Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Suspicion Is Directed Here, There, and Everywhere!"

By J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935).
1923 (1922 in U.K.). 320 pages. $2.00
Online at Project Gutenberg (HERE).
In this one, J. S. Fletcher threatens to transcend the genre:
[Full review] "The Markenmore Mystery" seems to me to be the best of recent Fletcher stories. As usual it is dry, precise, carefully plotted, and cunningly woven to its precise end. As usual the love story is thrown in with a sort of genial gesture, in a few paragraphs, as if Mr. Fletcher said, "Well—here you are—you who must have sentiment—here it is!"
But in the case of the Markenmores Fletcher has created a set of characters who are a bit more of flesh and blood than those in some of his novels. They have passions and revolts. They, and the exotic Mrs. Tretheroe, seem real.
Fletcher too often seizes on a picturesque name and expects that to make his character. What annoying names he does corral: Braxfield, Fransemmery, Blick, Eckhardstein, Walkinshaw.
The net of mystery in this latest story is even more complicated than usual. Suspicion is directed here, there, and everywhere! Yet the murder—yes, there is a murder—is quite satisfactorily explained. — J. F., "The Editor Recom-mends," THE BOOKMAN (November 1923)
Lady Bluestocking image
- Our last visit with Fletcher was HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Monday, December 22, 2014

"In No Department of Theatrical Writing Is So Little Imagination and Inventiveness Shown As in the Mystery Play"

Back in the 1920s, long before television and Cinemascope movies, going to a stage play was regarded as the supreme dramatic experience. George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was a widely read drama critic of the era who probably spent more time in darkened theaters than bright sunlight but who also had definite ideas of what playwrights should be doing with their medium.
On occasion Nathan commented on the staged mystery play. Here are his tongue-in-cheek recommendations for improving the theater goer's experience, years before William Castle:
. . . the mystery melodrama theatre should have a bizarre and spooky illumination, the ushers should be dressed as ghosts or burglars and should shoot off pistols as they show the patrons to their seats, the lavatory should be entered through a sliding panel, there should be secretly manipulated trap-doors under the seats through which the patrons' hats might periodically be made to disappear from under their chairs and then again to reappear, the box-office attendants should wear black masks, sudden terrifying screams should issue during the entr'-actes from the ladies' room, and Mr. J. Ranken Towse should be mysteriously kidnapped by the house-manager sometime during the first act. — "The Theatre," THE AMERICAN MERCURY (September 1926, HERE).
As for the quality of stage mysteries, Nathan rightly complained of their lack of innovation:
The mystery play is always with us. Three new specimens have been produced since the season opened: "The Ghost Train," by Arnold Ridlley, mentioned in my review of the London season; "The Donovan Affair," by Owen Davis; and "Number 7," [sic] by J. Jefferson Farjeon. All follow familiar tracks; in none of them is there any departure from the old stencils. In no department of theatrical writing is so little imagination and inventiveness shown as in the mystery play. At rare intervals we have a "Sherlock Holmes," a "Seven Keys to Baldpate," a "Bat" or an "Unknown Purple" that works a fresh vein into the venerable materials, but in the general run all that we get is the same laborious and intricate concealment of the identity of a criminal and a last-minute solution that would make even a traffic cop laugh.
It seems strange that the manufacturers of such exhibits do not exercise more ingenuity. The inventions that we find among the fiction writers is lacking among the dramatic. There hasn't been a single mystery play produced in the last ten years that has had one-tenth the ingenuity of Melville Davisson Post's "Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason" and "Man of Last Resort," or the short story called "The Suicide of Karnos" (I forget the author's name), or Austin's excellent murder stories published in McClure's Magazine, or Chesterton's "Father Brown," or the story, printed in the Strand Magazine, built around the smashing of an inscribed goblet by a loud orchestral vibration, or William J. Burns' story dealing with the way in which a criminal, against his will and wholly unconscious of outside machination, is persuaded to leave a small village—or of a score or more such tales.
Instead of hitting off in new directions, the mystery play writers stick complacently to the ancient formulae. The curtain goes up on the discovery of a man found murdered and suspicion is made to fall elaborately and senselessly upon everyone, with the eleventh hour disclosure that the crime was committed by the last person in the world who would conceivably have committed it in actual life.
The curtain rises on a supposed haunted house, the strange goings-on in which terrorize the inhabitants until 10:45, at which hour it is revealed that the occult phenomena have been produced by electric switches hidden behind a secret panel and manipulated by the villain.
The curtain is pulled aloft and, after two hours of mystery monkeyshines, the profoundest idiot among the characters is revealed to be a detective master-mind in disguise.
Thus, year in and year out, it goes. Yet the slightest exertion on the part of the gentlemen who concoct such boob delicatessen might be productive of something less stereotyped. In any book of parlor magic they might find a dozen or more ideas that might be developed into fresh theatrical stuff. (If the theme called "Zeno," produced a couple of years ago, had been handled by a man experienced in playwriting, it would have proved lively and interesting mystery pastime.)
Surely, there are some fetching suggestions in the prestidigitator tomes, as a glance at them will show. In the book compiled for "Science and Invention" there are no less than twenty tricks and illusions that might profitably and divertingly be incorporated into the mystery-play form. There are, also, the astonishing chemical discoveries of James Millar Neil, the Canadian, that offer a wealth of excellent material for such theatrical purposes.
But the playwrights persist in going on with the same old trap-doors, phosphorescent ghosts, busts of Buddha, suits of armor that suddenly move, and cabbaged pearl necklaces. — "The Theatre," THE AMERICAN MERCURY (November 1926, HERE).
- We have already discussed Seven Keys to Baldpate HERE.
- The Unknown Purple was filmed in 1923; go HERE for more.
- The Donovan Affair was made into a film directed by Frank Capra in 1929; see HERE.

Category: Mystery plays criticism

Friday, December 19, 2014

Poe on the Couch

"The Strange Case of Poe."
By Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970).
First appearance: The American Mercury, November 1925.
Online at Hathi Trust (HERE).
In the management of his own life he was moved almost always by prejudice, passion or perversity, and almost never by reason.
Like a good many other litterateurs, Joseph Wood Krutch just couldn't refrain from psychoanalyzing Edgar Allan Poe, who possessed, he says, a "ferocious and reckless egotism" which developed into a "mania for rationality" in an attempt to compensate for feelings of inferiority, thus culminating in Poe's Dupin stories about an intellectual superman. The article, needless to say, is suffused with boilerplate Freudianism.
Prejudiced, passionate, and perverse?
Only excerpts relating to Poe's detective fiction follow:
. . . The reputation which he [Poe] early gained as a daringly caustic critic was the first step in the growth of a legend which rapidly developed new features, the most important of which was the attribution to its hero of great and mysterious learning and an inhuman capacity for abstract reasoning.  . . .
. . . puzzles of all sorts had a great fascination for him, and that he seems in fact to have been extremely good at them. This may at first sight appear somewhat strange in a man of such unbalanced intellect, but the conflict is paralleled by the fact that his best fiction falls definitely into two classes, the one consisting of tales so fantastic and so utterly irrational as to be mere nightmares, and the other consisting of tales depending upon a logic which might seem to be the product of a mind completely devoid of imagination in the ordinary sense.  . . .
. . . [Poe's 1836 article "Maelzel's Chess-Player"] furnishes the first extended example of his skill in what he called ratiocination and which is marked by the most elaborately methodical exposition.  . . .  the essay is a remarkable achievement for a man whose fancy was as heated as Poe's, and it may well be considered as the first of his detective stories, since it the first of his writings which bases itself not upon dreams nor upon pseudo-science but upon the logical faculty alone.  . . .
. . . But it was not until five years later that there appeared in Graham's Magazine "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which he drew for the first time the dehumanized thinking-machine who appears under different names in his later stories and constitutes the second of the only two types of hero he ever created, the first being the learned madman most completely described under the name of Roderic Usher. Shortly afterward he made another effort to realize in his own person his ideal of a logical superman, and greatly contributed to the growth of the legend which pictured him as a man at once below and above human nature by his experiments in cryptography.  . . . There is reason to believe, however, that the subject [cryptography] got a good deal of his attention, and that he had at least a considerable proficiency in dealing with riddles of this class.  . . .
. . . Beginning as a specific attempt to solve a certain problem in "Maelzel's Chess-Player," it later generated the rational detective, and then, after this character was developed in fiction, there came the identification of it with Poe himself, who attempted to prove in a literary essay that he was merely Dupin turned author. His readers might suspect that such grotesque fantasies as his were the product of a somewhat disordered mind, but he could prove that they were born, not of fancy but of logic.  . . .
. . . Poe, as if frightened by his habitual impulse to portray madness, makes Dupin a man in whom no faculties but the logical remain . . .
. . . He [Poe] abandoned his experiments in cryptography because he was thus able, through the force of his imagination, to obtain from fancy, less laboriously and more completely, all the satisfaction which the actual practice of the powers of deduction could give him. Inventing problems for his super-detective to solve and inventing elaborate ex post facto explanations of the process by which his own works were written, he played at being a logical genius in exactly the same way that he had played at being a scientist.  . . .
. . . There is, however, good reason for believing that Poe succeeded in convincing himself, at times at least, that he was the mere logical engine which he liked to imagine, and one may find both the roots of his delusion and the origin of the need which generated it at a time before Dupin had been created . . . .
The bottom line:
. . . First reasoning in order to escape feeling and seizing upon the idea of reason as an explanation of the mystery of his own character, Poe invented the detective story in order that he might not go mad.
- Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) (reprinted HERE) comes under fire from Joseph Wood Krutch.
- Other ONTOS articles about Poe are HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism (psychoanalytical division)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"A Brilliant Bit of Investigation and Deduction"

By Vernon Loder (1881-1938).
1929. 304 pages. $2.00
[a.k.a. WHOSE HAND?]
Sometimes authors need a "gimmick" to keep their stories going; Vernon Loder (real name: John George Hazlette Vahey) came up with one for this novel, something that TV viewers might find familiar. See John Norris's review below for more about that:
[Full review] SUICIDE or murder? Nine guests of the persuasive Mr. Cupolis, who had invested in his stupendous project, learn of their host's untimely death and all are suspected. A brilliant bit of investigation and deduction by Superintendent Cobham solves the apparently impenetrable mystery. A well-constructed story with human interest, action, and romance. — "Notes on New Books," THE BOOKMAN (October 1929; Jump To page 234, bottom left)
[Full review] That most familiar of detective story openings—the group of guests assembled for the week end in an English country house—appears again here, but with the attendant circumstances radically differentiated from the customary. The host is Cupolis, a crooked Greek financier and drug addict, the guests nine of his investors whom he has diddled for the loss of some 200,000 pounds.
Feigned illness confines the rogue to his room and he fails to appear, but on the night of the company's arrival dies, whether by murder or suicide is the question. The embezzled capital has vanished, none of the guests is long suspected, and the mystery of Cupolis's death persistently defeats all efforts of the local police.
Toward the end, however, in a remarkable spurt by Cobham, the indefatigable sleuth, the killer is apprehended and the missing funds recovered. Most of the story drags rather tediously, and Cobham seems to the reader, as to the characters, a blunder, but in the end he proves himself a master. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (October 12, 1929; Jump To page 274, bottom right)
. . . Superintendent Cobham is on the case in Between Twelve and One (1929) by prolific (but sadly overlooked) Golden Age detective novelist Vernon Loder. Cobham is a likable detective who does an early form of what Columbo did — he misleads suspects into thinking he's absent-minded or less than intelligent. He also has the habit of humming operatic arias and music hall tunes while puttering about the crime scenes or waiting for suspects to be show into his office. He's one of the more human and eccentric characters I've come across in a long time.  . . . — J. F. Norris, PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS BLOG (May 25, 2013)
- The GAD Wiki has more about Loder HERE.
- See also J. F. Norris's reviews of Loder's The Mystery at Stowe (1928) HERE, The Shop Window Murders (1930) HERE, and The Death Pool (1930) HERE on his Pretty Sinister Books weblog.

Category: Detective fiction

Sunday, December 14, 2014

John and Mary and Sherlock and Nick

"The Adventure of the Plated Spoon."
By Loren D. Estleman.
First appearance: The Adventure of the Plated Spoon and Other Tales of Sherlock Holmes (2014), pages 199-270.
For sale HERE.
READERS WHO ARE unfamiliar with the chronicles involving my friend, Sherlock Holmes, may not assign much weight to an appalling tale cast with unspeakable villains, all centred upon so homely an item as a table utensil; yet I ask them to be patient until I have presented all the evidence.  . . .
. . . “A spoon?” said I. No, Watson,” said he. “A key. The one that unlocks the secret to this whole affair.”
Sections: "I Misplace My Wife"; "At Scotland Yard"; "I Become Holmes's Client"; "Mr. Lysander P. Gristle"; "The Ordeal of Mrs. John H. Watson"; "A Plot Unfolds"; "The Tale of the Spoon"; "A Woman’s Will"; "A Triple Scoop of Detection"; "Snipe's Flight"; "The Society of the Spoon"; "The Leopards Change Their Spots"; "The Chilton Affair"; "Mr. Nick Carter"; "The Foreign Quarter"; "Oliver Nicholas, Esq."; "A Thorn by Any Other Name"; "We Flush Our Game"; "Lady Judas"; "Flight"; "A Race with Death"; "We Retire the Spoon".

Major characters: Holmes, Watson (narrator), Mrs. Watson, Inspector Tobias Gregson, Inspector Lestrade, Lysander P. Gristle, Snipe, Constable Holcomb, the Anstruthers, Sherrinford, Sacker, James Harvey Chilton, Jane Chilton, Nick Carter, Emma, Gloriana.

The setting: England, the spring and summer of 1897. The high points: Watson's lovely wife Mary runs afoul of a white slavery ring, exciting both his anger and outrage that such things should actually exist in modern society. Holmes is very soon involved in the case, but the ring leader and his accomplice manage to elude them. When an aristocrat's daughter goes missing, Holmes and Watson team up with an American detective, the legendary Nick Carter, and set a trap that will, but for the timely intervention of a fourth team member, nearly prove fatal. Verdict: Considering who's on the case, there isn't as much detection as there could be, but as a Sherlock Holmes adventure it isn't bad at all.

A few quotes:
"I don’t judge a man by the colour of his skin, but by the darkness of his soul.
"I never accept absolutes when they are applied to me."
"Pray, Watson, write this one up. No man can live up to the paragon you’ve made me out to be."
"There’s an argument to be made in favour of allowing one or two known dens of iniquity to remain open, so that justice always has a place to fish."
"He was like a horse with the bit in its teeth and no place to gallop, and I knew all too well where that might lead. It was ironic, then, that the most foul of all the foes we’d ever opposed should be the one to rescue him from the lure of the needle."
" 'Stuff and nonsense!' said I, for I could take no more. 'Women don’t disappear from locked rooms'."
" 'Intuition.' Holmes shook his head. 'It is the X factor in every equation where a woman is involved. No man has cracked it as yet'."
Introduction — "Always Holmes"
(1) "The Adventure of the Two Collaborators" by J. M. Barrie (from The Sherlock Holmes Compendium).
(2) "The Surgeon's Kit" by Ellery Queen (excerpt from A Study in Terror).
(3) "The Adventure of the Dying Ship" by Edward D. Hoch (from The Confidential Casebook of Sherlock Holmes).
(4) Excerpt from The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer.
(5) "How Watson Learned the Trick" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (from Sherlock Holmes; The Published Apocrypha).
(6) "Two Shabby Figures" by Laurie R. King (excerpt from The Beekeeper's Apprentice).
(7) "The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet" by Vincent Starrett (from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes[Online HERE].
(8) "The Adventure of the Red Widow" by Adrian Conan Doyle (from The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes[Online HERE].
(9) "The Mysterious Case of the Urn of ASH; or, What Would Sherlock Do?" by Deborah Morgan (original publication).
(10) "The Adventure of the Deadly Interlude" by James O'Keefe (original publication).
(11) "The Adventure of the Rounded Ocelot" by Larry D. Sweazy (original publication).
(12) "The Adventure of the Plated Spoon" by Loren D. Estleman (original publication).
- Another collection of Loren Estleman's Sherlock pastiches, The Perils of Sherlock Holmes (2013), is on sale HERE.
- Recent reviews of a few Holmes pastiches by other hands are HERE, HERE, and HERE.
- A massive website devoted to Sherlockian pastiche characters is HERE.

Category: Sherlock Holmes pastiches

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"The Only Kind of Story to Which the Strict Laws of Logic Are in Some Sense Applicable"

"A School of Detective Yarns Needed."
Appeared in: The Literary Digest (September 23, 1922).
Online HERE.

Two very different writers wind up on the same page. Brief excerpts:
STORIES OF MURDER AND MYSTIFICATION do not get their proper treatment at the hands of reviewers, complains one of our producers of this line of literary wares, Miss Carolyn Wells. Her case is supported by a distinguished devotee of the genre in England, one who is known to read them voraciously and grieve because he can not produce them—Mr. G. K. Chesterton. Miss Wells thinks that detective stories are badly reviewed because they are obviously given to people who do not like them . . .
. . . "It is all the more strange [writes Chesterton] that nobody discusses the rules, because it is one of the rare cases in which some rules could be laid down. The very fact that the work is not of the highest order of creation makes it possible to treat it as a question of construction. But while people are willing to teach poets imagination, they seem to think it hopeless to help plotters in a matter of mere ingenuity."  . . .
". . . in the case of the only kind of story to which the strict laws of logic are in some sense applicable, nobody seems to bother to apply them, or even ask whether in this or that case they are applied."  . . .
. . . "The whole [detective] story exists for the moment of surprize; and it should be a moment. It should not be something that it takes twenty minutes to explain, and twenty-four hours to learn by heart, for fear of forgetting it."  . . .
. . . [Therefore] "the roman policier should be on the model of the short story rather than the novel.  . . .  The length of a short story is about the legitimate length for this particular drama of the mere misunderstanding of fact."  . . .
- One of our previous visits with Chesterton is HERE. A few of Wells's works are "discust" HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

"The Most Exciting Murder Is the Least Unusual"

"Mysteries in the Theater."
Appeared in: The Literary Digest (September 16, 1922).
Online HERE.
From the film version of the play
Here's a critic, writing in the heyday of the stage play, who firmly believes less is more in the staged mystery. Short excerpts:
PLAYS ARE SUBJECT TO EPIDEMICS. Just now it is mystery that is supposed to be drawing the tired amusment seeker. The theater provides him with thrills for jaded nerves and takes him into its confidence on an "honor" basis, asking him not to divulge the point of the mystery to intending visitors to the play, so that their pleasure shall not be spoiled.  . . .
. . . "It is not a healthy sign for the future of these plays of mystery that writers find it necessary to surround their incidents with so much irrelevant aid to bewilderment."  . . .
. . . "The most exciting murder is the least unusual."  . . .
. . . "Detective stories are like Herbert Spencer's ideal style, impressive in ratio to their lack of effort."  . . .
. . . "Mystification by the simple and every-day means of life is the most enduring and striking."  . . .
. . . "It is for the good playwrights therefore that they are urged to bear in mind the value of such simple means of creating their effects."  . . .

Category: Detective fiction criticism (theatrical division)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Defending the Detective Story

"In Defense of the Detective Story."
By Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936).
First appearance: The Independent, 10 July 1913.
Online (HERE).
In an article from a hundred years ago, the author of the Craig Kennedy series defended his chosen field. A few excerpts:
. . . The fact of the matter is that there are two kinds of fiction which every generation reads with avidity—the love story and the mystery story. If all the world loves a lover, so does all the world look with interest and curiosity on the criminal and the detective who traps him. To the normal mind, the crook and captor are always alluring.
. . . An odd point, as someone once remarked in the New York Times, about the entrance of the detective into American literature is the fact that an American took him to France and the French writers sent him back to the land of his birth.
. . . Poe's Dupin is the father of Sherlock Holmes; his "analytical reasoning" is the forerunner of "deduction." If we re-imported Poe in the vastly inferior form of the dime novel from France, we re-imported him in a vastly better form as Sherlock Holmes from England.
. . . a society was recently organized in Germany to discourage the publication and sale of the "Nick Carter" and other stories for the express reason that they were said to increase crime by suggestion, if not by direct incitement.
. . . One may agree heartily with the unsparing critics of the dime novel and still disagree even more heartily with those who would condemn also the modern detective story as it appears from the presses of the hosts of reputable publishers.
. . . It is often the other elements (besides the high literary quality) that various writers add to detective stories which should be the saving grace even in the eyes of the sharpest critics. Law, justice, and the right triumph in ninety-nine stories out of a hundred of this class, which is a higher average than can be set by any detective bureau in actual life.
. . . The fact is that the whole field of science lies open to be drawn on by the clever detective—from fingerprints, the portrait parlé, the dictagraph and detectaphone, to chemistry and physics in general. Not long ago an astronomer freed an innocent man by calculating the exact date on which a photograph was taken, using the shadows to guide him.
. . . Whatever may be said of the cheap crime story, whatever may be said of the crime story of the past—and even that must be read with a sack of salt handy—it remains to be shown that the detective story as it ordinarily appears today is a force for evil. Much more often it serves a decided moral purpose.  . . . It is at least an even chance that a good detective story will help the detective as much as it will the criminal.
- More about Arthur B. Reeve and scientific crime fighting is HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Writing Mystery Stories Is An Exact Science"

"On Detective Stories."
By Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918).
First appearance: The Editor, 29 January 1916.
Online (HERE).
Burton Stevenson
Joyce Kilmer is the man who is most remembered today for his poem "Trees"; two years after this piece was published he died in battle in the waning days of the First World War. Excerpts:
DR. WATSON HAS FOUND a friend at last.  . . . now there appears an enthusiastic defender of Dr. Watson; a man who says that the Doctor, or some one closely resembling him in simplicity and appreciativeness, is necessary in good detective fiction; and that not the great detective himself, not the actual creator of the book, but Dr. Watson himself is the ideal person to tell the story. And the man who says this is Burton Egbert Stevenson . . . .
. . . "Of course Dr. Watson is necessary," he said to me the other day. "It seems to me that the foil to the detective plays a very important part in fiction of this sort. He represents the general public; he is mystified, enlightened, surprised, as the general public is mystified, enlightened and surprised."  . . .
. . . "You see, the story should be told in the first person. If it is told in the third person it is evident that the omniscient narrator has information which he is concealing from the reader; therefore, he is not playing fair with the reader, as the writer of this sort of work should do. If the great detective himself tells the story there can be no surprise. He must reveal his deductions and conclusions as he goes along; he will not be surprised, and the reader will not be surprised—that is, unless he holds back a part of his information, thereby not playing fair with the reader."  . . .
. . . "The writer of a detective story, or of a mystery (for the sort of story that I have in mind need not have a detective for one of its characters) must above all things play the game with his reader. He must put all his cards on the table; he must not keep one up his sleeve and then pull it out and then slap it down at the end of his book. He must not, in other words, astound his reader by an unexpected denouement, but he must astound the reader by giving an unexpected twist to the denouement which he does suspect."  . . .
. . . "You see," said Mr. Stevenson, "a mystery story is like a piece of mathematics. Writing mystery stories is an exact science. And the construction of the plot is the writer's most important problem."  . . .
. . . "The greatest detective story is the story the conclusion of which is reached with absolute logic."  . . .
. . . "So every great detective story starts with inspiration, and its development is conditioned by logic.  . . . Of course, this is not true of other forms of fiction. In the novel of character, for example, logic plays only a small part. But the detective story is a highly artificial thing. It really is a piece of sleight of hand."  . . .
. . . Mr. Stevenson is inclined to believe that Poe's ability as a writer of detective stories has been overrated. "Poe only wrote three detective stories," he said, "and one of these is a failure."  . . .
. . . "The best training for a writer of detective stories," he said, "is newspaper work. Of course, that is the best training for a writer of any sort, if he gets out of newspaper work in time."  . . .
Kilmer ends his interview with Stevenson with "a list of [six] 'Don'ts' for the guidance of all who desire to have people breathlessly follow the adventures of their lynx-eyed sleuth."

- We've bumped into Mr. Burton Egbert Stevenson before; go HERE.
Joyce Kilmer in uniform

Category: Detective fiction criticism

"The Riddle Had To Be Unriddled"

"Riddle Stories."
By Julian Hawthorne (1846-1934).
First appearance: Library of the World's Best Mystery and Detective Stories (1907).
Online (HERE) and (HERE).
Like Cecil Chesterton in the previous post, the scion of another more famous author, this time the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, introduced his anthology of turn-of-the-[20th-]century mystery and detective stories (loosely defined) with a short analysis of this type of fiction. Excerpts follow:
. . . The fact is . . . that, in the riddle story, the detective was an afterthought, or, more accurately, a deus ex machina to make the story go. The riddle had to be unriddled; and who could do it so naturally and readily as a detective?  . . .
. . . such stories, for their success, must depend primarily upon structure—a sound and perfect plot—which is one of the rare things in our contemporary fiction.  . . .
. . . You cannot make a riddle story by beginning it and then trusting to luck to bring it to an end.  . . .
. . . But O, what a labor and sweat it is . . . Did the reader know, or remotely suspect, what terrific struggles the writer of a really good detective story has sustained, he would regard the final product with a new wonder and respect . . . .
. . . although the story is often concerned with righting some wrong, or avenging some murder, yet is must be confessed that the author commonly succeeds better in the measure of his ruthlessness in devising crimes and giving his portraits of devils an extra touch of black. Mercy is not his strong point, however he may abound in justice . . . .
. . . But this leads me to the admission that one charge, at least, does lie against the door of the riddle-story writer; and that is that he is not sincere; he makes his mysteries backward, and knows the answer to his riddle before he states its terms. He deliberately supplies his reader, also, with all manner of false scents, well knowing them to be such; and concocts various seeming artless and innocent remarks and allusions which in reality are diabolically artful, and would deceive the very elect.  . . .
. . . No one can thoroughly enjoy riddle stories unless he is old enough, or young enough, or, at any rate, wise enough to appreciate the value of the faculty of being surprised.  . . .
. . . I need hardly point out that there is a distinction and a difference between short riddle stories and long ones—novels. The former require far more technical art for their proper development; the enigma cannot be posed in so many ways, but must be stated once for all; there cannot be false scents, or but a few of them; there can be small opportunity for character drawing, and all kinds of ornament and comment must be reduced to their very lowest terms.  . . .
. . . as a rule, the riddle novel approaches its theme in a spirit essentially other than that which inspires the short tale . . . the riddle novel demands a power of vivid character portrayal and of telling description which are not indispensable in the briefer narrative.  . . .
. . . The fault of all riddle novels is that they inevitably involve two kinds of interest, and can seldom balance these so perfectly that one or the other of them shall not suffer. The mind of the reader becomes weary in its frequent journeys between human characters on one side, the mysterious events on other, and would prefer the more single-eyed treatment of the short tale.  . . .
. . . Many excellent plots, admirable from the constructive point of view, have been wasted by stringing them out too far; the reader recognizes their merit, but loses his enthusiasm on account of a sort of monotony of strain; he wickedly turns to the concluding chapter, and the game is up.  . . .
. . . The statement that a good detective or riddle story is good in art is supported by the fact that the supply of really good ones is relatively small, while the number of writers who would write good ones if they could, and who have tried and failed to write them, is past computation.  . . .

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"This Is All Very Well in Melodrama, but It Is Fatal to the Mystery Story"

"Art and the Detective."
By Cecil Chesterton (1879-1918).
First appearance: The Living Age (24 November 1906).
Online HERE [PDF].
Better than Conan Doyle, Morrison, and Hume?
Before he passed away from injuries incurred in the Great War, G. K. Chesterton's younger brother expressed his thoughts about our favorite subject. In his view, it would seem to be up to the critics to save the detective story from its own inartistic excesses. Brief excerpts:
. . . No form of artistic effort has suffered more from this indiscriminate condemnation than the type of narrative which we commonly call the Detective Story.  . . .
. . . If the average level of detective-story writing is peculiarly low, may not this fact itself be attributed to the refusal of literary criticism to take its artistic qualities seriously? Where there is no recognition of merit there can be no standard. Consequently the workmanship of many even of the best contemporary writers of this class is often careless and hasty to an extent which would have shocked Poe and Gaboriau, who put into their tales of mystery as much care and artistic conscience as a modern writer would put into a "problem" novel, dealing with the delicate psychology of a man who thought he was made of glass.  . . .
. . . The detective or mystery story need not, of course, be primarily concerned with detectives.  . . .
. . . two primary qualifications are necessary—firstly, that the mystery should really be mysterious; secondly, that the explanation should really explain. These conditions may appear at first sight somewhat elementary. Yet I know few modern detective stories that do not violate one or other of them, while a great many persistently violate both.  . . .
. . . The British public likes to have its vice and virtue clear-cut and unmistakable. It likes the hero to be consistently heroic, the villain to be well-marked by his black moustache, his cigarette, and his easy laugh. Now this is all very well in melodrama, but it is fatal to the mystery story.  . . .
. . . The French public is, I suppose, much less sentimental and much more discriminatingly critical than the British. The great French masters of the police novel never hesitate to make the noble and generous young man a murderer, or the heroic and long-suffering wife an adulteress and accomplice of assassins.  . . .
. . . Nothing is more irritant in a detective story than that even one mysterious circumstance should remain at the end unexplained.  . . .
. . . In an ideal detective story all the clues to the true solution ought to be there from the first, but so overlaid as to pass unnoticed.  . . .
. . . Of course the worst and commonest temptation of the writer of detective stories is to the spendthrift use of coincidence.  . . .
. . . The old proverb that truth is stranger than fiction may be put more soundly in the form that fiction must not be so strange as truth.  . . .
. . . I know that this kind of interest [in the characters themselves] is generally thought to be unnecessary, if not absolutely out of place in a detective story. No mistake could be more disastrous; it is responsible for more than half of the appalling dullness of modern mystery novels.  . . .
. . . A criticism of modern detective fiction would obviously be inadequate without some appreciation of the great Sherlock Holmes cycle.  . . .
. . . The fact is that Sherlock Holmes was too perfect a detective for the stories of which he is the hero to be perfect detective stories.  . . . this idealization of the detective is in a way fatal to the art of the detective story. That the true solution may be absolutely hidden from the reader it is necessary that it should be only slowly and partially revealed to the detective. Holmes sees everything in a moment, and so leads us to see too much.  . . .
. . . If we want to find the best contemporary mystery stories—the best, I mean, considered simply as mystery stories—we shall not go to the famous cycle of Sherlock Holmes. Still less shall we go to Mr. Arthur Morrison . . . or to Mr. Fergus Hume . . . We shall, I think, turn to the work of two women . . . .
. . . I fancy that the two faculties which the great Sherlock declared to be the prime necessities of a detective, observation and deduction, are feminine rather than masculine faculties.  . . .
. . . Most women quite habitually indulge in the sort of ratiocination that Holmes practised over the old hat.  . . .

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"He Is to Be Deceived Only in a Straightforward Manner"

"The Detective Story."
By M. Thornton Armstrong.
First appearance: The Editor (May 1906).
Online (HERE).
This one, brief and to the point, should be required reading for today's generation of crime fiction writers. A few excerpts:
THERE ARE A FEW requisites of a good detective story which the seasoned reader of that class of fiction demands. The following list does not cover the whole ground, but without these the writer cannot hope to interest the true lover of detection.
1. A Good Plot — The plot is the whole of a detective story.
2. No Superfluous Characters — Every man, woman, and child, dog and darning needle, must have his, her, or its place in the plot . . . .
3. A Wrong Clue — The reader must be led gently and fatuously on to think that he alone, of all readers, has the true solution . . . .
4. Only Legitimate Deception — The reader is entirely at the mercy of the author, and hence he is to be deceived only in a straightforward manner.
5. A Tragic Plot — A murder is the only really enthralling subject for a detective story. 
6. Plenty of Obstacles — Don't let the work of detection be too easy, the path too smooth. Let the detective's perspicacity fail, his carefully laid plans miscarry.
. . . The reader must not give up in despair, losing interest in the apparently clueless jumble. Keep him amused with his own private guess-work and conclusions until you throw his little imaginings aside and tell him all.
Armstrong ends his page-and-a-half lecture with a nice rug-making metaphor.

- Compare Armstrong's prescription for writing mysteries with R. Austin Freeman's HERE.
- Other ONTOS visits with detective fiction critics can be found HERE and HERE.
Category: Detective fiction criticism (writer's school division)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"He Makes No New Conquests"

"The Passing of the Detective."
By Anonymous.
First appearance: The Academy (30 December 1905).
Online (HERE).
Reprinted in Haycraft's The Art of the Mystery Story (1946).
One anonymous critic thought the detective story was overdue for retirement—and this was 1905! Brief excerpts ensue:
THE DETECTIVE IN LITERATURE is hardly more than fifty years old, but already he is passing into decay. He has enjoyed extraordinary popularity, and may even claim to be the only person equally loved by statesmen and by errand boys. His old achievements enthrall as ever. But he makes no new conquests.
. . . It was inevitable, perhaps, that the prestige of the detective should fade in proportion as the business of detecting crime assumed a more specialized character.
. . . It was the creation of a personality supremely interested in the detection of crime which is due to [Edgar Allan] Poe, and even he hesitated to attach anything of a professional character to this novel species of hero.
. . .  As first imagined, the detective stood outside and worked for the love of investigation. This disinterested and slightly amateurish character has hung round the great detective of romance ever since.
. . . It is curious to note the shifts to which the novelist has been put in the attempt to clothe his detective with a garment of disinterestedness.
. . . the honor of chaining attention rests after all with him who unties the knot, and if he [the detective] is merely a business person, paid by the job, a shadow of something sordid rests on the whole proceedings.
. . . sooner or later there comes a moment in all such cases when the reader cries off these self-ordained ministers of justice [i.e., amateur detectives].  . . . let the police do their own work.
. . . Thus it will be seen that the detective has to be a personage of peculiar type.
. . . the weak point of the deductive system is that every indication found is capable of bearing a dozen different interpretations. The ideal detective of romance pieces details together as a thought-reader divines things from the pressure of a hand. He detects not by virtue of simple powers of observation, but by a trained intuition amounting almost to second sight.  . . . It is this which is working his decay. For—alas!—modern scientific methods have overtaken him, and he has fallen hopelessly behind the times.
. . . it is modern education, the relentless adaptation of means to an end, which has prepared his [the detective of fiction's] downfall.
Among writers, stories, and characters mentioned in the article:
- Poe: Tales of Mystery.
- d'Artagnan: Le Vicomte de Bragelonne.
d'Artagnan, amateur detective?
- Gaboriau: Monsieur le Coq, Tir au Clair.
- du Boisgobey: Crime de l'Opéra.
- Mary Eleanor Wilkins: The Long Arm.
- Anna Katherine Green: That Affair Next Door.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Not an Escape from the World, but an Initiation"

"On the Floor of the Library."
By Simeon Strunsky (1879-1948).
Critical article.
From Sinbad and His Friends (1921).
Online HERE (go to pages 191-195).

Our critic Simeon Strunsky thinks that detective fiction has far more value as "the picture of humanity" than has been acknowledged until now. Excerpts follow—and we can only hope that you don't find Strunsky's satire too elusive:
Unfortunate people who never read detective novels; or, worse still, those who pick up a mystery story and wonder what in the world anyone can see in the book to keep him up till 1:30 in the morning with intermittent trips to the cold meat in the ice-box; or, worst of all, those who read the first chapter and then turn to the end to see who did the killing—such unfortunates think they are sufficiently kind when they describe the habit as a mild vice, not so hard on the family as liquor or drugs, but pernicious for the eyesight. They think they are 100 percent charitable when they tolerate the practice as one form of escape from the realities of a difficult world.
To such outsiders it is not given to understand that the "Mystery of the Chintz Room" or the "Smile of Gautama" is not an escape from the world, but an initiation. They simply do not know that a selected course in reading from Conan Doyle to Carolyn Wells is a guide to the institutions, culture, and life outlook of the nations from China to Chile.
Strunksy then commends the reading of detective fiction as a "field of research hitherto neglected by the sociologists" and offers detailed examples:
(1) The common belief that the British are an open-air people is utterly opposed to the facts.
(2) Economy and resourcefulness are not among the virtues of the classes addicted to being murdered in their bedrooms or in their libraries.
(3) Week-end guests in British baronial mansions or in wealthy residences on Long Island drink too much black coffee before going to bed.
(4) The number of servants who have been in the employ of wealthy families addicted to violent deaths, for a period of forty years and up, and for whose fidelity the survivors can vouch as confidently as for their own husbands and wives, is truly astounding.
(5) The victims of foul play in the best British and American families never, absolutely never, cut themselves when shaving, or scrape the skin, or raise a blister.
(6) Closely allied to the preceding topic, it appears that the principal occupation of the inhabitants of South America is the manufacture or the jealous preservation of the secret of instantaneously deadly poisons unknown to modern science and leaving no visible after-effects, excepting, of course, the corpse.
(7) Insurance premiums on the lives of the British nobility must be really enormous at Lloyd's.
(8) Nearly everybody in a mystery novel is a consummate athlete.
(9) The wealth of Burma and Tibet in priceless jewels would be enough to pay the German indemnity ten times over.

Category: Detective fiction criticism (tongue-in-cheek division)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

When Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling

When it comes to detective fiction, the Oirish have given the Brits a run for their money. Case in point: Nigel Fitzgerald, described this way on the GAD Wiki:
Nigel Fitzgerald was an Irish actor who starred in detective films as well as writing detective stories. He was born in County Cork and married Clodagh Garrett. His series characters were Alan Russell and Inspector Duffy. His series characters were Inspector (later Superintendent) Duffy and Alan Russell, an actor-manager. 
Fitzgerald's novels belong among the best of classic detective fiction. They are intricately plotted, suspenseful, and full of wit. — Jeanne Carter Emmons
In 14 years Fitzgerald produced an even dozen detective novels:

By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
1953. 256 pages. $2.95
[Full review] Twin stranglings shock County Kerry community and company of strolling players; 'tis little enough sleep nice Supt. Duffy gets until killer is felled. Good color, background, nice characterization carry this one along. — Sergeant Cuff, "Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (February 27, 1960)
[Full review] I could not place the time in which this story was set. It is post-war but which war?.....The characters speak like people from the 1920s, so I am guessing it is WWI. Not that it matters much but it sometimes is helpful in order to make sense of situations and character reactions. Regardless, there is a little too much going on here involving some overly eccentric people and the story is very fragmented as we keep switching gears as to why the murder of a well liked young woman is committed and "who dunnit". The detective, Inspector Duffy, is almost incidental to the story. It is a pleasant read but certainly no classic. — Jill Hutchinson, GOODREADS (January 21, 2013)
[Full review] When a woman's body is discovered in the quiet Irish countryside, it seems obvious that a maniac is on the loose. But Superintendent Duffy wonders if there may not be a motive other than mania. No-one seems to have a motive for murdering Mary, except her sometimes beau, who has a firm alibi. There are two other women in the area, though, who are heiresses. Maybe someone wants to murder one of them? The story moves from a police procedural to something rather more eccentric, as a traveling theater troupe, a famously drunk society hostess, and Ireland's greatest painter all become involved in the crime. — Susan, GOODREADS (March 18, 2009)
[Full review] The setting, Ireland and its houses of quality, is a part of the brutal murder that also involves a touring Shakespearean company and the combination brews up into a nasty business for Superintendent Duffy. The killing and its small sinister accompaniments links into rural community affairs while an escaped incendiarist adds to the local confusion. Subtlety here sometimes overwhelms sense. — KIRKUS REVIEW
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).

By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
[Review excerpt] . . . The vanishing is a genuine Carrian/Queenian miracle problem, well-presented, and there is impressive ratiocination concerning the identity of the murderer by Fitzgerald's series police detective, Superintendent Duffy. Local color is excellent and there are some fine eccentric Irish characters and even a love story.  . . . — Curt Evans, THE PASSING TRAMP (October 31, 2014)
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
1959. $2.95
[Full review] Wrong injection throws London dental office into wild confusion; nice Supt. Laud of C.I.D. restores order and nabs killer. Extra-choice number, with A-1 comedy. — Sergeant Cuff, "Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (April 9, 1960)
[Full review] Scotland Yard is alert to any problems concerning the Armenian International Oil company, so misogynistic DS Laud and his sergeant Benson turn out for a minor burglary in the dentist's office that is located in the same building. That's how they become eyewitnesses to a murder, but still can't identify the criminal. Fitzgerald's first novel was set in rural Ireland, so central London is a big switch for him. — Susan, GOODREADS (March 9, 2014)
[Full review] This quotation from dental records turns out to be quite all wrong when, while Land [?] and Benson of Scotland Yard are investigating a theft in a combined dentists' offices, one partner is lethally administered a phenol injection by another instead of the regular anesthetic. From a kitful of oral practices to international oil dealings, to the probable identity of the intended victim, to fairly farcical happenings at a night club—this imposes detectives' dubiety upon professional paraphernalia in sometimes fragmented fashion. Nice touches give it a send-off. — KIRKUS REVIEW
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
1960. $3.50
[Full review] Storm-bound actors on tour in Ireland confront unscheduled drama when lady house guest's body turns up in river; leading man plays sleuth. Conventional house-party job, with nice background. — Sergeant Cuff, "Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (February 25, 1961)
[Full review] An island, in Ireland, cut off by storm, is the refuge of a judge, an actor manager and two of his company, and two wanderers who are the guests of the owner and his niece. The escape of a prisoner, his connection with someone in the party and papers to prove his innocence add to the confusion when the owner's house guest is found dead and the actor manager, unhampered by police, hares to a melodramatic solution. Holds to the lightness of This Won't Hurt You. — KIRKUS REVIEW
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
1961. 192 pages. $3.50
[Full review] Yank visiting Western Ireland home of his forebears runs into double slaughter; fine Supt. Duffy asks plenty of questions. Firm job, with good scenery, well-drawn characters. — Sergeant Cuff, "Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (May 26, 1962)
[Full review] Hector O'Brien Moore has not visited Ireland since he was a child, but when he returns to his ancestral estate in western Ireland, he finds the place curiously deserted, save for a drunken servant and a dead body. The dead woman, English journalist Joan Allison, had been friendly with Hector's married cousin Dominic, whose two children disapproved of the rift between their parents. Cousins and curious farm folk confuse the issue, but fortunately Superintendent Duffy is on hand to tease out links between seemingly unrelated events. — Susan, GOODREADS (March 18, 2009)
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
1963. 256 pages. $3.95
[Full review] Supt. Duffy of Cork area toils overtime to solve killings on ancestral acres; few Irish eyes smile here. Excellent background, dialogue, characteriza-tion. — Sergeant Cuff, "Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (March 27, 1965)
[Full review] John Cane O'Corram returns to Torcleeve after his mother's death, and finds his old flame Nell waiting. John's new wife follows him from London, however, and is on hand when Nell's body is found. The O'Corrams become the main suspects, especially when they are less than frank with Superintendent Duffy, but there are others who may have had stronger motives for killing Nell. — Susan, GOODREADS (June 30, 2014)
[Full review] An Irish welcome in a most unusual guise awaits Hector O'Brien Moore, American representative of an Irish family. Nobody at the Shannon Airport; nobody at the house except a red haired girl, assigned to interview Hector—and a drunken family retainer. Everyone had no one of them airtight [?]. There were reasons for suspecting several people and then another death brought the matter right into the family. Superintendent Duffy finds abilities and intricacies and the necessity of handling sensitive, touch me not people a difficult challenge, but he narrows his case down to a reasonable conclusion. Good details of background and a way of life marred by some unbelievable people, to particular a smart girl child. — KIRKUS REVIEW
By Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-81).
[Full description] At Dublin Airport Standish Wyse meets his pretty young cousin Juliet Carr; together they go bumping by bus across the Irish Midlands to the village of Rossderg. Wyse, an actor, is to holiday with friends including Stella Hazard – an old flame of whom he is still very fond.
An accident on a bicycle results in Wyse attending a curious party before he reaches his destination. At the party a harmless game gets out of hand, an attempt is made to cast a spell in an amateurish imitation of a black magic ritual. Soon after it looks as though the spell may actually have operated: two bloody and savage murders occur. — GOODREADS description

Category: Detective fiction