That title is doing a lot of work, isn’t it? Fair warning: this goes on a bit.
At the online Bodies from the Library conference last weekend, I gave a talk inspired in part by E.M. Wrong’s introduction to the 1926 anthology Crime and Detection. And, in addition to coining the term “Wellington of detection” that inspired the thinking I laid out last weekend, there is plenty of material in that piece of prose to get the cogs turning.
Wrong’s introduction gives a superb overview of detective fiction at that stage in the genre’s development, and towards the end veers into broader territory with the following:
The detective story has proved capable of high development and has become a definite art; the same cannot be said of the tale of crime with the criminal as hero. Why is there this difference? Why is Holmes a greater figure than the late Raffles?
Raffles, for the uninitiated, is the “amateur cracksman” protagonist of a series of tales by E.W. Hornung, and as protagonists go he can be…a little difficult to get behind. Lacking the moral scruples to worry about committing theft (typically from the deserving, in my experience of the stories) is one thing, but abandoning his partner in crime to be arrested so that he, Raffles, can make a clean getaway is…another. Some might call Raffles a ‘lovable rogue’, others could justifiably use stronger language.
[T]here is the question of morality. Perhaps art in general should have no moral purpose, but the art of the detective story has one and must have; it seeks to justify the law and to bring retribution on the guilty. The criminal must be unmasked, the detective represents good and must triumph.
This feels to me a little like Wrong is crossing several streams on more than one horse — expect a seven-part deconstruction on the semantics of moral issues at a later date — but let’s roll with the essential point for now. That detective fiction found itself imbued with some moral aspect was something the progenators of the form would confront through its history. Freeman Wills Crofts — who arguably helped kick off the Golden Age with his debut The Cask (1920), and would later align himself with the principles outlined by Frank Buchman’s religiously-oriented Oxford Group — famously set about allowing his Protestant beliefs, and the essential moral state of the criminals whose exploits he was charting, to inform a lot of his later work (Antidote to Venom (1938) being the only one I have read to date). Equally, the earlier work of G.K. Chesterston was also more interested, to paraphrase H.R.F. Keating, in saving a murderer’s soul than in breaking his neck.
There is much talk about seeking the establishment of the status quo in Golden Age detective fiction, which, along with homilies about the idealised version of society the books represent, seems to me to miss the point of the genre by the sort of distances one usually sees in an Olympic javelin competition. Such nostrums seek, in my opinion, to disregard the complexity of the issues around the crimes in these books simply because the matters aren’t dwelt upon with the pornographic delight it seems many people need in the written word before they realise that an issue has been addressed. As my good friend Brad said in one of our recent discussions about the work of Agatha Christie (I think it was this one, about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)…), the end of most Golden Age detective stories sees someone in the heart of a community unexpectedly unmasked as a devious and selfish criminal, leaving the people around them no doubt reeling. Your classic era detective doesn’t hang around for that part, but anyone under the impression that the denizens of, say, Green for Danger (1943) just shrugged and went about their subsequent lives with a sort of rosy-cheeked forbearance has clearly not actually read that book.
An aisde, this, but I’m curious the extent to which the lack of dwelling on consequences became a fixture of GAD on account of both Christie and Crofts knowing so little about courtroom procedure that they were encouraged to replace the trial scenes that ended their debuts…both published in 1920 and seen as the cornerstones of the Golden Age. Had two such influential books had their trial scenes reworked so that they — drawn out, inviting public scrutiny and shaming — were a key part of those books, might the shape, and hence the focus, of the classic detective story have developed differently? It wouldn’t have been easy (Crofts would later say that “no trial like that I had described has ever taken place, either in this or any other country”), but it remains to me an interesting speculation. Trial novels exist, of course, in the likes of recent reprints The Bellamy Trial (1927) by Frances Noyes Hart and Verdict of Twelve (1940) by Raymond Postgate, so that element didn’t escape examination, but then neither of those titles had anything close to the sway Christie and Crofts’ openers did.
However, I digress.
The moral element of crime in fiction was mentioned without being dwelt upon by the likes of Poe — whose murderers can be induced to reveal the agony their crimes wrought upon them through ingenious application of a piece of whalebone — and brought into sharper focus by L. Frank Baum justifying a murderer getting off scott free and showing us how he does so in ‘The Suicide of Kiaros’ (1897) (still available here, by the way). Hell, you could argue that moral side of crime in fiction has been open to examination since the Gospel of John saw Jesus opening up to a gathered crowd the right to stone an adulterous woman to death if they themselves were entirely free from sin…and so given the role of faith in the lives of a good many GAD athors, the notion of the form’s blithesome unconcern where the matter of morals are concerned is arguably very much more in the eye of the beholder. Baum dressed it up, displaying for all to see the sort of ingenuity that authors like John Dickson Carr and Dorothy L. Sayers might save for the final chapter, but when the likes of Carr lets a murderer go free at the end of one of his novels he knows full well the moral decision he is making (and he knows, too, the response it would likely provoke in his audience — whether he cared about the response is, of course, a separate matter entirely).
To return, then, to Wrong and his speculations about the need for crime fiction to “justify law and bring retribution to the guilty”:
To make a hero of the criminal is to reverse the moral law, which is after all based on common sense, for crime is not in fact generous and open but mean. Robin Hood may have robbed the rich and given to the poor, but his accounts were never audited, and the proportion of his charity to his thefts remains obscure. Raffles stole principally from unpleasant people, but steal he did; not even success can make robbery appeal to us as a truly noble career.
From a purely narrative perspective, I think Wrong goes a little awry here. If, as Ronald Knox asserted, our story of crime “derives its excitement only from the danger of the criminal getting off scot free, or of some innocent person being condemned in his place”, the need for morality is obviated. We read about fictional crime and detection to see if the latter can trump the former, and if altruism is behind the robbery then we (probably) hope the criminal succeeds. The notion of ‘heroism’ — that is, making the actions of the protagonist laudable by whatever moral compass can be seen as providing general guidance — is, however, rather more the focus of his point, so let us move on (also, I honestly cannot tell how seriously one is expected to take that point about Robin Hood — part of me suspects that Wrong is tweaking the nose of his readership, while part of me loves the idea that he’s furious Will Scarlet wasn’t sat down with an abacus trying to work out the horde’s tax-deductible income).
Is the criminal then to try other crimes than theft? Blackmail hardly provides a fitting career for a hero, and we are driven back on murder. Now it is possible for murderers to show courage and resource, to be less mean than the pickpocket or forger. But murder to be successful must be selfish, the victim cannot be given a chance, so a narrative of successful murders, like a narrative of successful robbery, leaves us at the end with a bad taste in our mouth.
On a very simple level, Wrong is correct: making a hero of the criminal, especially if they are a murderer, and making out that their criminous deeds are something lofty and worthy of respect, is an essential reversal of moral law. The Christian bible (in which several key GAD proponents placed a great deal of trust, remember) laid down six such edicts (the other four are exclusively about religion), one of them explicitly condemning murder, and even the functioning of a vast majority of secular society is based on the essential precept that no-one cause too great an inconvenience to anyone else. From the very earliest examples of fiction that survive, the essence of moral karma is clear: the expectation is that decent behaviour begets decent behaviour, and any deviation from such decency will invite upon you a romantic and fitting reversal of one’s fortunes (c.f. Aesop’s (620-564 BCE) fable of ‘The Fox and the Crane’, say). It can even br argued that Baum’s murder of Kiaros is simply reinforcing this — a bad man getting his comeuppance — albeit told from the perspective that allows shades of grey to creep into its interpretation, redressing the pleasing kismet of narrative inevitability into something that runs contrary to a lot of what we are told about how the world should work.
In short: good people do good things, bad people do bad ones.
And yet, and yet…well, the term ‘anti-hero’ is in common parlance these days. Recent years have see outright criminal acts committed by the apparent heroes of their books that would in the Golden Age have fallen well and truly into the remit of the Bad Guys: from the copious examples doubtless available I’ll cite merely Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004) and its sequels by Jeff Lindsay, The Serial Killers’ Club (2006) by Jeff Povey, and the newly-published Win (2021) by Harlan Coben. Hell, the first and last of these have positive careers of murder, maiming, violence, and general order-upsetting…and are encouraged to be seen as heroic even if also unapologetically unconcerned with how that characterisation comes across to the reader (the later Dexter books get a little…yeuch in my opinion). The moral purpose Wrong seeks in Golden Age literature has been up-ended by modern crime fiction’s desire for sensation, which in turn has arguably resulted in a dilution of the efficacy of the stories of crime and punishment told these days (or so my limited coverage leads me to believe). But we were talking about the Golden Age, so…
There are, of course, Golden Age novels that are indeed “a narrative of successful murders” allowing their killers to go free: Poirot did it at least twice, as did Carr’s series protagonists Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, and at least one of the British Library Crime Classics range ends without anyone actually facing any consequences for committing such a crime. Chesterton’s Father Brown might suggest that these people are under the yoke of their sins’ punishment in the next life, but, as discussed above, there’s a tendency to dismiss what is not explicitly on the page in this genre. Plus, implicit in the fact that “the criminal must be unmasked, the detective…must triumph” is the expectation that the unmasking results in consequences which require the law (and the consequent punshiment that trails in its wake) to come into effect — we would presumably forgo this entirely if it was known that everyone definitely gets their just deserts after death. Morally, then, where does that leave us? Murder going unpunished is surely a violation of the moral standard.
Well, how about justified murder? Is such a thing possible? Wrong has views on this, too:
If each murder is to be done from the highest motives (as those by Mr. Wallace’s Four Just Men) it will not be easy for there to be enough of them to keep our interest and approval. Even the Four Just Men began public life by killing a fairly harmless Secretary of State to prevent the Cabinet, of which he was but one member, from carrying a bill through Parliament. We might wink at this if we disapproved of the bill, but can it be called justice? Was this the only way? After all, if we are to regard murder as just, we must credit the murderer with an omniscience that we deny to our courts of law. Even if he thinks himself omniscient has he any business to act on his own opinion, regardless of the consequences to the innocent?
And now, finally, I think we get to where we’re going. Because, see, it can be supposed that the moral imperative behind seeing a criminal commit a crime, however they chose to justify it — and, off the top of my head, a tiny selection of murder schemes alone can be represented by Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) by R. Austin Freeman, Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles, The Murder of My Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull, This Way Out (1939) by James Ronald, and Case for Sergeant Beef (1947) by Leo Bruce — requires that the criminal be caught (spoilers?). And, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the criminal is caught, and knows of their exposure at the hands of someone who then has them completely at their mercy. From this point is rare that no punishment results, which is why those decisions by Poirot, Fell, Merrivale, and others to pursue alternative consequences hit us so hard and linger so long in the memory. Crucially, what GAD didn’t take a habit of doing was returning to see how those escaped or unpunished killers fared in their next murder — this is for the likes of Dexter and Win, a more modern phenomenon — choosing instead to follow the detective to their next case. The criminals who evade justice are rarely mentioned again because the stories being written about them finds nothing edifying in their actions. They go free, and it is supposed to be shocking, a startling derailment of a train seemingly set on reaching its obvious destination.
Fundamentally, the Golden Age was not about the glorification of the criminal, and any such moral inference drawn from a corpus of GAD stories is, I would wager, entirely unintentional. The few genuinely successful criminals are rehabilitated (c.f. Flambeau in Chesteron’s Father Brown stories), exonerated by later actions in their life (c.f. the above-mentioned Raffles, informed by Hornung’s olde-worlde sense of duty and morals), or simply left in obscurity because they’re usually not interesting enough to base another case around (I can’t be the only one who rolls my eyes every time a Sherlock Holmes pastiche shoehorns in a mention of Irene Adler to prove their grasp of the canon, can I?). Even Wallace’s Just Men had a change of heart and stopped being criminals after a while because, one suspects, Wallace’s original intention was to shake up the accepted order of stuffy crime fiction…but as time went on he found himself aligning more with society’s core principles (success will do that to you, I hear).
Interesting to note, too, that this wasn’t simply a British School phenomenon. Crime fiction was, to the best of my knowledge, freed from the strictures of the contemporary Hays Code that governed what was shown in cinemas, and a great many American writers delighted in telling stories of career criminals who, come the end of the novel, are freed from legal consequences and yet find themselves trapped in a sort of morally-determined hell of their own making. James M. Cain was a big one for consequences coming home to roost, and Jim Thompson’s most famous work ends with a head-spinning descent into the sort of nightmarish scenario that would drive most people mad (hey, why do you think so many of his first-person narratives end with the protagonists delusional, insane, dead, or some combination of all three?). The story of a crime is the story of the consequences of that crime — Georges Simenon made practically an entire career out of such studies (c.f. The Stain on the Snow (1948) for anyone not sold on Maigret) — but the Golden Age stopped short of explicitly examining these results and left that to the Domestic Suspense school that would follow closely on its heels.
So, “Why is Holmes a greater figure than the late Raffles?”…well, in part obecause Holmes’ actions in and of themselves were fundamentally altruistic, supported the ingrained principles of the common good, and needed no late justification in order to seek reparation for perceived wrongs. Holmes, and the genre that followed him, sought to improve the lives of those who needed his help and ensure that those who had sought to defraud or cause harm got the comeuppance they deserved as dictated by moral law. If you take morality out of Golden Age detective fiction, what you;re left with is…well, something that is not Golden Age detective fiction.
Man, it feels good to get this out of my brain. So whaddaya think, eh?
The contents of Crime and Detection, incidentally, run thusly:
‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) by Edgar Allan Poe
‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844) by Edgar Allan Poe
‘The Adventure of the Red-Headed League’ (1891) by Arthur Conan Doyle
‘The Stanway Cameo Mystery’ (1894) by Arthur Morrison
‘The Case of Oscar Brodski’ (1910) by R. Austin Freeman
‘The New Jersey Sphinx’, a.k.a. ‘Fatal Ruby’ (1923) by R. Austin Freeman
‘The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage’ (1913) by Ernest Bramah
‘The Invisible Man’ (1911) by G.K. Chesterton
‘The Business Minister’ (1921) by H.C. Bailey
‘A Costume Piece’ (1898) by E.W. Hornung
‘On Green Paper’ (????) by Barry Pain
‘The Face of the Corpse’ (????) by Barry Pain