My Favorite Detective Story Essay Example
Dear Mr. Walker:
Two years ago, I sent a letter of thanks to my late father's brother. After Dad's passing, George reached out to me -- beginning a sequence of kindnesses that extends to this day. George has also been able to share with me his passions for theater and for reading, especially mysteries. That particular note to him was occasioned by my reading the copy of *The Resistance Man* that he had sent. Years later, I have just finished reading *The Children Return*, in the course of following the Bruno series, and its depth and empathy and shrewd but non-cynical insights into personal and political behavior prompt me to send you a letter of thanks, as well. Here are some excerpts from the original note:
"Just finished the second of the Bruno novels you last shared with me (and the most recent in Walker's fine series). I want you to know that along with my enjoyment of Walker's rich and alert insights into French customs and history, political chicanery, and human relationships, I've also appreciated how the novels have enriched my appreciation for, well, my life right now.
"As I go out to tend the goats and chickens each morning and evening (often accompanied by our red heeler, Chloe), Bruno regularly comes to mind: his chickens, his horse, his dog, his garden, his natural surroundings, his community, his ability to pause and savor where he is and what he's doing with his life. In the kitchen, I'm no Bruno -- but I've learned to make an OK lamb navarin. At work, I hope I bring some of the clear-eyed compassion that he does to the people he encounters professionally (I strongly detect the influence of Simenon's Maigret novels on Walker). And I daily experience -- and have experienced -- the family life, even with all its complications, for which Bruno longs.
"And I'm not sure I would have come across the novels on my own. You introduced me to them; heck, you've provided me with them.
"So, thanks so very much! They are not only an added pleasure and gift -- they are a means, even a discipline, for understanding and enjoying other pleasures and gifts. They do what good books do."
The goats (currently a herd of 24 with recent newborns) and chickens, by the way, are part of our menagerie on 17 or so acres outside of Lincoln, Nebraska.
So, to echo myself, thanks to you so very much, too. Bruno and his novels comprise a wonderful creation, which points to other wonders -- as the best creations should, I think. In fact, that lamb navarin of mine has been joined by a decent (if utterly non-traditional) cassoulet and a very good (and largely correct) daube provençal.
With every good wish for you and all that you endeavor,
In 1944 the literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote an exasperated essay in the pages of The New Yorker titled “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” Wilson, who at the time was about to go abroad to cover the Allied bombing campaign on Germany, felt that he’d outgrown the detective genre by the age of twelve, by which time he’d read through the stories of the early masters, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet everyone he knew seemed to be addicted. His wife at the time, Mary McCarthy, was in the habit of recommending her favorite detective novels to their émigré pal Vladimir Nabokov; she lent him H. F. Heard’s beekeeper whodunit “A Taste for Honey,” which the Russian author enjoyed while recovering from dental surgery. (After reading Wilson’s essay, Nabokov advised his friend not to dismiss the genre tout court until he’d tried some Dorothy L. Sayers.) Surrounded on all sides by detection connoisseurs, Wilson sounded genuinely perplexed when he wondered, “What, then, is the spell of the detective story that has been felt by T. S. Eliot and Paul Elmer More but which I seem to be unable to feel?”
That T. S. Eliot, of all people, was a devoted fan of the genre must have rankled Wilson in particular. Eliot, the author of famously difficult and formidably learned poems, whose every critical pronouncement was seized upon by dons and converted into doctrine, was an unimpeachable authority in matters of literary judgment. Wilson, indeed, had played a part in establishing Eliot’s reputation as such, having gushed, in his era-defining study “Axel’s Castle” (1931), that the poet-critic had an “infinitely sensitive apparatus for aesthetic appreciation”—a sensitivity presumably not worth squandering on something as puerile and formulaic as mysteries.
But, as scholars like David Chinitz have pointed out, Eliot’s attitude toward popular art forms was more capacious and ambivalent than he’s often given credit for. His most formally ambitious poetry retained something of the jumpy syncopations of the ragtime he’d heard growing up in St. Louis; in his later years he wanted nothing more than to have a hit on Broadway. And it so happens that, well before detective stories came into vogue among Wilson’s cohort, Eliot had become one of the genre’s most passionate and discerning readers. Among the many treasures to be found in the third volume of “The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot,” which is now out from Johns Hopkins University Press, are a number of reviews of detective novels which Eliot published, with no byline, in his literary journal The Criterion, in 1927. In them, we see not only Eliot’s passion for detective fiction but his attempts to codify the genre in the midst of some of its most momentous evolutions.
Eliot was composing his reviews in the early years of detective fiction’s Golden Age, when authors like Sayers, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr were churning out genteel whodunits featuring motley arrays of suspects and outlandish murder methods. More even than the stories of Poe or Doyle, the early work that to Eliot served as a model for the genre was “The Moonstone,” by Wilkie Collins, a sprawling melodrama about the theft and recovery of an Indian diamond, which appeared in serial installments in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round magazine in 1868. In his introduction to the 1928 Oxford World Classics edition of the novel, Eliot called it “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels.” (This blurb still adorns Oxford paperback editions.) The story is full of protracted plot twists and portentous cliffhangers, many of them not of particular relevance to the mystery at hand; we are told as much about the reading habits of the house-steward, a fan of “Robinson Crusoe,” and the fraught romance between the handsome Franklin Blake and the impetuous Rachel Verinder, as we are about the circumstances surrounding the heist. For Eliot, such digressions helped lend the mystery an “intangible human element.” In a review written in the January, 1927, issue of The Criterion, he claimed that all good detective fiction “tends to return and approximate to the practice of Wilkie Collins.”
A key tenet of Golden Age detection was “fair play”—the idea that an attentive reader must in theory have as good a shot at solving the mystery as the story’s detective. To establish parameters of fairness, Eliot suggests that “the character and motives of the criminal should be normal” and that “elaborate and incredible disguises” should be banned; he writes that a good detective story must not “rely either upon occult phenomena or … discoveries made by lonely scientists,” and that “elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance.” The latter rule would seem to exclude masterpieces like Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which involves a murder carried out by a snake trained to shimmy through a heating duct, then down a bell rope whose tassel extends to the victim’s pillow. But Eliot admitted that most great works broke at least one of his rules. He in fact adored Arthur Conan Doyle, and was given to quoting long passages from the Holmes tales verbatim at parties, and to borrowing bits and ideas for his poems. (He confessed in a letter to John Hayward that the line “On the edge of a grimpen,” from “Four Quartets,” alludes to the desolate Grimpen Mire in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”)
In the June, 1927, issue of The Criterion, Eliot continued to articulate his standards, reviewing another sixteen novels and drawing fine distinctions between mysteries, chronicles of true crimes, and detective stories proper. His favorite of the bunch was “The Benson Murder Case,” by S. S. Van Dine. One of the few American writers to factor into Eliot’s analyses of detective fiction, Van Dine was the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright, an art critic, freelance journalist, and sometime editor of The Smart Set, who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, spent two years in bed reading more than two thousand detective stories, during which time he methodically distilled the genre’s formulas and began writing novels. His detective, Philo Vance, was a leisurely aesthete prone to mini-lectures on Tanagra figurines, who approached detective work, as Eliot put it admiringly, “using methods similar to those which Mr. Bernard Berenson applies to paintings.”
In 1928, Van Dine would publish his own “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” in The American Magazine; that same year, Ronald A. Knox—a Catholic priest and member of the mystery-writer’s group London Detection Club, along with Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and G. K. Chesterton—would put forth his Ten Commandments of detective fiction. It is hard to know if these authors would have been aware of Eliot’s own rules, published the year before, but many of their principles echo Eliot’s parameters of fair play: Van Dine wrote that “no willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader”; the Detection Club’s Oath, which was based on Knox’s commandments, required its members to promise that their stories would avoid making use of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or the Act of God.” (Christie had tested the limits of fairness with the twist-ending of her 1926 novel “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” causing a stir among devotees of the genre; in 1945 Edmund Wilson, having been deluged with angry mail after his first piece was published, wrote a follow-up titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” in which he deemed his experience reading a second batch of mystery novels “even more disillusioning than my experience with the first.”)
But in comparing Eliot’s reviews with the rules of these detective-fiction insiders, we can see just how idiosyncratic Eliot’s judgments could be. Where Van Dine specifies that “a detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked out character analyses”—exactly the qualities Eliot so admired in “The Moonstone”—Eliot, ever the literary historian, saw the genre as stemming from a deeper tradition of melodrama, which for him included everything from Jacobean revenge tragedies to “Bleak House.” “Those who have lived before such terms as ‘high-brow fiction,’ ‘thrillers’ and ‘detective fiction’ were invented,” Eliot wrote in an essay on Wilkie Collins and Dickens, “realize that melodrama is perennial and that the craving for it is perennial.” Good detective fiction tempered the passion and pursuit of melodrama with the “beauty of a mathematical problem”; an unsuccessful story, Eliot wrote, was one that “fails between two possible tasks … the pure intellectual pleasure of Poe and the fullness and abundance of life of Collins.” What he appreciated, in other words, was the genre’s capacity for conveying intensity of sentiment and human experience within taut formal designs—a quality that might just as soon apply to literary fiction or poetry.
It is disappointing, then, that Eliot’s reviews included no opinions on the new kind of literary detective novel that was taking shape across the ocean. At precisely the moment when Eliot was laying down his rules in The Criterion, Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective and an enthusiastic reader of “The Waste Land,” was in the process of serializing his tale of a jewel-encrusted statuette in the pages of Black Mask. Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” marked a shift in detective fiction, away from decorous country-house puzzles into a meaner, starker, bleaker kind of urban crime thriller, in which the mechanics of the crime were often less essential than the atmosphere through which the characters moved. With the advent of this “hardboiled” style, the British murder mysteries began to seem quaint and artificial. (In his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler would deem Van Dine’s Philo Vance “probably the most asinine character in detective fiction.”) One wonders what Eliot, who built his great poem around the Grail legend, would have made of “The Maltese Falcon,” with its cosmopolite eccentrics chasing after a shadowy MacGuffin with a history going back to the Knights Templar. And one wonders what, with his more-British-than-the-British expat sensibilities, he would have made of this bold new American literature.
It’s possible, though, that Eliot’s affinity for Golden Age detective stories had only partially to do with the genre’s literary merits. During the year he wrote his mystery reviews, Eliot was undergoing a sharp turn to the right politically, and was steeped in dense works of theology in preparation for his baptism into the Anglo-Catholic church. (In a June, 1927, letter to his friend Virginia Woolf he described himself, only half-jokingly, as a “person who specializes in detective stories and ecclesiastical history.”) His conversion to a man of royalist proclivities and religious faith, after which he attended Mass every morning before heading off to work in Russell Square, was at least in part a matter of giving order to a world he saw as intolerably messy. At the end of his 1944 essay, Edmund Wilson suggested that it was no accident that the Golden Age of detection coincided with the period between the two World Wars: in a shattered civilization, there was something reassuring about the detective’s ability to link up all the broken fragments and “know just where to fix the guilt.” Such tidy solutions were to Wilson the mark of glib and simplistic genre fiction. But to Eliot, who in “The Waste Land” wrote of the fractured modern world as a “heap of broken images,” it seems possible that Golden Age detective stories offered above all a pleasing orderliness—a way of seeing ghastly disruptions restored to equilibrium with the soothing predictability of ritual.