Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Late Nineteenth Century Snippets about Detective Fiction

The anonymous individual(s) who ran the "Literary Chat" department at Munsey's Magazine were forced from time to time to acknowledge the popularity of mystery fiction even if they might have disapproved of it as low art.

Our first snippet concerns Conan Doyle in the interregnum between Holmes's precipitous plunge and his miraculous reappearance, during the interval when Doyle was turning out more respectable fiction:

"Literary Chat—Dr. Doyle's New Book."
Munsey's Magazine, May 1896.
Online HERE (scroll to page 251).
. . . Since the death of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Doyle has been doing considerable jibing on the sea of literature without catching a fair breeze or sailing steadily in any one direction. The fact that Dr. Doyle despised Holmes, and that Holmes was the making of Dr. Doyle, exemplifies the old saying that an author is the worst judge of his own work. When the "Stark Munro Letters" made their appearance, it was suggested by more than one critic that to preserve his reputation, their author would be obliged to resurrect the astute detective and launch him upon a fresh career. "The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard" is a good substitute, however, and has met with a warm reception and a wide sale.  . . .
". . . a good substitute . . ."?
Our next snippet involves another very popular mystery fiction author of the era; our critic's chief complaint against him is one that has dogged detective fiction practically from its inception:

"Literary Chat—A Master of Mystery."
Munsey's Magazine, December 1896.
Online HERE (scroll to page 377).
"The Carbuncle Clue," the latest achievement of Mr. Fergus Hume, of hansom cab fame, reminds us forcibly of a dime novel in a high state of cultivation. The "cultivation" has no connection with literary style, referring rather to the publishers being reputable and the cover of the book more pretentious than that of the average volume of the "Half Dime Horror" variety. Regarding Mr. Hume's style, there is not much to be said. One realizes how defective is the English language when one looks about for an adjective to describe the diction of his books. Those familiar with Mr. Hume's work—and who is not?—will remember that it is his custom to begin with a mysterious murder and finish with the vindication of an innocent man. Familiar music is the sweetest, familiar scenery the most grateful to the eye. Mr. Hume's books enthrall and fascinate because the reader always knows exactly how they will turn out, and thus avoids the nervous strain which physicians tell us is so injurious to the heart. When the corpse and the astute detective, the villain and the circumstantial evidence, have all been marshaled in due array, together with the accused man who refuses to tell what he was doing at the time of the crime, and the beautiful damsel who trusts her lover sublimely, then Mr. Hume takes his pen in hand, dips it in blood red ink, and embellishes the first chapter with gore and mystery.  . . .
. . . In the dim past, before he solved "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab," he determined that there was a right way to write a detective story and that there was a wrong way. He proceeded to choose the latter, and with admirable consistency has clung to it ever since. His literary puppet booth boasts half a score of marionettes who have new dresses for every new play, and who never for a moment overstep the line that divides a live man and one of wood. Wonderful mysteries does the showman concoct for them, and thrilling situations; yet they always preserve their stolidity, and are dolls and nothing more.  . . .
And then there's this, what might be the first instance of product placement in detective fiction:

"Literary Chat—In Briefer Mention."
Munsey's Magazine, April 1897.
Online HERE (full text below or scroll to page 152).
In "That Affair Next Door," by Anna Katharine Green, an important piece of evidence is the pair of shoes worn by the murdered woman, for of course, the book being by Mrs. Rohlfs, there is a murdered woman to be considered. It is expressly stated, possibly by way of free advertisement, that these shoes were purchased from B. Altman & Co., a somewhat well known dry goods firm on Sixth Avenue. The crime was committed in September, 1895. We wonder if it has occurred to Mrs. Rohlfs that Altman did not sell shoes until the opening of the present season. These are small matters, but it is well to be accurate, especially in the case of circumstantial evidence.
If the shoe fits . . .
An age-old parlor game popular among critics of detective fiction involves predicting (or, in this case, heralding) the end of the mystery as then known:

"Literary Chat—The Decline of 'Detective' Literature."
Munsey's Magazine, June 1899.
Online HERE (full text below or scroll to page 474).
It frequently happens that the actor who feels his powers waning as he grows old, sinks gradually from his position in a metropolitan stock company to a minor one in a traveling combination, and is at last forced to accept an engagement at some dime museum, where he continues to act long after he has been forgotten, as one dead, by a public that was wont to applaud him in the days of his repute. In like manner we sometimes encounter in the lower literary strata characters that once enjoyed high honor at the hands of the reading public.
A case in point is the detective of romance, the combination of shrewdness, silence, honesty, and eccentricity, who once held us spellbound as he unraveled the most difficult plots, bearded criminals in their dens, and finally accomplished the glorious triumph of virtue. There was a detective of this sort in Wilkie Collins' "Moonstone," a man who united a rare skill in the detection of crime with a passion for rose growing. There was a boy detective in the same book, and the reading public of their day looked upon both with the utmost respect and confidence. There were other detectives, too, in the literature of the earlier part of the century, men who wore numerous disguises and took awful personal risks in the performance of their duties.
In fact, the detective in his time was one of the most respected, accomplished, and popular characters to be met with in the entire world of fiction; but this once honored personage has descended from his high place, and is ending his days in the pages of dime novels and cheap juvenile publications. His present stage of degradation may be inferred from the fact that the recently deceased author of the "Old Sleuth" series of lurid tales for office boys was, in private life, a commonplace, unromantic bank director, with an average output of one novel a week, and a corresponding capacity for coupon cutting.
It is true that Conan Doyle has, within very recent years, given us an ideal crime detector in the person of Sherlock Holmes, but that was a creation of his own. Holmes does his work by the well directed application of a vast fund of miscellaneous knowledge and an exceedingly sound and practical common sense, and is not to be classed with his old fashioned prototype, who usually depended for success on his different changes of whiskers. It is doubtful if the small boy of the period would accept Holmes as a hero, even in a debased five cent form. He works too quietly and uses altogether too much brain and too little brawn in the performance of his tasks to suit a taste that has been formed by perusal of the "Old Sleuth" stories.
The chief reason for the downfall of the many whiskered detective of romance may be found in such revelations as those of the Lexow examination in New York. In the slang of the day, the public is "on to" the detective, and will have no more of him as a serious character. The mere mention of his calling conjures up a vision of a political heeler who has found the reward of years of faithful and unscrupulous political service in a place "on the force," where he understands that he is privileged to make as much money as he can during his tenure of office.
It is not impossible that from the ashes of the dead and gone detective of romance there will spring up a modern type, in the person of the man who gets his share of every robbery, and forges his way to the upper ranks of his profession by virtue of his skill in collecting tribute from the different malefactors who are permitted to do business within the precincts of his authority; but this character would probably find acceptance only as a humorous one.
Another cause for the decline of the romantic detective may be the decay of crime itself as a picturesque industry. Banks are no longer robbed at midnight by skilful and daring men of the class that broke into the Manhattan Bank a quarter of a century ago, but by sleek, comfortable looking presidents and cashiers, who work in the broad light of day, and by rehypothecating securities and doctoring ledgers rather than with dark lantern and nitroglycerin. Bank robberies of the kind that these gentlemen commit are almost worthless in stories founded on dramatic incident. No detective that ever put on a disguise could detect one of them in a manner that would be satisfactory to the reading public.
Not until crime is restored to its old position of dignity among the arts, not until criminals return to their habits of midnight and mystery, will the detective regain the place he once held in high class fiction.
- Conan Doyle: Mike Grost's Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection HERE.
- Fergus Hume: Mike Grost's Guide HERE and the GAD Wiki HERE.
- Anna Katharine Green: Mike Grost's Guide HERE.
- "Old Sleuth": GAD Wiki HERE and the Kindle Megapack for sale HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

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