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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Livingston, I Presume?

By Armstrong Livingston (1885 - ?).
International Fiction Library.
1928. 318 pages.
Online HERE and HERE.
Talk about a forgotten author! There's virtually nothing available on the WorldWideWeb about Armstrong Livingston except that he did turn his hand to detective fiction and sometimes got noticed, albeit often unfavorably, for it. See TomCat's review below for more.
[Full review] . . . Another small-town mystery is The Monk of Hambleton, which leads you, rather like "The Greene Murder" to two equally probable culprits—in this case to two confessions of guilt for the same crime. The way the actual criminal is disclosed in a single sentence on the last page is remarkable. — Gilbert Seldes, "An Outline of Mystery," THE BOOKMAN (September 1928; Jump To page 101, top right)
[Review excerpts] . . . The best way to describe the story is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) as perceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a pinch of Scooby Doo. There's even a young, female investigative operative, named Kitty Doyle, who plays the Miss Climpson to Peter Creighton's Lord Peter Wimsey in the endgame of the story.  . . .
. . . Livingston has a nice, pleasant, albeit dated, writing style suiting the backdrop of a now bygone era, but the plotting was still (partly) in a previous era – making it not all that difficult to anticipate the eventual ending for the seasoned mystery reader. The normally clichéd ending of the dying murderer/confession was handled better that I could've hoped for. So there's that.  . . . — TomCat, BENEATH THE STAINS OF TIME (October 26, 2014)
A few other books and reviews where available:


~ THE JUJU MAN (1925) with Thomas H. Griffiths. Reviews HERE [Jump To page 500, top left] and HERE.
The authors of this weird and gory yarn seem to have taken it for granted that the perpetual slaughter of minor characters should constitute enough action to grip and satisfy the reader's appetite for adventure fiction.  . . .




~ THE MONSTER IN THE POOL (1929). Review HERE [Jump To page 223, center of page].
. . . It is all quite light-hearted and giddy, with a highly irresponsible ending . . .


~ IN COLD BLOOD (1931).

~ MURDER IS EASY (1936). Review HERE.
To which of six potential heirs will Bellamy Batchelier leave his millions? That is his problem. Before he solves it, his own disappearance in puzzling circumstances falls to the police of a New England fishing village. "If this doesn't please you, you are very hard to please indeed." - Dorothy L. Sayers. — GOODREADS description
. . . You'll yawn.
~ NIGHT OF CRIME (1938). Review HERE.
. . . Mediocre.
. . . Satisfactory.

Category: Detective fiction