Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Elementary, my dear Wilson

To follow yesterday's post about crime novels that are all far more about the people involved in the crime than about the solution to the mystery, I'll turn to a pair of pieces about standard detective stories. First, there's interwar puzzle novelist Anthony Berkeley musing on the popularity--and future--of the genre in "Why Do I Write Detective Stories?", collected in The Avenging Chance:
The reason why detective stories are so popular is simple enough. They are, after all, only a glorified puzzle; and everyone enjoys a puzzle. To read a detective story as it should be read is really a test of intelligence; in fact one might say that whereas the ordinary novel appeals only to the emotions, the detective story appeals to the intellect, which surely should be the more important. . . . How long can the detective story expect to maintain its present popularity? Always, I think, provided that it moves with the times. This is, so long as those who write them will recognize that the convention of yesterday will not suit the requirements of tomorrow. In other words, the days of pure puzzle story, without living characters, an interesting setting, or some kind of resemblance to real life are over. Already, without sacrificing the puzzle element, authors are paying more attention to character and atmosphere. Already the detective story is becoming altogether more sophisticated.
Berkeley's clockwork puzzle stories would seem exactly the sort that would irk Edmund Wilson, who in a late 1944 article called "Why Do People Read Detective Novels?" argued--with reference specifically to Agatha Christie--that
You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters, for they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader's suspicion.
The dozens of dissenting letters he received about that article led to the wonderfully titled follow-up "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Wilson gave no ground to the mystery lovers in that piece, saving the sharpest sting for near the end:
[M]y final conclusion is that the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.
Ah, but maybe Wilson was not so immune as he thought. Mere weeks later, he was admitting that,
I have myself become addicted, in spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes.
Though he tries to argue that Conan Doyle's stories are different from typical detective stories, closer to fairy tales than puzzles, that seems like nothing more than an ex post facto justification for the pleasure he derives from the Holmes tales. It's that sort of half-admission of enthusiastic fallibility, turning up occasionally in Wilson's writings, that humanizes him for me, transforming him from a distant statue of expansive critical acumen into an actual person, experiencing and thinking about literature as he encounters it.

Wilson will thus be a silent passenger later today in the car, as Stacey and I continue our traveling tradition of reading Sherlock Holmes aloud. I believe that "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is up next. May your Thanksgiving contain at least as much satisfyingly solvable mystery as that.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the 2 posts on crime novels, as i haven't read too many of them. but i'm going to give out a shout out to chesterton's father brown. happy holidays.