By A. Craig Bell.
First appearance: Contemporary Review, April 1998.
Article (5 pages as a PDF).
Reprinted in The Free Library.com (HERE).
". . . nothing less than a debasement, a desecration, a literary debauch . . ."Creative people aspiring to great literature, our author seems to be saying, have better things to do than concern themselves with producing crime and detective fiction; the detective story reached its zenith two centuries ago, and it's been on a downhill slide ever since:
"IN this day and age of the crime novel, the who-dunnit, the detective hero; when half the novels, plays and TV programmes (or so it seems) consist of the genre; when Agatha Christie's lucubrations run for years in the West End, and spatter the TV programmes; and when a whole clutch of fiction purveyors have made their names and fortunes by turning out nothing else, it is interesting and instructive to look back and trace the origins of such a state of affairs."
The author does a good job of tracing in outline the development of the detective novel beginning with the Chevalier de Mailly in the 18th century until, however, he gets to Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868), where, in his view, it reached its apogee, and beyond which no further improvements have been made, since all subsequent crime fiction inevitably fails as literature:
". . . why, it may be asked, is the novel [The Moonstone] so highly acclaimed by the cognoscenti? The answer is simple, namely, that quite apart from its merits as a tale of mystery and detection it is at the same time 'literature'—a word and status easy to understand but difficult to explain. A novel is 'literature' when it fulfils certain vital criteria: when it has style, intellect, individuality; when its characters live and the narrative does not date; when (even if its theme is detection and crime) it can be enjoyed apart from its theme; can be read again and again with pleasure. The number of such novels which fulfil this category can be counted on the fingers. The Moonstone is one of them. It has the virtues of its period without any of its faults. It is an enduring piece of workmanship, has humour, genuine characterisation, style. No other work of detective fiction can measure up to it. It is the doyen of its type. It is a classic. It is literature."
If Conan Doyle himself could deprecate his Sherlock Holmes stories as being subliterary—"It was not to my mind high work, and no detective work can ever be, apart from the fact that all work dealing with criminal matters is a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader"—then our author feels justified in declaring:
|". . . not to my mind high work . . ."|
and more widely translated and published than any English writer, even Shakespeare, than which a more damning indictment of general reading standards cannot be imagined. For let apologists for the breed say and write what they will; let them assert along with Day Lewis that crime fiction is only 'a harmless release of an innate spring of cruelty present in everyone,' or that it can be regarded as a sort of 'intellectual (sic!) game,' like chess, the truth is, at least to anyone with a love of and respect for great literature, that such fiction is nothing less than a debasement, a desecration, a literary debauch, and it is doubtful whether any post-Conan Doyle example will outlive our century."
Dame Agatha and Hercule would probably disagree.
- We've met up with Wilkie Collins several times already, including (HERE) and (HERE).