Saturday, February 21, 2015

"A Few of the Recent Changes in the Police Novel, Which Do Roughly Correspond to Changes in the Social History of Our Time"

"About Shockers."
By G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936).
First published in As I Was Saying (1936), chapter XXXIII.
Online HERE.
Chesterton's compositions could be breath-taking, baffling, delightful, and annoying all at the same time, but no one could accuse him of being insensible to what was happening in the world around him, and that goes for detective fiction, too. Excerpts:
IT IS WELL that students sternly devoted to that science should issue bulletins, from time to time, upon the state of the Detective Story; the stage it has recently reached in its present alleged progress or decline. Some hold that the possibilities of the detective story will soon be exhausted. They take the view that there are only a limited number of ways of murdering a man, or only a limited number of men who might plausibly and reasonably be murdered. But surely this is to take too gloomy and pessimistic a view of the case. Some hold that the detective story will, indeed, progress and evolve, but it will evolve into something else; and I always think that sort of evolution is a form of extinction. They seem to think that it will become so good that it will cease to exist; will die of sheer goodness, like the little choir-boy. What used to be called the police novel will expand into the novel where the problems are too subtle to be solved by calling in the police. For my part, as a matter of taste, I can do very well without the police; but I cannot do without the criminals. And if modern writers are going to ignore the existence of crime, as so many of them already ignore the existence of sin, then modern writing will get duller than ever.
Here, however, my only duty, as a dry recorder of scientific facts, is to note a few of the recent changes in the police novel, which do roughly correspond to changes in the social history of our time. I shall also venture, in my capacity of earnest ethical adviser to the young student of blood and thunder, to point out some dangers and disadvantages in these new forms and fashions in crime. . . 
Here is Chesterton's advice for detective fiction writers when they create characters:
. . . I would therefore lay down this canon first of all: that the people in a really gory murder mystery should be good people. Even the man who is really gory should be good, or should have a convincing appearance of being good.  . . .
Instead, writers insist on populating their stories with
. . . suspects [who] are so very suspect that we might safely call them guilty; not necessarily of the crime under discussion, but only of about half a hundred others.
But there is an obvious snag in this convenient way of spreading suspicion over a number of characters. It can be put in a word: such cases may cause suspicion, but they cannot cause surprise. It is the business of a shocker to produce a shock. But these modern characters are much too shocking ever to produce a shock.  . . .
Too many suspects of dubious character can vitiate the suspense:
. . . It is true that, in some of the very best recent romans policiers, this rout of rather bestial revellers is often introduced, not in order to convict any of them, but to distract attention from some seemingly conventional person who is ultimately convicted. But the method is wrong, even at the best; a hint of guilt should be thrilling; but there is nothing particularly thrilling about the safe bet that some of these social ornaments are capable of being thieves or thugs.  . . .
One technical error shocker authors make:
. . . I think there is another weak point, which is the worst thing even in the best shockers. This also is connected with some recent social changes; as with the scientific fashion of Psychoanalysis, which is generally more of a fashion than a science. It is also connected with a certain mechanical or materialistic interpretation of human interests, which often goes along with it. I mean the expedient of distracting attention from the real criminal by suspecting him at the beginning and not merely at the end.  . . .
. . . This method, again, has every quality of ingenuity, and pursues the highly legitimate aim of shifting the spot light from the guilty to the innocent. And yet I think that it fails, and that there is a reason for its failure. The error is the materialistic error; the mistake of supposing that our interest in the plot is mechanical, when it is really moral. But art is never unmoral, though it is sometimes immoral; that is, moral with the wrong morality. The only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will; it involves finding out that men are worse or better than they seem, and that by their own choice.  . . .
Too much of the real world, says Chesterton, has crept into the detective story:
. . . I notice a curiously modern and sullen realism beginning to settle on some of the recognized tales of murder, once so gay, innocent, and refreshing. Once our detective art really was almost an unmoral art; and therefore the one which managed to remain almost a moral art. But shades of the prison-house—or, worse still, of the humane reformatory and the psychological clinic—begin to close upon the growing boy and the hopeful butcher of his kind.  . . .
As an example of how this "sullen realism" can infect a character's behavior Chesterton offers Lady Macbeth:
. . . Unfortunately, like such a very large number of people living in dark, barbarous, ignorant, and ferocious times, she was full of modern ideas. She intended especially to maintain the two brightest and most philosophical of modern ideas; first, that it is often extremely convenient to do what is wrong; and second, that whenever it is convenient to do what is wrong, it immediately becomes what is right. Illuminated by these two scientific search-lights of the twentieth century in her groping among the stark trees and stone pillars of the Dark Ages, Lady Macbeth thought it quite simple and business-like to kill an old gentleman of very little survival value, and offer her own talents to the world in the capacity of Queen.  . . .
Most worrisome for Chesterton is the idea which modern shockers seem to support that murder and the murderer can be excused on materialistic, or non-moral, grounds:
. . . Sinister minds may be clouded by dark and unworthy suspicions that the views here discussed are not wholly serious; but some of the modern moralists favouring murder and other simple solutions of social difficulties are serious with a dry-throated earnestness that no satire could simulate. And even my own lighted prejudices on the negative side are not without spasms of sincerity.  . . .
- We last touched base with G.K.C. HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

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