Monday, November 25, 2013

The Voice of Experience: Valentine Williams on "Shockers"

"You can have your dialogue, and you can keep your plots. Grant me only the gift of construction!"
If anybody would know how to put together a shilling shocker, it was Valentine Williams. Here are some samples of his sage advice to writers and readers:
Your tired business-man who grabs an armful of thrillers at the newsstand and leaves them in the train may not realise that the secret of the good shocker lies, first and last, in its architecture.
. . . the experience I have acquired in perpetrating thrillers myself fills me with a sort of despairing admiration for the brilliant construction which has commanded success for the classic examples of the genre.
. . . how few [thriller writers] are capable of turning out a well-tailored story, one of those yarns as snugly-fitting as a Savile Row dress coat, with a plot that neither bags nor sags nor wrinkles, a supremely skilful blend of romance, mystery, humour, suspense and surprise which, in contemporary fiction, is so hard to light upon and yet, when found, is so easily and so rapturously recognised?
[There are some mysteries with] plots so perfectly turned that in their denouement every piece slides into place as smoothly as the cogs of a Rolls-Royce changing gear.
The argument that incredible situations and amazing coincidences are the commonplaces of everyday life will not avail. Truth is stranger than fiction; but fiction dare not be as strange as truth.
. . . the writer of thrillers who takes his work seriously must spin his web within the framework of strictly ordinary occurrences and, save, perhaps, in his grand climax, must sedulously resist the temptation to go outside it.
No half-dozen chapters for him [the thriller writer] as a sort of leisurely first act for the introduction of characters and motifs. We have to start—literally, very often,—with a bang, and trust to our skill, among the breathless, crowded events of our opening to slip in the indispensable presentation of characters, environment and theme.
Speaking from personal experience I would say that of the two categories of thrillers, adventure or mystery tales and straight detective stories, the latter, as far as technique goes, are the less arduous to write.
Mystery yarns, I maintain, on the other hand, make even more exacting demands upon the writer. He must exercise enormous restraint. The mystery must be dense, but not too complicated; the reader should be fogged but never bewildered; and the veil may not be lifted too soon.
. . . the novelist must retain his sense of proportion for an excess of villainy, even as a multiplicity of villains, inclines towards the ludicrous. Personally, the celebrated Professor Moriarty, the master-mind of crime, has always left me cold, probably for the simple reason that Sherlock Holmes leaves no place for a second super-man upon the canvas.
The growing popularity of the "thriller" has induced many writers, who have made their mark in other walks of literature, to try their skill at this genus of tale. Their varying measure of success would seem to indicate that writing "shockers" is not altogether so easy as it looks.
A sharp distinction must be drawn between the two main divisions into which the "shocker" or "thriller" falls, in order to differentiate the detective story proper from the romance of adventure. People are prone to confound the two, lumping under the head of crime-fiction spy stories like "The Thirty-Nine Steps", or another which modesty forbids me to name, which are, of course, pure romance and have nothing to do with detective tales. The detective story is invariably a mystery story; not necessarily so the tale of derring-do.
In chronological order, the writers who have developed the detective story as we know it today are Vidocq, Poe, Gaboriau and Conan Doyle. If I omit Wilkie Collins from my list it is with no idea of belittling his enormous industry, rich imagination and superbly dramatic powers of characterization, but simply because I cannot find that he added anything to the technique of detective fiction, unless it were the rather wearisome device of telling the story in diary form. The real father of the detective novel was Gaboriau, who admittedly derived from Poe, who in his turn was inspired by Vidocq.
Sherlock Holmes, scrutinized in the cold light of reason, may prove to be preposterous; but to me, and all those of my generation, who watched him emerge, lean and mysterious, complete with "powerful lens" and deerstalker, hypodermic syringe and fiddle, from the pages of the old 'Strand Magazine,' he is, and always will be, a living figure . . . .
My personal feeling has always been that, of the two protagonists of the Holmes saga, the egregious Watson is the more brilliant creation. The genius of Doyle has stamped something so uncompromisingly into the moral make-up of this dull, good fellow that every reader unconsciously slips into the faithful doctor's skin and worships the great criminologist through his humble helper's eyes.
It is obvious that detective fiction differs from other kinds of fiction in that, in a crime-story, the plot is of paramount importance. More than this, the handling of the different episodes, the working-up of the suspense, the gradual disclosure of the mystery, all these are factors by which the tale stands or falls.
. . . if one has to choose, it is the murder, rather than the murderer or the murdered, that must be the author's first care.
Take it from me, there is no type of tale so apt to run to earth as the detective story. A matter of a few minutes in the time-table of the crime; the disposition of a window; the dress of a minor character; what at the outset appears to be the merest trifle may, as the plot unfolds, reveal itself as an insuperable obstacle in the smooth and natural progress to the final denouement.
Plausibility is the touchstone of good detective fiction. Plausible motives, plausible behavior, plausible people, will never fail to carry the reader with a rush through improbable situations.
Planning murders and working them out backwards is great fun. But let no one who thinks of writing a detective story start out with the idea that it is anything but real hard work. Your crime tale seldom runs as smoothly in the writing as your psychological novel or your romance of adventure . . . .
THE BOOKMAN (November 1927)
THE BOOKMAN (July 1928)

Much more about Williams is here and here.

See also Curt Evans's article on THE PASSING TRAMP.

Category: Detective fiction

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