Saturday, June 25, 2016

Acidulous Criticism Aimed at That Hansom Cab Guy

"A Master of Mystery."
By Unsigned (probably editor Richard H. Titherton).
"Literary Chat," Munsey's Magazine, December 1896.
Online at UNZ HERE (scroll down to page 377, or read the entire article below).
Less like a literary chat and more like a literary broadside, with the hapless author, Fergus Hume (1859-1932), getting hammered and sinking out of sight. Our anonymous critic's complaint, though, one that has been around for a long time, does have some merit: Too many detective stories are badly written, with predictable plots mechanically acted out by wooden characters. What he doesn't acknowledge, however, is that the same could be said of many other kinds of literature, then and now: bad poetry, bad mainstream novels, bad play-writing, and so forth. There has always been enough poorly written literature to keep cohorts of captious critics gainfully employed.

Without being conscious of it, Unsigned is also telling us what readers expected of the detec-tive tale of 120 years ago, how standardized the genre had already become, and, what's worse, how cliché-ridden it was.

What follows is the complete article:


A MASTER OF MYSTERY.
"The Carbuncle Clue," the latest achievement of Mr. Fergus Hume, of hansom cab fame, reminds us forcibly of a dime novel in a high state of cultivation. The "cultivation" has no connection with literary style, referring rather to the pub-lishers being reputable and the cover of the book more pretentious than that of the average volume of the "Half Dime Horror" variety. Regarding Mr. Hume's style, there is not much to be said. One realizes how defective is the English language when one looks about for an adjective to describe the diction of his books.
Those familiar with Mr. Hume's work—and who is not?—will remember that it is his custom to begin with a mysterious murder and finish with the vindication of an innocent man. Familiar music is the sweetest, familiar scenery the most grateful to the eye. Mr. Hume's books enthrall and fascinate because the reader always knows exactly how they will turn out, and thus avoids the nervous strain which physicians tell us is so injurious to the heart. When the corpse and the astute detective, the villain and the circumstantial evidence, have all been mar-shaled in due array, together with the accused man who refuses to tell what he was doing at the time of the crime, and the beautiful damsel who trusts her lover sublimely, then Mr. Hume takes his pen in hand, dips it in blood red ink, and embellishes the first chapter with gore and mystery.
Once having planned out one's life work and the methods by which it is to be furthered, there is nothing like plowing the furrow to the end. Mr. Hume is not the kind of man who makes a resolve on January 1 and breaks it on January 2. In the dim past, before he solved "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab," he deter-mined that there was a right way to write a detective story and that there was a wrong way. He proceeded to choose the latter, and with admirable consistency has clung to it ever since. His literary puppet booth boasts half a score of marionettes who have new dresses for every new play, and who never for a moment overstep the line that divides a live man and one of wood. Wonderful mysteries does the showman concoct for them, and thrilling situations; yet they always preserve their stolidity, and are dolls and nothing more.
Small wonder, indeed, that we enjoy the naivete with which Mr. Hume works out his attractively transparent plots, his presurmised complications, and his inevi-table denouements. Of course we all know that Mr. Punch is going to beat his wife and throw the baby down stairs and even get the best of the hangman. But we know, too, that in the end he is to go the way of the transgressor, and there-fore we can tolerate any amount of mystery and crime in the sweet certainty of ultimate retribution.
Resources:
- See Wikipedia (HERE) and the GAD Wiki (HERE) for more background on Fergus Hume.
- The Carbuncle Clue is available on Kindle (HERE).
- This particular critic wasn't the only one who found Humes's detective fiction objectionable; see Curt Evans's article at The Passing Tramp (HERE) for more.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

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