Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Dorothy L. and the Hazards of Prophecy

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), writing in her introduction to The Second Omnibus of Crime (1932), after discussing the vicissitudes affecting the mystery novel and concluding that its future, even with so many factors working against it ("In spite of unfavorable world-condi-tions"), isn't as dire as it could be, turns next to the mystery short story, which, she says, suffers from its own peculiar afflictions, generated most often at the source (i.e., by the authors and editors themselves), especially with respect to the perennial effort versus profit problem:
The consequence is that it is at present very difficult to persuade the best mystery-writers to bother about the short story at all. The very great labour involved in getting a bright, novel and agreeable murder, inventing a suitable detective, dragging in the human interest and then compressing the thing into 6,000 words is scarcely worth while. After an amount of brain exhaustion which would almost suffice to produce a full-length novel, the net result usually is that the writer feels himself to have merely wasted a perfectly good plot. For the central idea—which, as we have seen, is the nucleus about which every plot has to revolve—is used now and cannot as a rule be used again. The writer feels, very properly, that he has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, since the price paid, even by a high-class magazine, for a short detective-story is seldom comparable with the advance payment on a full-length novel.
Of course, those considerations still prevail today, yet because of them Sayers seems to discern an uncertain future for the short form:
The detective short story, therefore, is in the position of a city built between the sea and a precipice. On the one side it is being gradually undermined, while circumstances prevent its expansion on the other. It cannot, like the detective-novel, grow largely and loosely towards a wider psychology and more humane style, because of editorial edicts tending to constrict it; and meanwhile, the available subject-matter is becoming seriously curtailed.
You could get the impression that Sayers foresees a possible extinction event for the short detective tale:
A short story has all its eggs in one basket; it can turn one trick and one trick only; its detective-interest cannot involve a long investigation—it must be summed up in a single surprise. And so hard have detective-writers worked in the last half-century, that there are now remarkably few tricks the reader does not know. The substituted corpse, the gramophone alibi, the murder by means of an animal, the forged finger-print, the key turned from the other side of the door, the put-back clock, the mechanical device for turning the light on and off, the trick flask—the reader knows them all and knows how to detect them as well as the detective himself. In the novel they can still be used—or some of them.(Personally, I think the gramophone should be given a rest.) In the course of telling a long story it is possible to camouflage them by a multitude of compli-cating circumstances. But in the short story they have to stand unsupported, and their eyelids are a little weary. Thus the detective short story, prevented from following the natural line of development of its companion, the detective-novel, is growing rarer and rarer.  . . .
. . . but we're happy to report that, Sayers's misgivings notwithstanding, after nearly eighty-five years the detective short story is still with us, as hale and hearty as ever, thanks in no small part to percipient editors like Ellery Queen.

- No, we're not playing "Gotcha!" with our author; Dorothy Sayers was responding to current trends in fiction publishing, and her conclusions at the time were perfectly logical. You can find her entertaining introduction to The Second Omnibus HERE.
- Wikipedia (HERE) and the GAD Wiki (HERE) have plenty of information about Sayers.
- Praise and otherwise for DLS's fiction have been collated HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

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