LAST WEEK we heard Rex Stout's ideas of what constitutes good detective fiction; now let's hear from the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey twenty years earlier . . .
"A Sport of Noble Minds."
By Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957).
First appearance: The Saturday Review, August 3, 1929.
Article (2 pages).
Online at UNZ (HERE).
(Note: Text is small and faded; use Ctrl + for better results.)
~ Poe wasn't just there first but brought with him a spirit of innovation:
"In 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' and, with a certain repulsive facetious-ness, in 'Thou Art the Man' he [Poe] achieved the fusion of the two distinct genres and created what we may call the story of mystery, as distinct from pure detection on the one hand and pure horror on the other. In this fused genre, the reader's blood is first curdled by some horrible and apparently inexplicable murder or portent; the machinery of detection is then brought
in to solve the mystery and punish the murderer."
~ Every detective fiction since the day of the Raven has followed his lead:
"As regards plot also, Poe laid down a number of sound keels for the use of later adventurers. Putting aside his instructive excursions into the psychology of detection—instructive, because we can trace their influence in so many of Poe's successors down to the present day—putting these aside, and discount-ing that atmosphere of creepiness which Poe so successfully diffused about nearly all he wrote, we shall probably find that to us, sophisticated and trained on an intensive study of detective fiction, his plots are thin to transparency. But in Poe's day they represented a new technique. As a matter of fact, it is doubtful whether there are more than half a dozen deceptions in the mystery-monger's bag of tricks, and we shall find that Poe has got most of them, at any rate in embryo."
~ Detective fiction's gestation period was unduly prolonged:
"It is rather puzzling that the detective story should have had to wait so long to find a serious exponent. Having started so well, why did it not develop earlier?"
~ Certainly social attitudes had something to do with it:
". . . though crime stories might, and did, flourish, the detective story proper could not do so until public sympathy had veered round to the side of law and order. It will be noticed that, on the whole, the tendency in early crime litera-ture is to admire the cunning and astuteness of the criminal. This must be so while the law is arbitrary, oppressive, and brutally administered."
~ Then along came Sherlock:
". . . with Sheriock Holmes, the ball—the original nucleus deposited by Edgar Allan Poe nearly forty years earlier—was at last set rolling."
~ Sayers echoes Rex Stout:
". . . the job of writing detective stories is by no means growing easier. . . . How can we at the same time show the reader everything and yet legitimately obfuscate him as to its meaning?"
~ Aristotle would be proud:
"In its severest form, the mystery story is a pure analytical exercise, and, as such, may be a highly finished work of art, within its highly artificial limits. There is one respect, at least, in which the detective story has an advantage over every other kind of novel. It possesses an Aristotelian perfection of beginning, middle, and end."
~ Sayers shares Conan Doyle's reservations about whether detective fiction could ever "transcend" itself:
"It [the detective story] does not, and by hypothesis, never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement."
~ Unless they're carefully handled, emotions can upset the apple cart:
"A too violent emotion flung into the glittering mechanism of the detective story jars the movement by disturbing its delicate balance. . . . it is better
to err in the direction of too little feeling than too much."
~ The same goes for characterization:
"To make the transition from the detached to the human point of view in one of the writer's hardest tasks. It is especially hard when the murderer has been made human and sympathetic. A real person has then to be brought to the gallows, and this must not be done too lightheartedly. Mr. G. K. Chesterton deals with the problem by merely refusing to face it."
". . . modern taste rejects monsters, therefore, the modern detective story
is compelled to achieve a higher level of writing, and a more competent delineation of character."
"Just at present, therefore, the fashion in detective fiction is to have characters credible and lively; not conventional, but, on the other hand,
not too profoundly studied—people who live more or less on the Punch
level of emotion. A little more psychological complexity is allowed than formerly . . ."
~ Another apple-cart-upsetting element can be the "love interest":
". . . some of the finest detective stories are marred by a conventional love story, irrelevant to the action and perfunctorily worked in. . . . A casual and perfunctory love story is worse than no love story at all and, since the mystery must, by hypothesis, take the first place, the love is better left out."
~ Another echo of Stout:
"The mystery-monger's principal difficulty is that of varying his surprises. 'You know my methods, Watson,' says the detective, and it is only too painful-ly true. The beauty of Watson was, of course, that after thirty years he still did not know Holmes's methods; but the average reader is sharper witted."
~ Is there some sort of expiration date after which detective fiction will disappear?
"There certainly does seem a possibility that the detective story will some-time come to an end, simply because the public will have learnt all the tricks. But it has probably many years to go yet, and in the meantime, a new and
less rigid formula will probably have developed . . ."
~ Like other critics, Sayers hypothesizes that there may be an inverse relationship between world conditions and the demand for detective fiction:
"Probably the cheerful cynicism of the detective tale suits better with the spirit of the times than the sentimentality which ends in wedding bells. For, make no mistake about it, the detective story is part of the literature of
escape and not of expression."
Mentioned in passing:
~ Poe's stories: (HERE), (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE).
~ Conan Doyle's stories: (HERE), (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE).
~ Chesterton's story (HERE).
~ Raffles (HERE).
~ Dr. Thorndyke (HERE).
HERE) and novels (HERE) and (HERE).
~ Poirot (HERE).
~ Gaboriau (HERE).
~ Milne's novel (HERE).
~ Bentley's novel (HERE) and (HERE).
~ Brock's novel (HERE).
~ Father Knox (HERE).
~ Philip Guedalla (HERE) and (HERE).
- Consult the GAD Wiki (HERE) for more about Dorothy Sayers.
- For comparison, also see the GAD Wiki (HERE; scroll down to Part Two: "A History of the Type," number 6) for a few excerpts from Sayers's Introduction to her first Omnibus of Crime (1929) and UNZ for the Introduction to The Second Omnibus of Crime (1932; HERE).
The bottom line: "The sensational story-teller does indeed create uninteresting characters, and then tries to make them interesting by killing them. But the intellectual novelist yet more sadly wastes his talents, for he creates interesting characters, and then does not kill them."