythical detective enjoys enormous advantages over actual investigators. The storybook hero can get his man by all manner of devices prohibited in real life—from breaking-and-entering to conniving with United States postal officials to rob the mails.
Detective novels are few in which the protagonist does not accomplish some brilliant stroke in flagrant violation of the law. Furthermore, when it comes to trying the prisoner on the strength of the evidence the usual detective collects to support his brilliant hypotheses, what looks so invulnerable in print would make him a laughing-stock if introduced in an actual court of justice.
On the great majority of such occasions the available evidence is wholly inadequate to convince a trial jury or even to gain a hearing of the state's case. Detective fiction, in this regard, is most life-like: where it departs from reality is in the author's naive assurance that the suspect was actually and in due form convicted.
. . . the harassed District Attorney [in Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case] [has] lawful functions, as a matter of common knowledge, [that] really have nothing to do with detective work.
This by no means exhausts the detective stories in which evidence against the alleged murderer is entirely too sketchy and fantastic to gain a conviction outside the covers of a book. In a vast number of such fictions the authors seem more intent upon dramatic "surprise endings" than upon logical construction of legal evidence. And if the detective of fiction enjoys an altogether unnatural latitude in the matter of making arrests merely on his own theorizing, so is he allowed startlingly illegal "modi operandi."
The only means by which the police can secure a piece of mail is by a warrant accurately describing the specific letter in question. It is inconceivable that the postal authorities would regularly deliver a suspect's mail to the prosecutor's office.
. . . the rule of exclusion applies only to evidence unreasonably secured by government agents. Fiction detectives who dispense with active official police co-operation are therefore an asset to the author in this respect. They remove, at least, a large part of the risk of writing bad law.
It might be a happy facilitation of the police task in repressing crime if we could invest our real detectives with these privileges which detectives in fiction enjoy. But desirable privilege and power presuppose discretion, and real detectives are not endowed with discretion by mere alteration of the law. — John Barker Waite and Miles W. Kimball, "The Lawyer Looks at Detective Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (August 1929)
Books and authors mentioned in the article:
J. S. Fletcher
~ THE STRANGE CASE OF MR. HENRY MARCHMONT [a.k.a. THE BEDFORD ROW MYSTERY]
Carolyn Wells
THE ROOM WITH THE TASSELS
Edmund Pearson
~ MURDER AT SMUTTY NOSE
S. S. Van Dine
THE GREENE MURDER CASE
Earl Derr Biggers
BEHIND THAT CURTAIN
Agatha Christie
THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN
~ Sherlock Holmes
~ Philo Vance
~ Charlie Chan
H. C. Bailey
~ "The Little House"
~ Reggie Fortune
A. E. W. Mason
THE HOUSE OF THE ARROW
Edgar Wallace
~ THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG



Category: Detective fiction

No comments:

Post a Comment