Friday, November 14, 2014

"Not an Escape from the World, but an Initiation"

"On the Floor of the Library."
By Simeon Strunsky (1879-1948).
Critical article.
From Sinbad and His Friends (1921).
Online HERE (go to pages 191-195).

Our critic Simeon Strunsky thinks that detective fiction has far more value as "the picture of humanity" than has been acknowledged until now. Excerpts follow—and we can only hope that you don't find Strunsky's satire too elusive:
Unfortunate people who never read detective novels; or, worse still, those who pick up a mystery story and wonder what in the world anyone can see in the book to keep him up till 1:30 in the morning with intermittent trips to the cold meat in the ice-box; or, worst of all, those who read the first chapter and then turn to the end to see who did the killing—such unfortunates think they are sufficiently kind when they describe the habit as a mild vice, not so hard on the family as liquor or drugs, but pernicious for the eyesight. They think they are 100 percent charitable when they tolerate the practice as one form of escape from the realities of a difficult world.
To such outsiders it is not given to understand that the "Mystery of the Chintz Room" or the "Smile of Gautama" is not an escape from the world, but an initiation. They simply do not know that a selected course in reading from Conan Doyle to Carolyn Wells is a guide to the institutions, culture, and life outlook of the nations from China to Chile.  . . .
Strunksy then commends the reading of detective fiction as a "field of research hitherto neglected by the sociologists" and offers detailed examples:
(1) The common belief that the British are an open-air people is utterly opposed to the facts.  . . .
(2) Economy and resourcefulness are not among the virtues of the classes addicted to being murdered in their bedrooms or in their libraries.  . . .
(3) Week-end guests in British baronial mansions or in wealthy residences on Long Island drink too much black coffee before going to bed.  . . .
(4) The number of servants who have been in the employ of wealthy families addicted to violent deaths, for a period of forty years and up, and for whose fidelity the survivors can vouch as confidently as for their own husbands and wives, is truly astounding.  . . .
(5) The victims of foul play in the best British and American families never, absolutely never, cut themselves when shaving, or scrape the skin, or raise a blister.  . . .
(6) Closely allied to the preceding topic, it appears that the principal occupation of the inhabitants of South America is the manufacture or the jealous preservation of the secret of instantaneously deadly poisons unknown to modern science and leaving no visible after-effects, excepting, of course, the corpse.
(7) Insurance premiums on the lives of the British nobility must be really enormous at Lloyd's.  . . .
(8) Nearly everybody in a mystery novel is a consummate athlete.  . . .
(9) The wealth of Burma and Tibet in priceless jewels would be enough to pay the German indemnity ten times over.  . . .

Category: Detective fiction criticism (tongue-in-cheek division)

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