Thursday, February 27, 2014

"The Interest of a Detective Story Is Therefore Intellectual and Not Emotional"

Burton Stevenson (1872-1962), mystery author and librarian, expresses his thoughts about detective fiction. Excerpts:
IT IS not difficult to account for the steady popularity of the detective story. The pleasure to be had from a good one is of a unique and satisfying kind. The reader is invited to take part in a mathematical demonstration, in which the symbols are men and women, with just enough of the background of life to give them reality. The problem to be solved is one of human conduct, and the solution is reached when one has found X, the unknown quantity—usually the criminal. The task which the author must accomplish is to give his readers all the data of the problem, and yet to solve it before they do. ALL the data, mind you, or he is not playing the game.
The interest of a detective story is therefore intellectual and not emotional. There is no love interest—or, at most, a very slight one. For the problem is not to bring two loving hearts together, but to land the guilty man in jail. To attempt a love interest is to run every risk of failure.
So the detective story has always been held to be a man's story rather than a woman's. But times change; and women, certainly, are changing with them. They are still creatures of the emotions, and no doubt always will be, but they are coming to have their moments of intellectual detachment. Also, they no longer faint at the sight of blood. The writer has been in charge of a public library for twelve years, and one of the most interesting features of that work has been to watch the changes in the taste of the reading public. It has been full of surprises and contradictions, of almost unbelievable whims and vulgarities, but one thing can be said of it with confidence: interest in detective fiction has been steadily growing, among women even more than among men.
. . . Oh, yes, there are plenty of detective stories—but how few that one can recommend as entirely satisfying. The writer has read nearly all that have appeared during the past ten years, and yet not more than six or eight have left any abiding impression. Aside from the Sherlock Holmes stories, there are only three that provoked re-reading, and on the spur of the moment it is impossible to recall the name of the detective in any of them.
In short, among all the detectives, amateur and professional, who have appeared before the public and performed their little tricks, there are only four who are classic—C. Auguste Dupin, Tabaret, M. Lecoq, and Sherlock Holmes. These abide. Beside them, the others are mere shadows. And these four are memorable not because they never bungled, not because occasionally they struck home with a cleverness and certainty which makes us forgive their mistakes. Their supreme moments are moments to be remembered with delight.
In so far as detective work goes, Gaboriau's stories are far better than Conan Doyle's; but Gaboriau tried to do too much. He sought to add a love interest, and in that respect he failed.
Which brings one to Sherlock Holmes—whom one does not love. Indeed, it is not always easy to respect him. Wholly deplorable are those puerile "deductions" with which so many of the stories open. And in the whole series of his adventures, only three or four great moments can be recalled.
The writer has re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories recently, but did not enjoy them as much as he anticipated. They do not wear as well as Gaboriau's, and the reason probably is because they are so very British—so stolid, so heavy, so lacking in humour. — Burton Egbert Stevenson, THE BOOKMAN (March 1913)
- More about Stevenson's work is HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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