Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Its Literary Significance Is Equivalent Perhaps to That of the Crossword Puzzle"

"Current Short Stories."
By Gerald Hewes Carson (?-?).
The Bookman, September 1925.
Online HERE.

A review from the mid-twenties by a critic who seems to think that the mystery story ("loosely described") is defective from its inception, with only the skill of certain authors enabling the genre to (here we go again) transcend its limitations. Unfortunately, he roams well outside mysterydom's well-populated pastures to find what are, no doubt to his literary mind, acceptable examples of the mystery story ("loosely described") by outliers straying into the field. We apologize in advance for having to DELETE some items, but Mr. Carson's loquacity necessitated it.

It starts out well enough:
ONE type of short story which never seems to become exhausted is that loosely described as the mystery story, the crime or detective story. Its vitality is the more noteworthy because its chief aim, its identifying quality, is nothing more nor less than its devilish ingenuity.
This kind of story exerts a great fascination. Its literary significance is equivalent perhaps to that of the crossword puzzle. It seldom affords a recognizable or interesting portrait of a human being. Dealing frequently with the materials of the life about us, it shamelessly tosses those materials into the melodramatic postures of absurd artifice. What it does is to create a more or less impossible situation, pose a dilemma which the reader is piqued to solve, but cannot.
Only the nimblest writers can keep themselves free of "absurd artifice":
How does the author extricate himself? That is the nub of the matter. The whole piece is pointed toward the moment of recapitulation, and it is really for that moment that magazine readers devour thousands of words, and it is backward from that moment, as coy authors occasionally reveal to us, that such stories are frequently created, or more properly, built.
Grudgingly, our critic allows:
Yet for all of this, the detective story has its persuasive and engaging practitioners. One of them is Mr. G. K. Chesterton, who combines business with pleasure in presenting from time to time "Father Brown", a hero of the Catholic church, one of the great amateur detectives of modern times. Father Brown's chief strength and reliance lie not in his skill with the reading glass and dark lantern, nor yet with the scientific trumpery of modern criminology, but in his ineffable comprehension of the human heart. That is to say. Father Brown, duly reflecting his creator, is a mystic and a specialist in motives.
The Marquis of Marne, center of interest in Mr. Chesterton's "The Chief Mourner of Marne" (Harper's, May), was a hermit, brooding, secretive, said to be priest ridden. There had been a duel in his early life [SPOILERS DELETED]. James had [SPOILERS DELETED]; James's life was thought to be [SPOILER DELETED].
Father Brown, however, discovered that Marne was in hiding not because of what he was, but of [SPOILER DELETED]. The duel [SPOILERS DELETED]. ["The Chief Mourner of Marne" is online HERE; a less revealing critique is HERE.]
In his "The Song of the Flying Fish" (Harper's, June) Mr. Chesterton begins with the theft of some artificial fish, rare and precious curiosa. Father Brown's lucid genius for penetrating stubborn human fibre again triumphs. It is important to notice here that one's interest lies not only in the fact that he solved it, but in his recapitulation where he takes the reader by the hand and threads the maze with him. ["The Song of the Flying Fish" is online HERE; a critique is HERE.]
It would be nearly impossible to ignore GKC.
One American mystery author barely makes the cut:
Mr. Harvey O'Higgins has a skill in these matters which compares well with Mr. Chesterton's, though his sense of literary form and style is perhaps less sure than that of the rotund and versatile British journalist. Mr. O'Higgins's puppet is a detective named Duff. One of Duff's exploits is recounted in "James Illinois Bell" (Red BookJune). Duff trips up the gentleman whose name the story bears, just as the latter prepares to [DELETED]. Duff, being  also a sleuth for human motives as well as facts, is successful in finding out not only how Bell had lived his life but why. That, it happens, is more than the unfortunate gentleman knew himself, and in the denouement we are allowed to sit in and learn about Bell at the same time he learns about himself. [See HERE for more about O'Higgins's works.]
O'Higgins actually wrote detective stories.
The reverse twist upon this sort of story is, of course, to enlist the reader's sympathy with the clever criminal; and to endow him with all the admirable qualities of intelligence, courage, and resourcefulness. An example is Irvin S. Cobb's "The Black Duck" (Cosmopolitan, July); another, Florence M. Pettie's "The Crystal Vampire" (Munsey'sJune).
The latter story deals with a charming girl criminal. She responded poignantly to beauty in all forms, particularly diamonds. So strong was her feeling for this sort of thing that she [SPOILERS DELETED]. Mr. Cobb's story has the  artistic touch of irony he likes so well. His crook [DELETED], only to be [DELETED]. In "Legerdemain" (McClure's, May) by Mortimer Levitan, the robber is [DELETED]. A professional jewel thief is [DELETED]. When he emerges he finds that [DELETED], and, what he finds as worse, has [DELETED]. Did he requite them? He did. That is the story.
Irvin Cobb, an outlier who gets our critic's approval.
The genre of science fiction (SF), which hadn't even been christened at this time, was just being defined, and SF was often lumped with mysteries:
In these stories the type broadens out. The interest does not lie in the challenge of how a particular situation is to be unravelled but in the high color, the mood of excitement, tension and escapade which pervade them. That is true also of Percival Gibbon's fantastic story of international intrigue, "The Man of Science" (Saturday Evening Post, June 20), in which a German professor and a group of rascals from all nations [SPOILERS DELETED]. They were [DELETED]. And even in this sinister atmosphere Mr. Gibbon contrived to make two young hearts blossom, as only they can blossom, one sometimes feels, in a spring number of the "Post".
And finally, the biter gets bit:
Richard Connell's "The Fourth Degree" (Saturday Evening Post, June 6) despite the fact that it is a thriller is different in this respect, that it has an idea. The scheme is to show that when it comes to horrors, the unknown is infinitely more terrifying and destructive than the known. Mr. Connell first shows an innocuous gentleman of the academic cloth [DELETED]. Then the situation reverses itself. The professor [DELETED].
Richard Connell, another outlier, ditto.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

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