Thursday, January 16, 2014

Van Dine's Detective Novel Lecture

S. S. Van Dine (real name: Willard Huntington Wright) entertained definite ideas about detective fiction. Your ONTOS editor finds himself agreeing with most of Wright's prescriptions, but it is a matter of public record that many authors—and Wright himself—promiscuously violated his rules while nevertheless producing fine works of detective fiction.

1) How distinctive the form is:
THERE is a tendency among modern book reviewers to gauge all novels by a single literary standard—a standard, in fact, which should be applied only to novels that patently seek a niche among the enduring works of imaginative letters.
That all novels do not aspire to such exalted company is obvious; and it is manifestly unfair to judge them by a standard their creators deliberately ignored. Novels of sheer entertainment belong in a different category from those written for purposes of intellectual and aesthetic stimulation; for they are fabricated in a spirit of evanescent diversion, and avoid all the deeper concerns of art. The novel designed purely for entertainment and the literary novel spring, in the main, from quite different impulses. Their objectives have almost nothing in common.
The mental attitudes underlying them are antipathetic: one is frankly superficial, the other sedulously profound. They achieve diametrically opposed results; and their appeals are psychologically unrelated: in fact, they are unable to fulfil each other's function; and the reader who, at different times, can enjoy both without intellectual conflict, can never substitute the one for the other. Any attempt to measure them by the same rules is as inconsistent as to criticise a vaudeville performance and the plays of Shakespeare from the same point of view, or to hold a musical comedy to the standards by which we estimate the foremost grand opera.
Even Schnitzler's "Anatol" may not be approached in the same critical frame of mind that one brings to Hauptmann's "The Weavers"; and if "The Mikado" or "Pinafore" were held strictly to the musical canons of "Parsifal" or "Die Meistersinger," they would suffer unjustly. In the graphic arts the same principle holds. Forain and Degas are not to be judged by the aesthetic criteria we apply to Michelangelo's drawings and the paintings of Rubens. — Willard Huntington Wright, "The Detective Novel," SCRIBNER'S (November 1926)
(2) How the detective novel differs from other genres, including, surprisingly, the mystery:
There are four distinct varieties of the "popular," or "light," novel—to wit: the romantic novel (dealing with young love, and ending generally either at the hymeneal altar or with a prenuptial embrace); the novel of adventure (in which physical action and danger are the chief constituents: sea stories, Wild-West yarns, odysseys of the African wilds, etc.); the mystery novel (wherein much of the dramatic suspense is produced by hidden forces that are not revealed until the denouement: novels of diplomatic intrigue, international plottings, secret societies, crime, pseudoscience, and the like); and the detective novel.
These types often overlap in content, and at times become so intermingled in subject-matter that one is not quite sure in which category they primarily belong. But though they may borrow devices and appeals from one another, and usurp one another's distinctive material, they follow, in the main, their own special subject, and evolve within their own boundaries.
Of these four kinds of literary entertainment the detective novel is the youngest, the most complicated, the most difficult of construction, and the most distinct. It is, in fact, almost sui generis, and, except in its more general structural characteristics, has little in common with its fellows—the romantic, the adventurous, and the mystery novel. In one sense, to be sure, it is a highly specialized offshoot of the last named; but the relationship is far more distant than the average reader imagines. —  Wright, op. cit.
(3) The "basic form" of detective fiction as Poe developed it in his four classic stories is inescapable:
In these four tales was born a new and original type of fictional entertainment; and though their structure has been modified, their method altered, their subject-matter expanded, and their craftsmanship developed, they remain to-day almost perfect models of their kind; and they will always so remain, because their fundamental psychological qualities—the very essence of their appeal—embody the animating and motivating forces in this branch of fiction. One can no more ignore their basic form when writing a detective novel to-day than one can ignore the form of Haydn when composing a symphony, or the experimental researches of Monet and Pissarro when painting an impressionist painting. — Wright, op. cit.
(4) Even with Poe's innovations, detective fiction lagged:
After Poe there were twenty years of desultory and ineffectual detective-story writing, chiefly in France, where Poe's influence was very great; and it was not until the appearance of Gaboriau's "L'Affaire Lerouge," in 1866, that the first great stride in the detective novel's development was taken. . . .Not until the appearance of "A Study in Scarlet," in 1887, and "The Sign of the Four," in 1889, did the detective novel take any definite forward step over Gaboriau. In these books and the later Sherlock Holmes vehicles Conan Doyle brought detective fiction into full-blown maturity. — Wright, op. cit.
(5) Wright's explanation for detective fiction's popularity, one he shared with Dorothy Sayers:
If we are to understand the unique place held in modern letters by the detective novel, we must first endeavor to determine its peculiar appeal; for this appeal is fundamentally unrelated to that of any other variety of fictional entertainment. . . .the detective novel does not fall under the head of fiction in the ordinary sense, but belongs rather in the category of riddles: it is, in fact, a complicated and extended puzzle cast in fictional form. Its widespread popularity and interest are due, at bottom and in essence, to the same factors that give popularity and interest to the cross-word puzzle.
Indeed, the structure and mechanism of the cross-word puzzle and of the detective novel are very similar. In each there is a problem to be solved; and the solution depends wholly on mental processes—on analysis, on the fitting together of apparently unrelated parts, on a knowledge of the ingredients, and, in some measure, on guessing. Each is supplied with a series of overlapping clews to guide the solver; and these clews, when fitted into place, blaze the path for future progress. In each, when the final solution is achieved, all the details are found to be woven into a complete, interrelated, and closely knitted fabric. . . .The reader is immediately put to work and kept busy in every chapter, at the task of solving the book's mystery. He shares in the unfoldment of the problem in precisely the same way he participates in the solution of any riddle to which he applies himself. — Wright, op. cit.
(6) A manufactured "sense of reality" should pervade detective fiction:
Once the reader has accepted the pseudoactuality of the plot, his energies are directed (like those of the detective himself) to the working out of the puzzle; and his mood, being an intellectual one, is only distracted by atmospheric invasions. Atmospheres belong to the romantic and the adventurous tale ... The setting of a detective story, however, is of cardinal importance. The plot must appear to be an actual record of events springing from the terrane of its operations; and a familiarity with this terrane and a belief in its existence are what give the reader his feeling of ease and freedom in manipulating the factors of the plot to his own (which are also the author's) ends. — Wright, op. cit.
(7) Characterization might actually act as an impediment in detective stories:
In the matter of character-drawing the detective novel also stands outside the rules governing ordinary fiction. Characters in detective stories may not be too neutral and colorless, nor yet too fully and intimately delineated. They should merely fulfil the requirements of plausibility, so that their actions will not appear to spring entirely from the author's preconceived scheme. Any closely drawn character analysis, any undue lingering over details of temperament, will act only as a clog in the narrative machinery. — Wright, op. cit.
(8) For Wright, a certain style works best in the detective story:
The style of a detective story must be direct, simple, smooth, and unencumbered. A "literary" style, replete with descriptive passages, metaphors, and word pictures, which might give viability and beauty to a novel of romance or adventure, would, in a detective yarn, produce sluggishness in the actional current by diverting the reader's mind from the mere record of facts (which is what he is concerned with), and focussing it on irrelevant aesthetic appeals. I do not mean that the style of the detective novel must be bald and legalistic, or cast in the stark language of commercial documentary exposition; but it must, like the style of Defoe, subjugate itself to the function of producing unadorned verisimilitude. — Wright, op. cit.
(9) Plots mustn't get too strange:
The material for the plot of a detective novel must be commonplace. Indeed, there are a dozen adequate plots for this kind of story on the front page of almost any metropolitan daily paper. Unusualness, bizarrerie, fantasy, or strangeness in subject-matter is rarely desirable; and herein we find another striking reversal of the general rules applying to popular fiction. . . .The skill of a detective story's craftsmanship is revealed in the way these materials are fitted together, the subtlety with which the clews are presented, and the legitimate manner in which the final solution is withheld. — Wright, op. cit.
(10) An implied contract exists between writer and reader:
Furthermore, there is a strict ethical course of conduct imposed upon the author. He must never once deliberately fool the reader: he must succeed by ingenuity alone. . . .There was a time when all manner of tricks, deceits, and far-fetched devices were employed for the reader's befuddlement; but as the detective novel developed and the demand for straightforward puzzle stories increased, all such methods were abrogated, and today we find them only in the cheapest and most inconsequential examples of this type of fiction. — Wright, op. cit.
(11) The only character of consequence, in Wright's view, is the sleuth:
In the central character of the detective novel—the detective himself—we have, perhaps, the most important and original element of the criminal-problem story. It is difficult to describe his exact literary status, for he has no counterpart in any other fictional genre. He is, at one and the same time, the outstanding personality of the story (though he is concerned in it only in an ex-parte capacity), the projection of the author, the embodiment of the reader, the deus ex machina of the plot, the propounder of the problem, the supplier of the clews, and the eventual solver of the mystery. The life of the book takes place in him, yet the life of the narrative has its being outside of him. In a lesser sense, he is the Greek chorus of the drama. — Wright, op. cit.
(12) For Wright, love interest can only be a distraction:
We come now to what is perhaps the outstanding characteristic of the detective novel: its unity of mood. To be sure, this is a desideratum of all fiction; but the various moods of the ordinary novel—such as love, romance, adventure, wonder, mystery—are so closely related that they may be intermingled or alternated without breaking the thread of interest; whereas, in the detective novel, the chief interest being that of mental analysis and the overcoming of difficulties, any interpolation of purely emotional moods produces the effect of irrelevancy—unless, of course, they are integers of the equation and are subordinated to the main theme. For instance, in none of the best detective novels will you find a love interest . . . — Wright, op. cit.
(13) The movies haven't done, and never can do, justice to the detective novel:
. . . it is significant that the cinematograph has never been able to project a detective story. The detective story, in fact, is the only type of fiction that cannot be filmed. The test of popular fiction—namely, its presentation in visual pictures, or, let us say, the visualizing of its word-pictures—goes to pieces when applied to detective stories. The difficulties confronting a motion-picture director in the screening of a detective tale are very much the same as those he would encounter if he strove to film a cross-word puzzle. . . .for there is neither drama nor adventure nor romance, in the conventional sense, in a good detective novel. — Wright, op. cit.
(14) In Wright's estimation, the British make the best detective writers, with Americans and Continental authors trailing woefully behind:
The reason for the decided superiority of English detective stories over American detective stories lies in the fact that the English novelist takes this type of fiction more seriously than we do. The best of the current writers in England will turn their hand occasionally to this genre, and perform their task with the same conscientious care that they confer on their more serious books. The American novelist, when he essays to write this kind of story, does so with contempt and carelessness, and rarely takes the time to acquaint himself with his subject. He labors under the delusion that a detective novel is an easy and casual kind of literary composition; and the result is a complete failure. — Wright, op. cit.
(15) By 1926 it had become hard to fool the inveterate mystery maven:
The habitual reader of the detective novel has, during the past quarter of a century, become a shrewd critic of its technic and means. He is something of an expert, and, like the motion-picture enthusiast, is thoroughly familiar with all the devices and methods of his favorite craft. He knows immediately if a story is old-fashioned, if its tricks are hackneyed, or if its approach to its problem contains elements of originality. And he judges it by its ever shifting and developing rules. Because of this perspicacious attitude on his part a stricter form and a greater ingenuity have been imposed on the writer; and the fashions and inventions of yesterday are no longer used except by the inept and uninformed author. — Wright, op. cit.
(16) Some things just aren't done, including having the crime committed by the detective:
Such a trick is neither new nor legitimate, and the reader feels not that he has been deceived fairly by a more skilful mind than his own, but deliberately lied to by an inferior. — Wright, op. cit.
(17) Finally, Wright endorses the idea, held by many other writers, that matters of life and death are the optimal rationale for the detective story:
. . . a murder mystery furnishes a far more fascinating raison d'etre in a detective novel than does any lesser crime. All the best and most popular books of this type deal with mysteries involving human life. Murder would appear to give added zest to the solution of the problem, and to render the satisfaction of the solution just so much greater. — Wright, op. cit.

Category: Detective fiction

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