Monday, December 1, 2014

"The Riddle Had To Be Unriddled"

"Riddle Stories."
By Julian Hawthorne (1846-1934).
First appearance: Library of the World's Best Mystery and Detective Stories (1907).
Online HERE [PDF; abridged version], HERE [greatly expanded], and HERE.
Like Cecil Chesterton in the previous post, the scion of another more famous author, this time the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, introduced his anthology of turn-of-the-[20th-]century mystery and detective stories (loosely defined) with a short analysis of this type of fiction. Excerpts follow:
. . . The fact is . . . that, in the riddle story, the detective was an afterthought, or, more accurately, a deus ex machina to make the story go. The riddle had to be unriddled; and who could do it so naturally and readily as a detective?  . . .
. . . such stories, for their success, must depend primarily upon structure—a sound and perfect plot—which is one of the rare things in our contemporary fiction.  . . .
. . . You cannot make a riddle story by beginning it and then trusting to luck to bring it to an end.  . . .
. . . But O, what a labor and sweat it is . . . Did the reader know, or remotely suspect, what terrific struggles the writer of a really good detective story has sustained, he would regard the final product with a new wonder and respect . . . .
. . . although the story is often concerned with righting some wrong, or avenging some murder, yet is must be confessed that the author commonly succeeds better in the measure of his ruthlessness in devising crimes and giving his portraits of devils an extra touch of black. Mercy is not his strong point, however he may abound in justice . . . .
. . . But this leads me to the admission that one charge, at least, does lie against the door of the riddle-story writer; and that is that he is not sincere; he makes his mysteries backward, and knows the answer to his riddle before he states its terms. He deliberately supplies his reader, also, with all manner of false scents, well knowing them to be such; and concocts various seeming artless and innocent remarks and allusions which in reality are diabolically artful, and would deceive the very elect.  . . .
. . . No one can thoroughly enjoy riddle stories unless he is old enough, or young enough, or, at any rate, wise enough to appreciate the value of the faculty of being surprised.  . . .
. . . I need hardly point out that there is a distinction and a difference between short riddle stories and long ones—novels. The former require far more technical art for their proper development; the enigma cannot be posed in so many ways, but must be stated once for all; there cannot be false scents, or but a few of them; there can be small opportunity for character drawing, and all kinds of ornament and comment must be reduced to their very lowest terms.  . . .
. . . as a rule, the riddle novel approaches its theme in a spirit essentially other than that which inspires the short tale . . . the riddle novel demands a power of vivid character portrayal and of telling description which are not indispensable in the briefer narrative.  . . .
. . . The fault of all riddle novels is that they inevitably involve two kinds of interest, and can seldom balance these so perfectly that one or the other of them shall not suffer. The mind of the reader becomes weary in its frequent journeys between human characters on one side, the mysterious events on other, and would prefer the more single-eyed treatment of the short tale.  . . .
. . . Many excellent plots, admirable from the constructive point of view, have been wasted by stringing them out too far; the reader recognizes their merit, but loses his enthusiasm on account of a sort of monotony of strain; he wickedly turns to the concluding chapter, and the game is up.  . . .
. . . The statement that a good detective or riddle story is good in art is supported by the fact that the supply of really good ones is relatively small, while the number of writers who would write good ones if they could, and who have tried and failed to write them, is past computation.  . . .

Category: Detective fiction criticism

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