By Cecil Chesterton (1879-1918).
First appearance: The Living Age (24 November 1906).
Online HERE [PDF].
|Better than Conan Doyle, Morrison, and Hume?|
. . . No form of artistic effort has suffered more from this indiscriminate condemnation than the type of narrative which we commonly call the Detective Story. . . .
. . . If the average level of detective-story writing is peculiarly low, may not this fact itself be attributed to the refusal of literary criticism to take its artistic qualities seriously? Where there is no recognition of merit there can be no standard. Consequently the workmanship of many even of the best contemporary writers of this class is often careless and hasty to an extent which would have shocked Poe and Gaboriau, who put into their tales of mystery as much care and artistic conscience as a modern writer would put into a "problem" novel, dealing with the delicate psychology of a man who thought he was made of glass. . . .
. . . The detective or mystery story need not, of course, be primarily concerned with detectives. . . .
. . . two primary qualifications are necessary—firstly, that the mystery should really be mysterious; secondly, that the explanation should really explain. These conditions may appear at first sight somewhat elementary. Yet I know few modern detective stories that do not violate one or other of them, while a great many persistently violate both. . . .
. . . The British public likes to have its vice and virtue clear-cut and unmistakable. It likes the hero to be consistently heroic, the villain to be well-marked by his black moustache, his cigarette, and his easy laugh. Now this is all very well in melodrama, but it is fatal to the mystery story. . . .
. . . The French public is, I suppose, much less sentimental and much more discriminatingly critical than the British. The great French masters of the police novel never hesitate to make the noble and generous young man a murderer, or the heroic and long-suffering wife an adulteress and accomplice of assassins. . . .
. . . Nothing is more irritant in a detective story than that even one mysterious circumstance should remain at the end unexplained. . . .
. . . In an ideal detective story all the clues to the true solution ought to be there from the first, but so overlaid as to pass unnoticed. . . .
. . . Of course the worst and commonest temptation of the writer of detective stories is to the spendthrift use of coincidence. . . .
. . . The old proverb that truth is stranger than fiction may be put more soundly in the form that fiction must not be so strange as truth. . . .
. . . I know that this kind of interest [in the characters themselves] is generally thought to be unnecessary, if not absolutely out of place in a detective story. No mistake could be more disastrous; it is responsible for more than half of the appalling dullness of modern mystery novels. . . .
. . . A criticism of modern detective fiction would obviously be inadequate without some appreciation of the great Sherlock Holmes cycle. . . .
. . . The fact is that Sherlock Holmes was too perfect a detective for the stories of which he is the hero to be perfect detective stories. . . . this idealization of the detective is in a way fatal to the art of the detective story. That the true solution may be absolutely hidden from the reader it is necessary that it should be only slowly and partially revealed to the detective. Holmes sees everything in a moment, and so leads us to see too much. . . .
. . . If we want to find the best contemporary mystery stories—the best, I mean, considered simply as mystery stories—we shall not go to the famous cycle of Sherlock Holmes. Still less shall we go to Mr. Arthur Morrison . . . or to Mr. Fergus Hume . . . We shall, I think, turn to the work of two women . . . .
. . . I fancy that the two faculties which the great Sherlock declared to be the prime necessities of a detective, observation and deduction, are feminine rather than masculine faculties. . . .
. . . Most women quite habitually indulge in the sort of ratiocination that Holmes practised over the old hat. . . .
Category: Detective fiction criticism