In October 1944 and January 1945, the American newspaper columnist, writer, and critic Edmund Wilson published two essays entitled, respectively, ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’ and ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’. The second was in response to the exhortations from readers who, appalled by the first, sent him recommendations to improve his outlook…recommendations which, by all accounts, failed miserably.
As my 322 previous posts will hopefully attest, I am a fan of detective stories, but I’m not here today to offer a riposte to Wilson’s misguided worldview. Since Wilson has been dead for some 45 years, I don’t think he’d be especially interested in my canny deconstructions of his various points, and, in all frankness, I really love these two articles — they are superbly written, redolent with the air of bemused fury of one who fails to see any merit in something to which so many people have signed up so enthusiastically (I feel the same way about Taylor Swift), and Wilson has a wonderfully accurate turn of phrase (describing Dashiell Hammett as “almost as far below the rank of Rex Stout as Rex Stout is below that of James Cain”…well, yeah, I have to agree!).
In fact, if you read these articles in any depth, it’s difficult to find much fault with what Wilson has to say — the fault is probably more in how he went about what he wanted to achieve. Sure, it reeks a little of pomposity to say that as a youthful fan of Sherlock Holmes he decided at age 12 that he was “outgrowing that form of literature”, but if that’s the model he craves after then he really went about finding it in the most unlikely way. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are, at best, very interesting studies of a particular aegis and strata of New York society, not manuals of detection wherein ratiocination and clue-hunting in the classic mould are to be uncovered. Equally Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929) is a book so entirely devoid of any detection that the main character could be changed to a horse-trainer with very little effort and it would take its place among the masterpiece of equine literature.
The first article also takes a swipe at Christie’s Death Comes as the End (1944) — which he acknowledges is “not quite typical of the author” — but he struggles with the complete “elimination” of human interest in the stilted prose…again, yes, this isn’t a book one picks up to experience vintage murder mystery Christie (though there are clues, and Wilson acknowledges that he was “incited to keep on and find out” who the murderer was), and again if the twelve year-old in him was hoping for a return to Doyle’s top form he’s going to be disappointed here.
And then, the poor man, things get worse for him.
On the back of this first article, he received 39 letters, seven of which “approve my strictures” and the rest foist recommendation after recommendation upon him and — to give him his due — he dives back in for another go. But, dude, these recommendations are awful. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (1934) may well be one of the masterpieces of the form but it’s also one of the most tedious books I’ve ever struggled through and I can well imagine Wilson’s rapidly-spiralling bemusement at the sheer volume of praise heaped upon it. Let’s face it, it is not a book for the novice or the unconvinced, containing as it does oh-so-much about bell-ringing and then some detection at points when Sayers could work up the interest to fit a bit around a topic she found far more interesting.
Someone then, presumably as a joke, appears to have recommended Ngaio Marsh for her “excellent prose” and he dives into Overture to Death (1939), which I remember being one of those novels that would be five pages long if you’d only been given a floorplan. He disregards the acquired taste that is Margery Allingham, saying of Flowers for the Judge (1936):
How you care who committed a murder which has never really been made to take place, because the writer hasn’t any ability of even the most ordinary kind to persuade you to see it or feel it?
Given the hidebound narrative of that one, and the way the payoff is deliberately designed to run contrary to the standard GAD fare, I again can’t disagree.
The final two books mentioned he seems to enjoy, especially The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr, saying “There is a tinge of black magic that gives it a little of the interest of the horror story, and the author has a virtuosity at playing with alternative hypotheses that makes this trick of detective fiction more amusing than it usually is”. That, in the context of everything that has come before, is a rave review, but even taken on its own it sounds to me like Wilson is playing a little of the curmudgeon in sticking to his guns, because he then changes tack very quickly and raises up an unrelated gripe with Jacques Barzun. The Burning Court, as I said the other week, represents Carr at his pinnacle of plotting, and Wilson has clearly been impressed but must not let on.
Finally we have Farewell My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler, which Wilson says is “the only one of these books I have read all of and read with enjoyment” — sure, sure, we’ll play along — but Chandler, he continues, “does not really belong to this school of the old-fashioned detective novel. What he writes is a novel of adventure…”. Now, again, I can’t disagree — Chandler and Hammett are not in the same school at all as these detective stories, and it shows that Wilson’s paying attention that he is able to distinguish between these facets of writing even when so many people will still to this day insist that Chandler and Christie belong in the same box. Someone wishing to understand what makes the latter so popular is wasting time reading the former, in the same way that appreciation of the music of Taylor Swift will not be achieved by listening to the drum solos of Roger Taylor.
Two things stuck me after reading these articles. The first, minor point was that invoke it in his title though he does, Wilson doesn’t actually read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and so it can be questioned how thoroughly he’ll ever get the opportunities to overturn expectations in a genre he simply does not have an interest in (reading that book out of context is, I warrant, something of a disappointment). The second thing that occurred to me was that, were someone to lay a similar challenge at my feet — “I’ve read some Nero Wolfe, one Agatha Christie, and something by an American tough-guy and don’t think much of your detective fiction…” — well, where the hell would I start with recommendations? Certainly not The Nine Tailors, nor Allingham, nor Chandler…but where?
In short, why do I read detective stories?
In the midst of these ruminations, GAD encyclopedia and regular commenter Santosh very kindly sent me an article with the same title as Wilson’s first piece by Gladys Mitchell that was included in Murder Ink (1977) — you know, Murder Ink, that secret that seemingly everyone was keeping from me, an anthology of detective fiction-focussed articles and esoterica collected and edited by Dilys Winn. Now, Mitchell is not an author whose work I care for — the exceptional reversal of expectations in Speedy Death (1929) aside — and she has the honour of creating the most annoying narrator of all time in Noel Wells, but a few points of interest are raised in this short piece. Firstly, showing that the distinction is worth making:
To the uninitiated, all classes of mystery fiction are apt to be classed as “thrillers,” but to the intelligentsia the rough-and-ready story of breakneck adventure, car chase, mysterious master criminal, sex, bloodthirstiness and highly coloured heroics is but the bastard brother of the classic whodunit and is not to the taste of the true detective aficionado.
The thriller poses no problem, makes no tax upon the reader except perhaps to find out how much blood and guts he can stomach…
Then, following the sort of prevarication that marks all her narrative undertakings, we eventually get to the point:
So why do people read detective stories? I think one of the main reasons is that such books must, above all things, have a definite plot. Modern literature is full of plays and films that end nowhere; novels and short stories which leave the playgoer or the reader suspended in mid-air, forced either to impotent irritation or else to having to invent the outcome.
Detective stories, by their very nature, cannot cheat in this way. Their writers must tidy up the loose ends; must supply a logical solution to the problem they have posed; must also, to hold the reader’s attention, combine the primitive lust and energy of the hunter with the cold logic of the scholarly mind.
That, coming from someone whose perspective on detective fiction is, we must presume, decidedly more sympathetic than Wilson’s, is probably as unhelpful in determining the ‘why’ behind it all. Plenty of non-detection-based plays and novels and short stories manage to achieve a clearly delineated end without “cheating” and having provided a definite plot on the way to doing so. It’s true you’re more likely to get this in a detective story, just as it’s true that just because you read detective stories for this reason doesn’t mean you can’t also get the same experience in other genres. Genres are, after all, designated on account of the conventions to which they adhere.
But is that enough? I’ve talked before about inventiveness within the rules, and it seems to me that detective stories have an advantage over other genres of typically being able to spring a great surprise on you that you had every chance to see coming but were misdirected out of (kind of like a great joke…) and so take an extra pleasure in seeing achieved. For me, I think that’s why I stick so firmly to GAD and her kin, and SF, and veer out only occasionally to check the rest of the world still exists through a smattering of non-genre titles that are at least likely to provide something interesting or diverting. Pretty much everything I’ve loved in the last few years has in some way challenged an accepted set of precepts within the sphere they exist — trying to pin down my SF tastes is a nightmare, let me tell you, given how much that genre moves around, but finding something I love is a real delight.
This, for instance, did not work for me…
But that’s me. What about you: why do you read what you read? And how do you decide what to read when you step outside of your norm?
And, if you’re here because you read a weak Christie, a middling 50s novel, and something by an American tough guy and want to see where these rules are used well, you’re in luck: we had a vote on that a little while ago, and the best of the best can be found here…bonne lecture!