Saturday, February 8, 2014

Unusual Respect for Detective Fiction from an Academic

By Harry Thurston Peck (1856-1914).
Dodd, Mead & Co.
1909. 296 pages.
Reviewed HERE. Online HERE.
Chapter XIV: "The Detective Story."
Unlike many scholars of his time, Peck saw something worthwhile in the better detective fiction writers. Excerpts from Chapter XIV follow:
SUPERCILIOUS persons who profess to have a high regard for the dignity of "literature" are loath to admit that detective stories belong to the category of serious writing.
They will make an exception in the case of certain tales by Edgar Allan Poe, but in general they would cast narratives of this sort down from the upper ranges of fine fiction.
They do this because, in the first place, they think that the detective story makes a vulgar appeal through its exploitation of crime.
In the second place, and with some reason, they despise detective stories because most of them are poor, cheap things. Just at present there is a great popular demand for them; and in response to this demand a flood of crude, ill-written, sensational tales comes pouring from the presses of the day.
But a detective story composed by a man of talent, not to say of genius, is quite as worthy of admiration as any other form of novel.
In truth, its interest does not really lie in the crime which gives the writer a sort of starting point.
In many of these stories the crime has occurred before the tale begins; and frequently it happens, as it were, off the stage, in accordance with the traditional precept of Horace.
The real interest of a fine detective story is very largely an intellectual interest. Here we see the conflict of one acutely analytical mind with some other mind which is scarcely less acute and analytical. It is a battle of wits, a mental duel, involving close logic, a certain amount of applied psychology, and also a high degree of daring on the part both of the criminal and of the man who hunts him down.
Here is nothing in itself "sensational" in the popular acceptance of that word.
. . . .Therefore, when we speak of the detective story, and regard it seriously, we do not mean the penny-dreadfuls, the dime-novels, and the books which are hastily thrown together by some hack-writer of the "Nick Carter" school, but the skilfully planned work of one who can construct and work out a complicated problem, definitely and convincingly.
It must not be too complex; for here, as in all art, simplicity is the soul of genius.
The story must appeal to our love of the mysterious, and it must be characterised by ingenuity, without transcending in the least the limits of the possible.
. . . . As has been said elsewhere in this book, no one has surpassed the ingenuity of Poe in the construction of these stories.
It was noted, however, that one's admiration ends with the matter of his constructiveness and reasoning, and I ventured to say that the defect in all these tales lies in the fact that their author could not create a living, breathing character. His personages are nothing but abstractions. He moves them about like chessmen on a board, and we are interested, not in them, but in the problem with which they have to do.
. . . . One grows fond of Sherlock Holmes, not only because of his wonderful mind, but because of his faults and failings. . .We are almost as much interested in his personal whims and prejudices, and in his casual talks with Watson, as we are with his triumphs of detection. And the same interest adheres to Watson . . . .
. . . . Compare [with Doyle's], for instance, the detective stories lately written by Mr. Jacques Futrelle and M. Gaston Leroux. Their work is purely machine work.
. . . . It never occurs to [the critics] that English fiction was permanently enriched when Dr. Doyle, as he then was, began the cycle of stories whose protagonist is Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
. . . . Like all true artists, who do their best work by instinct rather than self-consciously, it is probable that Doyle had no idea of how supremely clever a thing it was to make Watson the companion and chronicler and also the foil of Sherlock Holmes.
. . . . That Sherlock Holmes should have had a brother, superior in inductive reasoning even to Sherlock himself, is interesting; that he should be fat and luxurious and far too lazy to use his gifts in any practical way, is delicious.
. . . it [the reading public] has so strenuously insisted upon having more [Holmes] stories that Dr. Doyle has been obliged to yield to the demand. This compliance has been most unfortunate for the author's reputation. He has written not because he wished to write, but because he was made to do so. Hence, the later stories about Sherlock Holmes are feeble trash . . . .
Category: Detective fiction

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