Friday, July 29, 2016

The Locked Room Mystery in the Mid-Twentieth Century (with One from the Twenty-first)

"The Locked Room."
By Donald A. Yates (born 1931).
First appearance: Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review, Spring 1957 (pages 218-225).
Article (8 pages).
Online at Google Books HERE.
(WARNING! It's unfortunate that the author reveals the solutions to just about every mystery story he discusses.)
(Note: Special thanks to TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time for reminding us of this article.)
"Ancient Device of the Story-teller, but Not Dead Yet"
Critics have been signalling the death knell of genre fiction, and most particularly the detective story, for a long time, but somehow it just won't roll over. Writing in the late '50s, Donald Yates departs from the usual gloomy Guses in academia and sounds a hopeful note:
I should like to show that even when its death papers are signed and delivered, a genre is capable of lively revolt. That it may throw these papers up in the server's face and suddenly reveal that it has acquired new life and new direction—merely through the stimulation of imagination lent to it by a new individual who has dedicated himself to a fresh treatment of its themes and traditions.
It is interesting to note that there exists today a literary form which actually thrives on limitation, a genre whose structure was determined over a century ago. It is a form, moreover, whose structure has undergone no appreciable change in shape or organization since that distant and still glowing moment of its conception. It is just frosting on the cake, of course, to point up the fact that it is highly unlikely that the external form of this literary classification will ever undergo any significant change.
All these remarks refer, to be sure, to the detective novel.
The author sees in the locked room story, which the critics would condemn along with detective fiction as having too many formal limitations, as one means by which the
detective story could be reinvigorated in the future:
 It is the classic problem [in detective fiction] which makes the purest appeal to logic for its solution; it highlights the "closed" nature of the detective tale and is, unquestionably, its most traditional expression. It is the plot idea which has come to be referred to as "the locked-room mystery."
There is another interesting (and quite pertinent) feature of the locked-room tale: it is distinguished from all other detective story plots in that it possesses, at one and the same time, not only the most glorious past of any detective theme, but the most dubious future as well.
Dubious indeed! The locked-room story has for some decades now been condemned to death. Perhaps I should say with more exactitude that critics have tried to diagnose it out of existence!
The attempt has been unsuccessful, of course—as any present-day mystery fan will tell you. And the reasons for its survival are worth examining. . . .
In 1941 Howard Haycraft cautioned: "Avoid the Locked Room puzzle. Only a genius can invest it with novelty or interest to-day." Based on the evidence from the intervening fifteen years, Yates strongly disagrees:
. . . the time-honored detective-story device is still with us. Part of the explana-tion, I think, lies in the fact that the detective story quite naturally attracts a high proportion of the cleverest and most ingenious writers practising at any given time. The limitations of the locked-room puzzle offer to such writers a challenge which is really rather difficult to resist. And therefore new expressions continue to appear, with a shifting emphasis in each novel from character to atmosphere to incident and even to "gimmick." For it seems that in hand with every new advance in the field of human knowledge there comes a new way to polish off someone inside that wonderfully appealing locked room. Poe had no vacuum cleaner, and we have no penetrating death-ray gun; but it might well be next!
Here, to forewarn you, are the books and stories that Yates discusses (and about most of which he regrettably spills the beans):

~ "The History of Bel"
~ "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
~ "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
~ The Big Bow Mystery
~ The Mystery of the Yellow Room
~ "The Doomsdorf Mystery"
~ The Canary Murder Case
~ The Chinese Orange Mystery
~ "The Mystery of the Fabulous Laundryman"
~ The Door Between
~ He Wouldn't Kill Patience.
~ ~ ~

With the next story, Donald Yates shows that he can not only offer criticism about the locked room mystery but also, on occasion, write one.

"The Wounded Tyrolean."
By Donald A. Yates (born 1931).
First appearance: Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2012.
Short story (14 pages).
Online HERE.
"The old locked room puzzle—just like in the mystery stories . . ."
Our story begins in a rather Watsonian vein:
When Professor Behring of the Middleton University physics department was found fatally stabbed in his home late one October afternoon, the crime caused an understandable wave of disbelief to sweep over the quiet university town. However, for those whose duty brought them into close contact with the intimate facts of the case, it had an added flavor—of the unreal.
From every conceivable aspect, the murder was an impossible crime.
The only person to arrive at the true explanation of the matter was John Rossi-ter, a bright young senior who was the editor of the student newspaper, the Campus Daily. But having reached the answer through a feat of inspired logic, Rossiter never revealed the solution to a soul. That is why "The Case of the Wounded Tyrolean," as it came to be known, has remained a classic puzzle to the general public and is still preserved in the local police files under "Crimes Unsolved."
The recent death of one of the principal figures involved in the investigation, however, has at last made it possible for the entire story to be told. For the inter-ested reader, it begins one chill afternoon, amid the autumnal splendor of a Midwest college town in the now distant fall of 1948. . . .
(Note: See the author's EQMM article linked below for the origin of "The Wounded Tyrolean.")

Resources:
- Marvin Lachman, writing in The Heirs of Anthony Boucher (2005), notes (HERE):
An issue raised early in TAD's [The Armchair Detective's] history (and still dis-cussed today) is whether it is possible to write intelligent criticism of the mystery story without disclosing vital plot elements and/or the ending. Frank McSherry complained that Donald Yates had given away too many solutions and surprises in his 1970 piece on locked rooms. Hubin devised a compromise, warning before Professor Darwin Turner's article on John B. West that it contain-ed plot disclosures.
- Yates tells us: "My doctoral dissertation . . . dealt with 'The Argentine Detective Story'" (see HERE). Since he's fluent in Spanish (see his Guggenheim autobio HERE) as well as deeply interested in detective fiction (see the Post article HERE), it's no wonder his translations of South American mystery stories (including, of course, Borges) have appeared so often in The Saint Mystery Magazine and EQMM (see his EQMM article HERE), in addition to a few compo-sitions of his own. A YouTube video of Yates discussing translating detective fiction is (HERE) (7 minutes 45 seconds)—for the moment anyway, we hasten to add.
- In at least one instance the locked room mystery is known to have suffered a fatal blow; see (HERE).

Category: Detective fiction criticism

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing the link to both the Yates story and the Youtube clip. Very much appreciated!

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    1. You're most welcome. Once upon a time decades ago, when I was a callow college freshman, I came across Yates's 1957 article while doing some research on another subject but subsequently never could remember where I'd seen it.

      By the way, your weblog is great: always something interesting there.

      Best regards,
      Mike

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