Friday, November 17, 2017

Rex Stout on Detective Fiction

"Grim Fairy Tales."
By Rex Stout (1886-1975).
First appearance: The Saturday Review, April 2, 1949.
Article (3 pages).
Online at UNZ (HERE) and (HERE; scroll down to page 34).

The creator of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin lectures us on his theory of how mankind arrogantly prefers to view itself as the reasoning animal, and about how that presumption
has shaped the contours of detective fiction; it's noteworthy that he's careful to distinguish between the mystery and the detective story.

~ More than human:
  "Sherlock Holmes is the embodiment of man's greatest pride and greatest weakness: his reason. I have heard it said by sneerers that he isn't even human. Certainly he isn't; but he is human aspiration."


~ There's an almost universal (if seldom admitted to) admiration for a man who can use his brains:
  "We enjoy reading about people in the same fix. We enjoy reading about people who love and hate and covet—about gluttons and martyrs, misers and sadists, whores and saints, brave men and cowards. But also, demonstrably, we enjoy reading about a man who gloriously acts and decides, with no exception and no compunction, not as his emotions brutally command, but as his reason instructs. So Sherlock Holmes is on his peak. This basic principle, this essence, of detective stories and the public's insatiable appetite for them, is understood (or felt) quite well by some of the writers in the genre, imper-fectly by others, and not at all by some."


~ Emotions have their place, however:
  "Philo Vance, not content to exclude emotions from his Board of Directors, wouldn't tolerate them around the place at all, which was a mistake, since

the idea is not the extinction of emotions but merely their relegation to the auxiliaries, as is fitting in a reasoning animal."

~ You'll know when it's over:
  "A detective story ends when reason's job is done."


~ We can't argue with this:
  "All I ask of any story is that it give me my money's worth—and my time's worth—one way or another."


~ For the detective fiction writer there are obstacles that are unique to the genre:
  "Detective stories need all the talent they can get, since they confront the writer with two extraordinary handicaps."


~ It's not as easy as it it looks:
  "The writing job is to make a good story out of a man performing a feat of reason. The devil of it is that the most exciting and impressive part of the performance must be concealed from the reader—or at least the reader must not know what is exciting and impressive and what isn't. That is the pattern set by Poe, and no one has ever deviated from it without making a mess. I don't know why."


~ One-night stands are limiting:
  ". . . nearly all of the finest detective stories are about detectives who appear not in one tale but in a series."


~ For the writer, deciding who narrates is an all-important consideration:
  "It is impossible to have the detective himself tell the story."


~ Although they resemble each other, the conventional novel and the detective tale are two very different animals:
  "A detective story is not a tale about the motives and acts and emotions of people, as a novel is, but about the detective's investigation of their motives and acts and emotions in his pursuit of a relentless purpose."


~ Keep it simple:
  "Since the proper and only theme of a detective story is the progress of the hero to his triumph, anything that happens beyond the horizon of his senses and sense has no pertinence."


~ One of the greatest difficulties the detective fiction author faces is orchestrating a series of delaying tactics without causing the reader to tire or lose interest:
  "The one thing that must be reserved is the identity of the culprit; the nearer you can come, before that fatal disclosure, to dusting everything else off, the better."


~ . . . but is it literature?
  "No one would dream of speaking of Doyle in the same tone of voice as of Thackeray, though one is still being read in twenty languages and the other is not read at all."

Resources:
- Rex Stout caused an uproar with "Watson Was a Woman" (1941), online (HERE) and (HERE).

- Stout was a firm believer in the series detective; see The Thrilling Detective Web Site (HERE) and then go to SpeedyMystery (HERE) for a nice summary of his Nero Wolfe novellas: ". . . the reading public and various magazine publishers were so pleased with the result that Stout wrote forty more novella length adventures over the next twenty-three years. That Stout could dash off a Wolfe novella in days or weeks as opposed to months for a Wolfe novel certainly must have added to the charms of the shorter format for him. Stout was fortunate that a high-paying slick-paper magazine market lasted for so many years."

2 comments:

  1. Stout was very liberal when it came to politics but surprisingly (and, in my view, rightly) conservative when it came to the art of the detective story - most of his points might be countersigned by Carr or any other traditionalist.

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    1. Xavier - "traditionalist": That's just the right word for any author or fan of classical detective fiction irrespective of their politics, when the puzzle and its solution are what we prize most, with good characterization and style, when they're present, only adding to the pleasure. Putting it all together in just the right amounts, as Poe often (but not always) did, is the goal every writer should be aiming for. Trouble is, it's hard work!

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