More Dry Straw, Please

There are many instances in Bloody Murder of Julian Symons making an ass out of himself, but his infamous comments on R. Austin Freeman are among the most outrageous:

With Freeman we confront for the first time the crime writer who produced work of no other kind, and whose talents as a writer were negligible. Reading a Freeman story is very much like chewing on dry straw. (...) If readers were won (and they were), if some remain (and they do), it is because of his accuracy in detail, and because of the originality shown in one collection of short stories. In The Singing Bone (1912) Freeman invented what has been called the inverted story. In these stories we see a crime committed, and then watch Thorndyke discover and follow clues that lead to the criminal. There is no mystery, and not much surprise, but the interest of watching Thorndyke at work is enhanced by our prior knowledge. Freeman never repeated this experiment, which was developed, much later and with more skill, by Roy Vickers.

Symons makes here at least two factual errors, as Freeman actually produced works of other kinds - namely a memoir of his life in Africa, Travels and Life in Ashanti and Jaman (1898) and a non-mystery novel, The Golden Pool: A Story of Forgotten Mine (1905) - and repeated the "inverted" experiment in one novel, Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (1930) with which Symons was familiar since he briefly mentions it as part of the "one or two" Thorndyke novels that are not "markedly inferior to the short stories". One ends with an impression that Symons didn't do his homework or just didn't bother to check his facts.

Nor does he bother to substantiate his assessement of Freeman's "negligible talents" except for a rapid quote aimed to show how stilted his writing was - not much more than Doyle's as it turns out. No other argument is to be found. Symons obviously thinks the case is settled because he says so. No way.

Freeman may be forgotten nowadays - though he keeps a small yet loyal circle of fans, as Symons begrudgingly admits - but he was seminal to the growth and development of the detective novel and thus of mystery fiction as a whole. Had Freeman never existed or written romances or swashbucklers, a large part of the genre as we know it wouldn't exist or be quite different.

Let us turn back the hands of time and swim to the shores of early twentieth century. The detective novel has left infancy and is now a rather languid adolescent. Not much has happened since Conan Doyle came and both gave the genre its mature form and achieved the final synthesis of the Great Detective. Most authors follow on his path in a more or less individual way; the big deal is creating bankable Holmes-wannabes, not being innovative. The one exception, American proto-suspense writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, is not taken seriously and has thus no immediate influence: her offspring would come much later.

Things start to move on by the late 1900's with the appearance of two authors of diametrically opposed background and style but equal importance: G. K. Chesterton and Freeman. Both are not interested in creating the next "rival of Sherlock Holmes". They have firm, if way different, ideas on what the detective story is, what it is for and how it must be done. Chesterton emphasizes fantasy and cleverness, Freeman favors realism and rigour. Both approaches will turn to be astoundingly fecound and provide the basis for all subsequent mystery fiction.

Though the first registered detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, had an amateur sleuth as its protagonist, most early mystery fiction featured professionnals dealing with crime in a - more or less - realistic way. The success of Sherlock Holmes brought the genre back to its roots and interest in police procedures and forensics got lost in the process. Investigation became more and more of a purely cerebral thing which only enlightened amateurs could put to its fruition.

That is not the Freeman way. John Thorndyke is not a "thinking machine", he is a scientist and it is through science and common sense that he gets to the truth. His interest in physical evidence goes way further than that of his predecessors, and the conclusions he draws out of it run far deeper. Those are the only spectacular elements in otherwise quite moderate stories: Freeman has no interest in over-the-top, bigger-than-life plots and characters. In a time when eccentric detectives are increasingly becoming the rule, Thorndyke is utterly and refreshingly devoid of any quirks or ideosyncrasies. The cases he tackles are intriguing but don't stretch probability - well, not too much. And the people in them are everyday people whose feelings matter; they never take second fiddle to the plot. Freeman, though apparently most concerned with what Michael Gilbert called "technicalties", had a great sense of character and a real, if typically restrained, sensibility runs through his work. The Eye of Osiris (1911) offers one of the least mawkish, most mature love stories of the era, still moving ninety years after and As a Thief in the Night (1925) shows a great deal of empathy for his grieving narrator. Also, Thorndyke unlike his predecessors and most of his contemporaries, is a warm, friendly man who genuinely cares for people. His relationships with Dr. Jarvis, Polton and one-time assistants are free of any condescension and foresee later "equalitarian" pairings (Ellery Queen/Richard Queen, Wimsey/Parker, Alleyn/Fox) where the sidekick is as worth of respect as the hero. Finally, humor was no terra incognita to Freeman as evidenced by his take on contemporary art in The Stoneware Monkey.

His main appeal, however, is in the plots - though not in the same way one enjoys those of Christie, Carr, Queen and others. Because most of his ideas were later robbed and recycled by some major and many minor writers, most of Freeman's puzzles are no longer puzzling to the modern reader. They were never really intended to be anyway, as mystery writers of his generation were more interested in demonstration than misdirection - and Freeman's demonstrations are positively compelling in their faultless logic. Rarely in mystery fiction has reasoning taken such a central place and been so fascinating; watching Thorndyke collecting clues, examining them and then drawing the only possible conclusion is a tremendous experience, especially when you know or at least guess what that conclusion will be. If that's what dry straw tastes like, then maybe I'm gonna switch my diet to it.

That Symons, that unflinching promoter of realism and psychology, was so dismissive of Freeman is somewhat ironic, as Freeman was the one who brought them to the genre in a time when no one gave a damn. He can thus be regarded as the grandfather of the whole "realistic" side of mystery fiction from police procedurals to CSI-like forensics shows and even hardboiled, which a for once perceptive Chandler indirectly recognized when he praised him as a "magician". Magic and science, after all, are just distant cousins.

Further reading:

- Mysterylist
- Reviews by Nicholas Fuller
- Review of The Stoneware Monkey by Mary Reed
- Michael Grost on Freeman

4 commentaires:

Martin Edwards a dit…

Xavier, this is a very well-argued and enjoyable piece,with a fascinating final paragraph - but might you be a little too hard on Julian Symons? His preface to the third edition of 'Bloody Murder' said: 'this is the work of an addict, not an academic, and is a record of enthusiasm...it is meant for reading, consultation, argument, reasoned contradiction...' I suspect Symons would have relished a debate along the lines you've set out. And, from my all too brief acquaintance with him, I think he would have been big enough to admit that one or two of his statements were hasty or too harsh. He was prepared to change his mind from time to time. But as a critic of crime fiction, overall, I can't think of anyone better. Certainly not among the British critics.

Patrick a dit…

Xavier, I always enjoy reading your posts. This was another excellent one, and thanks for passing on the link. I particularly love your brilliant final paragraph.

Like I needed another reason to dislike Julian Symons, though... The fellow *REALLY* rubs me the wrong way. It's that aura of general condescension that emanates from his writing. I just can't stand it.

Xavier a dit…


Symons actually was not THAT bad. He was a very good writer - "The Progress of a Crime" ranks high among my favorites - and a perceptive critic once he'd taken off his blinkers. His treatment of Freeman, however, is indefensible, smacking of bias and insufficient reading. My feeling is that he should have stuck to the kind of crime fiction he loved most and left the others to more open-minded, less biased critics.

Patrick a dit…

I'm afraid I never could get through "Bloody Murder", and I find his damning of the entire genre rather hard to take. Though I might give some of his fiction a shot someday ("A Three Pipe Problem" is the most tempting), his critical views are far from my own and the way he expresses them are rather off-putting for me.

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