#323: Reflections on Detection – ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’ (1944) and ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ (1945) by Edmund Wilson [feat. Gladys Mitchell]

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!).

511bfmj2fil-_sx323_bo1204203200_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.

death_comes_as_the_end_first_edition_cover_1945The 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.

the20nine20tailorsOn 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.

7323892The 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.

6a00d4142487a66a4700d4142776823c7f-500piFinally 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?

71mtz18-mcl-_ac_ul320_sr212320_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 herebonne lecture!

17 thoughts on “#323: Reflections on Detection – ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’ (1944) and ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ (1945) by Edmund Wilson [feat. Gladys Mitchell]

  1. I would say that while I will read most genres, the reason that mystery fiction appeals to me so much is the sense that you are interacting with the book rather than simply letting it happen to you. This can take the form of trying to beat a puzzle with a John Dickson Carr story or sometimes it can be simply connecting story strands to work out how apparently unrelated elements will fit together in a thriller.

    Generally I am at my happiest when I am losing to the author. I don’t want to outsmart them and usually I feel disappointed when that happens, particularly if it is as a result of my knowledge of tropes or concepts an author falls back on or because I know some common tricks already.

    In terms of my non-mystery interests, I read fairly eclectically though if you were to analyse the books I pick you would often see that there are common thematic and style elements to them. They may not technically be mysteries and, even if they are, they won’t be fair play but there is usually some mysterious element within the story.

    When I read more general or literary fiction I tend to like books with conflicting perspectives that require more work from the reader to piece together what is happening. My favorite book is Wuthering Heights which features exactly this sort of split narrative. It wasn’t just there on the page – books like that make you actively engage with the material.

    Sometimes though, and this is rare because I usually am a planner, I just pick something off a shelf at the library and try it. A lot of those books I don’t finish but every now and then I discover something I love (and in a sense I rediscovered my love of mystery fiction from doing just that – I was mostly a fantasy and sci-fi reader before I stumbled onto I. J. Parker’s Rashomon Gate on a recently returned shelf).


    • The notion of losing the game really strikes a chord with me. I remember as I started to get into Christie and reading things a little more critically (or perhaps analytically is the word), suspecting absolutely everyone who showed up but desperate not to have the surprise ruined. I was almost trying to forget what they’d said and done previously, which made reading the plots somewhat more challenging…and, equally, a surprise sprung out of context makes no damn sense at all *(when the killer on page 350 turns out to be the guy who died on page 47, say…it loses its impact if you didn’t know he’d died).

      In my non-mystery reading I tend to look for something that at least requires you to do some of the work, too. I remember being delighted with The Black Prism by (possibly…) Brent Weeks, because it has a magic system based on colours that is never explicitly explained and you’re just dropped in an expected to figure out what works and how. The plot ended up as a meandering mess, but I enjoyed not being led by the hand through everything. I suppose that “figuring out by discovery” approach has a detection element to it, now I dwell on it. Hmmm, I’m obviously further in than I thought…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Why do I read detective stories? Ah, that’s a tough one, but I suppose you could boil it down to a purely intellectual reason.

    Detective stories are the only stories that offer me an almost cast-iron guarantee that my mind won’t be wondering off the page, because a book failed to capture my attention. One of these attention-anchors is that, enough of them, allow me to think and puzzle along with the detective. I believe fair play is the most attractive feature of the detective story and perhaps also the reason why I love locked room mysteries, because the best of them offer a genuine conundrum with all the room needed for theorizing.

    A second reason, albeit a minor one, is the time period during which these classic mysteries were written (late-1800s until 1959), which I find endlessly fascinating and love the historical morsels that litter the pages of these tales. Sometimes, I really do feel like I was born a century too late.

    So my excursions outside of the genre have always been hit or miss and haven’t really stepped outside of the detective since I began to blog. An omission I wanted to rectify for years now, but who knows, maybe in 2018.

    Anyway, to give you an idea what I like when reading non-mysteries: my all-time favorite book is Michael Ende’s The Never-Ending Story and, yes, I would rank it above every single one of my favorite mystery novels. I used to love Jan Terlouw’s De koning van Katoren (translated as How To Become King), which falls in the same genre as The Never-Ending Story, but never dared to re-read it because the political sub-text would probably break immersion today.

    I also liked, in my pre-blogging days, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker series and got halfway through Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series. I also remember loving the tie-in novels of SeaQuest DSV, because I loved the TV-series. Well, the first season in any case.

    Long story short, I’m not, what’s known as, a high-brow reader. 😉


    • You remind me of the time I got to the end of a book and had something of a surprise thrown at me for which there was absolutely no basis. Muttering, I riffled back through the book to where this was likely to have come up…and found two pages I had absolutely no memory of!

      I think this is why I tend to do better with bad books when they’re real books and not on Kindle, too — for all the technological advancements, you can flip back and forth (probably disgustedly!) much more easily in a real book, so it’s possible to pick up the key ideas with ease, as opposed to swiping frantically through pages in the hope of stumbling across the pertinent fact you missed or was excluded.

      I read a moderate amount of YA fantasy, and can understand the pull of the genre. Not such a fan of a lot of it, but the Skulduggery pleasant books by Derek Landy are amazing.


  3. In my eyes, the detective form is at its best when it presents a fair-play game of intellect, if it provides me with a mystery (not a murder per se) that I could solve in a logical manner based on the clues provided within a consistent governing framework (“rules”), and ideally with a story that keeps be interested from start to beginning. I also play a lot of videogames, and the entertainment I derive from games is very like the one I get from mystery fiction.

    For example, let me use Super Mario Bros. as an example. The game has set rules: you can jump this many pixels high and far (with some variation depending on whether you’re standing, running or adjusting mid-air), you can only walk and jump on platforms (no mid-air jump), you die if you run into an enemy or fall into a pit etc. As the player, you know exactly what you must do (reach the end), what you can do (the game mechanics, characteristics of Mario) and the only task left is to actually do it. But there are still infinite possibilities within in the framework. The famous level 1-2 shortcut for example has you walking on top of what *appears* to be the ceiling/upper boundary of the level to reach a secret shortcut. Is it a surprise? Yes. Is it unfair to the player? No! Because it utilizes the exact same rules you have always been subject to (the ceiling blocks are the same as the normal ground you’re walking on), and it still manages to play with it to come up with an unexpected solution.

    It’s this playfulness, this game-element of mystery fiction that attracts me. Each story can feature universal rules (“the normal rules of physics hold”), or specific rules (science-fiction or fantasy mystery), but the main mechanic (a mystery that can be solved in a logical manner based on the governing framework) remains the same, and offers an intellectual form of amusement that can take on many forms, with surprising solutions despite the set form.

    And like with games, it’s possible to become “skilled” in the genre. You’ll start to learn recognize patterns, you’ll learn an author’s (developer’s) quirks, you can even sometimes meta-game the mystery. But ideally, a mystery story should also allow the reader to “learn” his way through the story. It’s why I regard Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery so high: it actually teaches the reader how they should approach the novel in the first part (false solution #1), and then offers new, harder variations of the same challenge as the story goes on, precisely how nowadays good videogames are designed. The Queen school is also one that does not depend so much on divine inspiration of how something went (which is often the case with Carr and Christie), but an attentive reader can actually figure the thing out in the early novels by a careful reading and listing the attributes the murderer must have, and then crossing suspects off a list (I go on for ages on this in this post: http://ho-lingnojikenbo.blogspot.nl/2015/08/a-clue-for-scooby-doo.html), thus offering a chance for readers who might not have divine inspiration to still work their way through the problem (again, something you often see in games in situations that can be handled quickly, but with more danger, or slowly, but safer).

    I read very little fiction novels outside the mystery genre actually (mostly things on sociolinguistics or folklore-related reading material), but I do read a lot of manga in various genres. Usually in the mystery/horror/action-comedy genres, but I take everything that seems interesting. I mean, heck, I’m waiting for the delivery of a 1970s manga on ballet. And it’s going to be awesome.


    • That videogame analogy is superb — I love the idea of the invisible level still being fully with the rules. Hell, with Mario you almost expect it on account of the nature of the game (Nintendo did the game thing with the various Donkey Kong Countrys over the years, too). That’s such an awesome link to make…


  4. If you take Wilson’s articles into account, I read detective stories because I’m suffering from a case of arrested development. Well, there’s some truth in that. I enjoy the kinds of books I read when I was twelve. Heck, I still enjoy rereading the same books!

    My tastes were more far-ranging before I began this blogging gig, and now I read mysteries almost exclusively to keep up!!! That, and because I finally have found a community to share this passion with.

    I like the puzzle, as Ho-Ling stated, but I like to be fooled so that dashes Mr. Wilson’s theory that many of us don’t even bother reading the endings. I also love good characters and don’t mind when a mystery writer manages to squeeze some of them into the proceedings.

    I found Wilson’s articles amusing and accurate on many points. I also found him pompous and snobby. I am thoroughly confused and depressed now and announce here that I am giving up mystery stories forthwith and growing up! Well, right after I finish this Carr novel . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I found my reading narrowing, too, on account of blogging, but I’ve also found the quality of what I read — that is, how much on average I enjoy the books I read — has gone up great guns. I couldn’t even tell you why that’s the case, maybe the genre just fits my expectations or requirements better (indeed, we’ll have a chance to reflect on this in Thursdays review…).

      Also, I don’t read Tom Clancy any more. So that’ll help.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ll provide somewhat of a shallow answer, but it’s honest.

    For me, mystery stories are about the destination – the singular desire to figure out how a crime was pulled off. It could be a matter of who did it, how the trick was worked, or, in the case of an inverted mystery, how the culprit will get caught. I go into each book with this specific focus, and I maintain it throughout. In a sense, the actual story is in the way of me obtaining what I want.

    Of course, you can’t really appreciate the solution without experiencing the journey. Simply reading the solution to The Problem of the Green Capsule would be fairly boring, as it alone isn’t really that clever. It’s all of those tiny sub-mysteries, the misdirection, and numerous other details that allow you to really comprehend the cleverness of the solution. And, of course, it’s about all of those incorrect theories that you had. The Judas Window has a very clever solution, but you appreciate it because you’ve had sufficient time to rule out a number of other vectors of attack.

    Even though I have a shallow goal in mind, I’ve fallen in love with the actual stories themselves. Whether it’s horror-like atmosphere, light comedy, thriller, romance, or the cultural nuances of the time period, these are the aspects that have made me fall in love with GAD. I’m sure that I would find much to love in similar elements of non-mystery books – but there’s a difference. With a mystery, I have somewhat of an expected outcome. Even if the journey turns out not to be all that great, I at least have the promise of that payoff at the end. Whether it delivers is another story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This reminds me of the time I did a presentation at work telling a slightly simplified version of the locked room murder/vanishing in The Hollow Man as if it was a true story…before revealing it was a book and leaving it up to people to go away and read it themselves if they wanted to know how it was resolved. A number of people — despite my telling them not to — simply looked up the solution online, and nearly all of them came to me to complain about how it made no sense and wasn’t really a proper answer, etc. And I sort of had to go “Well, I didn tell you to read the whole book…” because, yeah, clearly some of the key concepts — especially that nightmare, garish horror tone — will get lost and weaken the effect of the anwers.

      The journey is a huge part of it, which comes back to the idea of having to pay attention at all times, as TomCat says. As I stat to see more and more of the tricks repeated in a variety of ways, I’m taking more from the actual process rather than the result…but the fact that you can pretty sure a result is neverhteless at the end of it all helps to focus the mind when the journey gives up very little scenery!


  6. Some of the things that appeal to me about GAD are the period details, with its insight on a different time, and the sense of fun that is so strong in many authors. Christie, Sayers, Berkeley and many others are all intelligent authors who understand the rules of the genre and just play the heck out of them. And there’s that blend of the comfortingly familiar with the pleasant hope of genuine surprise.
    Outside of GAD – and, like you and Brad, becoming involved with such an enthusiastic community, has led me to read far more of these than usual – I tend to like even more old-fashioned stuff, like Trollope, Austen, the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, etc. as well as the occasional SF or fantasy. Outside of this I go by titles that strike me, recommendation or (perhaps embarrassingly) will judge a book by its cover.


    • He, well I picked up James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes because the cover caught my eye…and that series is easily my favourite SF find of recent years.

      I mean, I read the synopsis, too, but the cover definitely played a part…


  7. Bah! Everyone has to have a deep reason for everything nowadays, can’t just enjoy something because you enjoy it. 😛 I have little idea to what draws me to mystery in particular, beyond I guess an enjoyment for intellectual challenges and puzzles. But maybe there’s more to it than that, but I haven’t exactly hunted down the reason. Tis odd, because I do consider myself self-aware, yet I have a hard time pinning down why I do or do not like such and such. Tis life.

    I should probably expand my literary horizons a bit, because I don’t read much other than mysteries! Every now and then I’ll grab something that looks interesting, but I just don’t have much of a motive to grab anything else.

    I should probably make a separate post griping about Wilson, but I can’t be bothered to re-read the essay at this moment. I still think he’s a bit of a snob, bad reading picks aside. P


    • Ha, if you’re happy with what you read, why change? As I said in another comment here, my reading has narrowed since I staretd blogging and I’m actually happier overall with the books I’m reading. If it ain’t broke… 😛


  8. Every one of Hammett’s book is still in print; seen I Thought of Daisy anywhere recently? Bunny also dissed Hemingway and Mencken. He also disapproved of eclectic reading btw.

    I read To The Finland Station and enjoyed it.


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