Monday, December 1, 2014

"Writing Mystery Stories Is An Exact Science"

"On Detective Stories."
By Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918).
First appearance: The Editor, 29 January 1916.
Online HERE [PDF] and HERE.
Burton Stevenson
Joyce Kilmer is the man who is most remembered today for his poem "Trees"; two years after this piece was published he died in battle in the waning days of the First World War. Excerpts:
DR. WATSON HAS FOUND a friend at last.  . . . now there appears an enthusiastic defender of Dr. Watson; a man who says that the Doctor, or some one closely resembling him in simplicity and appreciativeness, is necessary in good detective fiction; and that not the great detective himself, not the actual creator of the book, but Dr. Watson himself is the ideal person to tell the story. And the man who says this is Burton Egbert Stevenson . . . .
. . . "Of course Dr. Watson is necessary," he said to me the other day. "It seems to me that the foil to the detective plays a very important part in fiction of this sort. He represents the general public; he is mystified, enlightened, surprised, as the general public is mystified, enlightened and surprised."  . . .
. . . "You see, the story should be told in the first person. If it is told in the third person it is evident that the omniscient narrator has information which he is concealing from the reader; therefore, he is not playing fair with the reader, as the writer of this sort of work should do. If the great detective himself tells the story there can be no surprise. He must reveal his deductions and conclusions as he goes along; he will not be surprised, and the reader will not be surprised—that is, unless he holds back a part of his information, thereby not playing fair with the reader."  . . .
. . . "The writer of a detective story, or of a mystery (for the sort of story that I have in mind need not have a detective for one of its characters) must above all things play the game with his reader. He must put all his cards on the table; he must not keep one up his sleeve and then pull it out and then slap it down at the end of his book. He must not, in other words, astound his reader by an unexpected denouement, but he must astound the reader by giving an unexpected twist to the denouement which he does suspect."  . . .
. . . "You see," said Mr. Stevenson, "a mystery story is like a piece of mathematics. Writing mystery stories is an exact science. And the construction of the plot is the writer's most important problem."  . . .
. . . "The greatest detective story is the story the conclusion of which is reached with absolute logic."  . . .
. . . "So every great detective story starts with inspiration, and its development is conditioned by logic.  . . . Of course, this is not true of other forms of fiction. In the novel of character, for example, logic plays only a small part. But the detective story is a highly artificial thing. It really is a piece of sleight of hand."  . . .
. . . Mr. Stevenson is inclined to believe that Poe's ability as a writer of detective stories has been overrated. "Poe only wrote three detective stories," he said, "and one of these is a failure."  . . .
. . . "The best training for a writer of detective stories," he said, "is newspaper work. Of course, that is the best training for a writer of any sort, if he gets out of newspaper work in time."  . . .
Kilmer ends his interview with Stevenson with "a list of [six] 'Don'ts' for the guidance of all who desire to have people breathlessly follow the adventures of their lynx-eyed sleuth."

Resource:
- We've bumped into Mr. Burton Egbert Stevenson before; go HERE.
Joyce Kilmer in uniform

Category: Detective fiction criticism

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