22/12/2007

On Martin Edwards's Latest Article

Fellow blogger Martin Edwards has a brand new article on "The Detective in British Crime Fiction" which, as everything he writes, is well-worth a read.
 
Some remarks:
 
"Originally, Martin writes, detectives tended to be memorable for their eccentricities; now the emphasis is on in-depth characterisation."
 
This is way too sharply drawn a divide in my opinion.
1°) Early detectives were not defined only by their eccentricities - actually, most of them had none to speak of: neither Thorndyke or Father Brown or Gabriel Hanaud can be called eccentrics; what set them apart from the rest of mankind is their deductive abilities. Only when the Golden Age began did the Sherlock Holmes model of the detective as a quirky genius become prevalent.
2°) I don't believe things have changed as much as Martin claims. Sure, we know more about the private, inner lives of modern detectives than about those of, say, Dr. Fell or S.F.X. Van Dusen. They appear to be three-dimensional characters insofar as they are allowed to exist on a greater scale - they are not meant just to investigate a case, solve it and go back in the box until next time - but they too have eccentricities of their own, though of a different nature. One of the most overlooked features of the genre is its almost complete unability to deal with ordinary people. Mystery, even at its most "realistic", needs protagonists bigger than life in one way or another. Contemporary detectives with their complicated backgrounds, difficult lives and sometimes outlandish personalities, are as statistically improbable as their elders and betters. There are as few Dalglieshes and Rebuses in real life as there are Holmeses or Poirots.
 
"Anthony Berkeley's vain, erratic yet irrepressible writer-sleuth Roger Sheringham, Nicholas Blake's Nigel Strangeways, and Edmund Crispin's breezy don Gervase Fen are notable for the ingenuity which they bring to solving a string of elaborately contrived murders."
 
I am not a maven on either Blake or Crispin, so I won't comment as far as they're concerned, but Martin is some reductive with regards to Sheringham whose personality seems to me just as notable, and maybe even more so, than his ingenuity. Berkeley, like Sayers, quickly became frustrated with what he perceived as the limitations of the detective novel but, unlike Sayers, chose to go subversive rather than attempt to "transcend" the genre. Sheringham thus is both an embodiment and a scathing satire of the Golden Age detective, as evidenced by the wonderful Jumping Jenny where he gets everything wrong from the start and, thinking the victim had what she deserved, spends the whole book trying to clear the man he wrongfully identified as the murderer. That sets him apart from most other Golden Age detectives whose creators "played straight".
 
 

15/12/2007

Die Hard: an exchange

As a follow to my "Die Hard" article I received this e-mail from Mike Grost:
 
Between Poe in the 1840's and Gaboriau starting in 1865, there were a whole host of crime writers.
In Britain, the Casebook writers created numerous short stories about sleuths:

http://members.aol.com/MG4273/casebook.htm

The British also developed a branch of suspense fiction (not true mystery) called Sensation Fiction:

http://members.aol.com/MG4273/sensatio.htm

And some American writers wrote tales about puzzling mysteries - not always with detectives, or in the pure mystery format (notably Melville and Spofford):

http://members.aol.com/MG4273/melville.htm

Also, while British mystery writers seemed to vanish during World War I, some Americans such as Reeve and Rinehart produced some mystery fiction.

Admittedly, Poe and Gaboriau produced works totally in the mystery paradigm: books that are direct ancestors of all later mystery fiction. But the Casebook writers also contributed to the genre.
 
As I wrote back to him, I am well-aware of the casebook and sensation writers and their influence on the genre discussed on this blog, but my focus being on proper mystery fiction, they didn't make the final cut. There were undoubtedly stories about crimes and detectives written in the time between Poe and Gaboriau but there weren't any actual mystery stories. On the other hand I admit not having paid enough attention to the situation of American mystery fiction during World War 1 and asked Mr. Grost for some further information he kindly provided:
 
The two best US mysteries from 1915-1918 (that I know of), were published as magazine serials during that period - and only appeared in book form many years later. These are Mary Roberts Rinehart's "The Curve of the Catenary" (1915, I think!) and Johnston McCulley's "Who Killed William Drew?" (1917). Until your post, I never noticed anything about this. But now one wonders if the War delayed book publication in the United States, too.
Arthur B. Reeve kept publishing volumes of shorts throughout the war. Each volume usually has a few gems, and a lot of not so good material.
 
I thus stand corrected: mystery fiction didn't completely die during World War I, even though it admittedly went near extinguished in Britain and Continental Europe. The United States' late entry into the War more than probably accounts for the survival of the genre there; it would be interesting to know how the situation evolved after 1917. I'm also curious as to how mystery fared in other countries, most particularly Australia which already had a well-established tradition of crime and mystery fiction at the time. If you have any imput don't hesitate to send a mail or a comment.
 
It remains however unsolved why it took twenty years for mystery fiction to finally kick off, and why World War I almost killed it while World War II on the other hand was one of its peaks in terms of both quality and quantity. I keep thinking about it and more on the topic is sure to come.
 
 

13/12/2007

Die Hard

mNo, this post is not about John McClane - though it's about sequels of sorts.

Mystery fiction is so part of our landscape, so taken for granted, so popular, that it's hard for fans and non-fans alike to imagine a world without it. The genre, we think, is a "natural" thing and is here to stay. Crime being the real world's oldest profession and fascination for it being apparently encrypted in our genome, murder and mayhem will always be welcome on print and onscreen and purveyors of fictional felonies don't have to worry about the future. But a glance at the rocky history of our favorite genre shows that it has not always been so robust. Not only did it make several false starts but it actually died, the only kind of fiction in my knowledge to have ever been risen from the dead not just once but twice, hence the title of the present essay.

When reading the Dupin stories we tend to infuse them with our knowledge of what followed and re-interpret them as the beginning of a wonderful success-story. This is the finalist view I evoked some time ago: Poe influenced Gaboriau who influenced Doyle who in turn influenced Christie, etc. That rosy picture takes a different colour when you check the dates, as more than two decades separate The Murders in the Rue Morgue and L'Affaire Lerouge. Two decades during which nothing happened. A marginal author in his lifetime, Poe remained so in the years following his death, "thanks" mostly to Rufus Griswold's portrayal, and had little influence except for his horror stories. The ratiocination tales may have been a novelty hit on their first publication but they didn't catch on, which is not that surprising given that Poe himself didn't believe in their lasting power. His bet on posterity relied more on his poetry and criticism; it is much ironic that what he regarded as alimentary, secondary work is now wider-known than A Dream Within A Dream or the Marginalias. Mystery fiction might be labelled a stillborn or a child in so bad a condition that it spent twenty years in coma with a flatline EEG until a French writer brought it back to life.

It's unclear whether the new incarnation was best-suited to the times or reverse but nonetheless it caught on. The next fifty years saw the genre getting an increasingly high profile as it got rid of melodrama, refined its ways and, most important, proved commercially valid. Magazines opened their pages to the newcomer and intellectuals started taking notice; some prestigious mainstream writers thought they might give it a try. By the early 1910s, mystery was one of the dominant genres in popular fiction and most people agreed it was only the beginning.

Then the rapidly expanding genre went into near complete extinction as the world entered its first mass slaughtering. Well-established authors either enlisted (Freeman, Mason) or turned to patriotic fluff (Leblanc) and were not replaced. As a result, mystery's record during first world war amounts to nil. This comes as stark contrast to the frenetic activity it would display twenty years later; maybe Hitler was more inspiring than the Kaiser. The genre long kept an uneasy relation to that period, beginning to engage it in a serious way only in the last third of the century.

This second "death" was shorter than the first - only five years - and also resulted into a new flowering - the Golden Age. As of today it is the last time mystery "died". The spy-craze of the sixties doesn't count as mysteries kept being written - they were just not as popular as they had once been. Hopefully we won't see any other extinction soon but the phenomenon and its consequences are interesting to study if only because they exemplify why we like our genre so much: like its heroes, it falls sometimes, stumbles often but it never quits.

11/12/2007

August Derleth on R. Austin Freeman

The concept behind MWA anthology Murder by Experts (1947) may sound rather trivial for modern readers as it has been done to death ever since, but it was quite original at the time: editor Ellery Queen asked twenty major mystery writers to select their favorite short stories by someone else and write a foreward detailing the reasons for their choices. August Derleth picked Freeman's Mr. Ponting's Alibi and his brief introduction is well worth reading, as it perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the Thorndyke stories:
 
"Mr. Ponting's Alibi is surely one of the best examples of the straightforward detective story, free of atmospheric high-jinks and ornamental furbelows. It is therefore in the best tradition of the detective story which, I must confess, has always taken and will always take first place in my affections. The story makes a steady, uninterrupted progression from the setting-forth of the case to the solution of the mystery; there are no forays into blind alleys, no pretentious essays into obscure knowledge properly confined to works of reference, no tricks upon the reader, and finally no trying of his patience.
 
 Above all, it is throughout an entirely plausible story. Stories even less plausible have taken place in real life, but it is particularly noteworthy that Mr. Ponting's Alibi, making no attempt to confuse the reader, nevertheless holds him. In plain fact, there is little actual mystery about Mr. Freeman's plot; it is all rather obvious from the beginning, the gambit is a familiar one, and it is evident that the patent suspect is not guilty at all, leaving but one avenue of detection, and Dr. John Thorndyke carries the reader down it without a single deviation.
 
 All the trappings of the Thorndyke stories are evident in Mr. Ponting's Alibi but none is obstructive. This is all to the good; a first-rate detective story ought not to emphasize the mechanics of detection at the expense of character or plot, and this story admirably fulfils that condition. Moreover, it offers a satisfying picture of one of the great detectives in action and, for my part, there are few sleuths, apart from Holmes, to whose performance I would rather be a party than Dr. John Thorndyke."
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

09/12/2007

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