Chapter 6 of The Techniques of Mystery

contents

STORIES

  1. What Is a Detective Story
  2. Rise of the Detective Story
  3. The Detective — Fictive and Real
  4. Fiction versus Fact
  5. The Interest of the Detective Story
  6. A Summing Up

 

1. What is a Detective Story

   The class of fiction which we shall group under this head must include all stories where the problem is invented and solved by the author and set forth in such a way as to give an astute reader opportunities for guessing or reasoning out the answer.

   An actual detective need not necessarily figure in the story, but detective work must be done by some of the characters.

   There must be crime or apparent crime or attempted crime. But whether the problem is one of murder, robbery or kidnapping, — whether it be solved by evidence, deduction or a cryptogram, — it is detected, not guessed, and this is the main element in our classification.

   The average or typical Detective Story of to-day is the detailed narrative of the proceedings of an individual of unusual mental acumen in unraveling a mystery.

   Strictly speaking, a detective is a member of the police organization or of a private detective agency. But for fictional purposes he may be such, or he may be any one with what is called “detective instinct” or a taste for detective work.

   It appears that in its earliest days the word “detective” meant merely a shadower or follower.

   A curious old story in Harper’s Magazine for 1870 begins thus:

   The remarkable skill and penetration shown by our modern detectives in “shadowing” suspected persons until sufficient proof has been obtained to warrant their arrest is illustrated by the daily history of crime. By the term “shadowing” is meant that vigilant watch kept upon the culprit by some one who follows him like his own shadow, and to do this successfully indicates no small degree of skill on the part of the “detective.” This last expression recalls to memory some strange facts which came to my knowledge in the early part of my life, and I can never meet the term in print or hear it in conversation without a painful reminiscence.

   The story goes on to relate the harrowing experiences of a criminal who was shadowed by the ghost of his victim, and ends thus:

   Such is the story in connection with the first use of the term “detective,” and I never meet it, either in voice or in print, without thinking of Captain Walton, and the fearful retribution unfolded in his history.

   But this old story is not a Detective Story according to our classification, it is a simple Ghost Story. It is only of interest in referring to the earliest use of our word “detective.”

 

2. Rise of the Detective Story

   The Detective Story as we know it was first written by Poe, yet he never used the descriptive word, nor was Dupin a detective, either professional or amateur, for when Poe wrote his immortal Dupin tales, the name “Detective” Stories had not been invented; the detective of fiction not having been as yet discovered. And the title is still something of a misnomer, for many narratives involving a puzzle of some sort, though belonging to the category which we shall discuss, are handled by the writer without expert detective aid. Sometimes the puzzle solves itself through operation of circumstance; sometimes somebody who professes no special detective skill happens upon the secret of its mystery; once in a while some venturesome genius has the courage to leave his enigma unexplained. But ever since Gaboriau created his Lecoq, the transcendent detective has been in favor; and Conan Doyle’s famous gentleman analyst has given him a fresh lease of life, and reanimated the stage by reverting to the method of Poe. Sherlock Holmes is Dupin redivivus, and mutatus mutandis; personally he is a more stirring and engaging companion, but so far as kinship to probabilities or even possibilities is concerned, perhaps the older version of him is the more presentable. But in this age of marvels we seem less difficult to suit in this respect than our forefathers were.

   The fact is, meanwhile, that, in the Riddle Story, the detective was an afterthought, or, more accurately, a deus ex machina to make the story go. The riddle had to be unriddled; and who could do it so naturally and readily as a detective? The detective, as Poe saw him, was a means to this end; and it was only afterwards that writers perceived his availability as a character. Lecoq accordingly becomes a figure in fiction, and Sherlock, while he was yet a novelty, was nearly as attractive as the complications in which he involved himself.

   Detective Story writers in general, however, encounter the obvious embarrassment that their detective is obliged to lavish so much attention on the professional services which the exigencies of the tale demand of him, that he has very little leisure to attend to his own personal equation — the rather since the attitude of peering into a millstone is not, of itself, conducive to elucidations of oneself; the professional endowment obscures all the others. We ordinarily find, therefore, our author dismissing the individuality of his detective with a few strong black-chalk outlines, and devoting his main labor upon what he feels the reader will chiefly occupy his own ingenuity with, — namely, the elaboration of the riddle itself. Reader and writer sit down to a game, as it were, with the odds, of course, altogether on the latter’s side, — apart from the fact that a writer sometimes permits himself a little cheating. It more often happens that the detective appears to be in the writer’s pay, and aids the deception by leading the reader off on false scents. Be that as it may, the professional sleuth is in nine cases out of ten a dummy by malice prepense; and it might be plausibly argued that, in the interest of pure art, that is what he ought to be. But genius always finds a way that is better than the rules, and it will be found that the very best riddle stories contrive to drive character and riddle side by side, and to make each somehow enhance the effect of the other.

   The intention of the above paragraph will be more precisely conveyed if we include under the name of detective not only the man from the central office, but also anybody whom the writer may, for ends of his own, consider better qualified for that function. The latter is a professional detective so far as the exigencies of the tale are concerned, and what becomes of him after that, nobody need care, — there is no longer anything to prevent his becoming, in his own right, the most fascinating of mankind.

   Before Poe’s or Gaboriau’s stories, appeared the “Memoirs of Vidocq.” This work, thought by many to be largely fiction, is the history of a clever villain who became a detective, though never called by that name. He was a Secret Agent, and is called on his own title page, Principal Agent of the French Police. His memoirs are old-fashioned, dull and uninteresting, but they show glimmerings of the kind of reasoning that later marked the Fiction Detective.

   Perhaps Gaboriau was the first author to use the terminology, since become so familiar, of detective, clues, deduction, etc.

   Poe ascribed to his Dupin, “analytic ability,” and this is all that is claimed for the conventional detective of fiction, though perhaps more acutely described by Brander Matthews as “imaginative ratiocination.”

   Poe goes further in saying Dupin’s work was “The result of an excited or perhaps a diseased intelligence.” This statement may have mirrored the author’s own mind, for, while making no assertion, Professor Matthews observes that he should understand any one ho might declare that Poe had mental disease raised to the nth power, and we have long since been told that “great wits are sure to madness near allied.”

 

3. The Detective-Fictive and Real

   But it is this very principle that marks the difference between the detective in fiction and in real life. The cleverest detectives in life are not men of diseased intellect, however greatly developed may be their powers of ratiocination. It is just that touch of abnormality, of superhuman reasoning, that makes a Transcendent Detective.

   Again, the work of the fiction detective is always successful. Naturally, because his work is planned to this end by the author. The fiction detective plays his game with marked cards. Though seemingly groping in the dark, he is walking a definite path laid straight to a definite end. He is pushed off on false scents, but pulled back and set right again by an adjusting power which does not exist in the case of real detectives.

   Indeed, the sooner the writer of detective fiction realizes that the detective of fiction has little in common with the detective in real life, the better is that author equipped for his work.

   The real detective, for one thing, is rarely a man of culture or high ideals. The fiction detective is usually an aristocrat, unfortunately impoverished, or working at his art for art’s sake.

   The real detective, however great his analytic ability, often finds that he cannot apply it to his case. The fiction detective never has this experience; he finds his case ready made and perfectly fitted to his powers.

   The real detective finds little or nothing in the way of useful material clues. The fiction detective finds his properties laid ready to his hand at the right moment. Dropped handkerchiefs, shreds of clothing, broken cuff-links, torn letters, — all are sprinkled in the path ahead of him, like roses strewn before a bride.

   Even Nature lends a helping hand to the favored detective of fiction. Usually “A light snow had fallen the evening before.” This snow is declared by credible witnesses to have begun at one psychological moment, and stopped at another; thus allowing the inevitable display of footprints of certain sizes, shapes and superimposition. Indeed the laws of nature are willing to give way, at need, and vegetation takes on unusual qualities to help along the good work. Sherlock Holmes continually finds his indicative footprints on turf or grass plot, and of course the criminal is identified at once.

   But the real detective seldom if ever finds these helpful footprints at the right time and place. In case of his need of them, the obstinate ground is hard and unimpressionable; or the snow is melting and shows only oblong holes; or the grass refuses to present a clear and definite impression; or even if fairly respectable muddy footprints appear on a nice, clean, hard-wood floor, they are so incomplete in outline that they might have been made by any well-advertised shoe.

   The criminals and suspects in fiction must presumably wear shoes made for the purpose, with flat level soles that touch the floor at all points and leave an exact working diagram, instead of a shapeless blotch with ragged edges.

   Similarly with finger-prints. Though carefully impressed in incriminating places by the fiction criminals, in real life they are rarely found where they can be of use. The finger-prints found on the discarded empty frame of the Mona Lisa have not yet led to the recovery of the picture; whereas in fiction they would long ago have put the thief behind bars.

   No, the fiction detective is not a real person, any more than the fairy godmother is a real person; but both are honored and popular celebrities in the realm of fiction.

   And if one would realize the immense superiority of the fiction detective for fiction purposes he has only to read any of the occasionally published “true detective stories,” or even those which are founded on actual cases.

 

4. Fiction versus Fact

   Many years ago, old-fashioned family papers published stories, beneath whose titles a line in parenthesis read, “Founded on fact.” Such tales were invariably uninteresting, and at last the editors learned not to publish them.

   A true tale of a criminal problem and its solution is uninteresting because it is not planned to be interesting. The technique of the detective story calls for the same kind of planning and preparation on the part of the author as does a successful act of legerdemain. The prestidigitator takes a rabbit out of a silk hat, but unless he had planned for it beforehand he couldn’t do it. What he might take, unplanned, out of the hat, — its leather band or gilt stamped lining, — would be of no interest to his audience.

   It is the old-fashioned or the inexperienced author who thinks that an incident which has come within his own experience or that of his friends, is necessarily available for a story.

   One of Gelett Burgess’ celebrated Bromides is, “Now this thing really happened!” And it is a fortunate writer who escapes the occasional, “I’ve something to tell you about my neighbor’s mother-in-law; I know it to be true, and you can have it for one of your stories!” The enthusiastic generosity of the speaker causes his face to glow with the delight of “helping an author,” and how can you tell him that not one in a million such anecdotes would be of use to you, and that moreover, your head and note-book are both crammed with material of the right sort waiting to be used?

   Your helpful friend makes no claim save that his story is a fact, and he can never understand how apt is this quality to bar it from fiction. He can never understand the difference between fact and truth — truth, the wide universal element that must be adhered to; and fact, the petty and narrow incident that is rarely of interest, and often indeed contradicts truth.

   Realism, according to its American master, Mr. W.D. Howells, is nothing more than the truthful treatment of material; and in Mr. Howells’ hands this treatment has produced writings of absorbing interest. But it is an equally truthful treatment of material that appears in the Social and Personal column of the Miller’s Corners Weekly Gazette, or in the Congressional Record, yet we are not interested in either.

   But in the plot of a Detective Story, or in the mental makeup of the detective, realism finds little place — as much as you wish in the material details, in the clues, the inquest, or the suspected butler, but the key-note of the story itself is that of pure fiction.

   It must seem to be true as fairy stories seem true to children. You must persuade your readers to believe it, as Peter Pan wheedled his audience into believing in fairies; but “Founded on Fact” or “Elaborated from the Records of a Real Detective,” is fatal to the interest of a Detective Story.

   Let the argument ring true, let the accessories be realistic, let the situations be logical and the conditions plausible; but let the magic of the unreal detective tinkle through it all as fairies dance in real moonlight. Sustain the interest by a subtly woven chain of events that leads unerringly to the climax in a way the uncertainties of real life can never do. Lead your readers on to the re-solution of the problem, whose terms have been stated in logical sequence straight through the book.

   The uninitiate say, “You’re so fond of detective stories, I suppose you read all the murder trials in the newspapers.”

   On the contrary, a true lover of detective fiction never reads detailed newspaper accounts of crime.

   Why should he? He reads detective fiction for the enjoyment of the complete and finished entertainment therein provided. The statement of the problem, the interesting development, the breathless chase after false clues, the never tiring return to the right track and the final rounding up of the explanatory solution — he knows when he starts he will be disappointed in no particular. Every mystery will be explained and the fun is in trying to explain them himself. As an antagonist at chess, he pits himself against his opponent, the author, and endeavors to foresee and understand his feints and maneuvers. But to whatever degree he succeeds in this, a complete revelation awaits him at the end.

   In real life a criminal case reported in the papers gives no assurance of ultimate solution, gives no assurance that all the developments are intentional and go to make up a complete and harmonious whole; that the whole story is so balanced and poised, so coherent and interdependent as to give only satisfaction to its readers.

   In a word, the Detective Story of fiction is art; the accounts in the newspapers of the crimes of the day are merely the truthful treatment of material; and the latter, unless seen through the medium of an artist, is not of interest to the lover of the Detective Story.

   Another argument against realism in this field of fiction, is the fact that from the nature of its plot the details of a Detective Story are often unlovely. The newspapers delight in realistic description of the gruesome elements of crime. The Detective Story writer in the interests of his art glosses these over, not only because they have no necessary bearing on his theme, “The riddle and its solution,” but because they jar on the reader’s taste and disturb his economy of attention.

   Poe, whose imagination was beyond all bounds, thus speaks of realism:

   “The defenders of this pitiable stuff uphold it on the ground of its truthfulness. Taking the thesis into question, this truthfulness is the one overwhelming defect. An original idea that — to laud the accuracy with which the stone is hurled that knocks us in the head! A little less accuracy might have left us more brains. And here are critics absolutely commending the truthfulness with which only the disagreeable is conveyed! In my view, if an artist must paint decayed cheeses, his merit will lie in their looking as little like decayed cheeses as possible!”

   And so, the writer of detective fiction pictures as much cheese and as little decay as he may.

   The tale of horror, or of gruesome interest, which not only paints the decayed cheese with realism, but with exaggeration, is not a Detective Story, it belongs in another class.

   Of course all this applies to Detective Stories which are constructed in harmony with the unwritten but inexorable laws which require the aforementioned qualities. To be sure, plenty of Detective Stories are written which violate every requirement of true technique, but these are not in our argument.

   This point is well discussed by Mr. Cecil Chesterton:

   “I have read hundreds of such tales which made excellent reading so long as the mystery subsisted, but of which the conclusion was unspeakably weak and far-fetched and in some cases absolutely unintelligible. Nothing is more irritant in a detective story than that even one mysterious circumstance should remain at the end unexplained. Yet the writers appear to imagine that it is quite sufficient if they have thought of some sort of explanation of the central mystery, while a hundred attendant facts, introduced solely to puzzle or mislead the reader, are left without even a suggestion to illumine them.

   “Indeed the conclusion ought to be not merely plausible, but in a sense inevitable. The reader ought not indeed to expect it, but he ought to feel afterwards that he ought to have expected it. To explain the problem at the last moment, as is often done, by introducing new circumstances at which he could not possibly have guessed, is merely to leave him labouring under a half-conscious sense of injury and resentment, and rightly so, for he has been cheated into attempting to solve a puzzle which, as it turns out, was for him quite insoluble. In an ideal detective story all the clues to the true solution ought to be there from the first, but so overlaid as to pass unnoticed. If anyone wishes to see how this can be done, let him read attentively the first two or three chapters of ‘The Moonstone’, by Wilkie Collins. Here the all-important conversation between Franklyn Blake and the doctor is given at length, but in such a context as to appear a mere incident designed to throw light on a phase of Franklyn’s temperament.”

   Recently there has been published a book of short true Detective Stories.(1) These are of so little interest as to be almost unreadable. The preface says, “Crime in itself, is painful and sometimes repulsive, but a study of the methods of criminal investigation by which difficult problems are solved and the guilty brought to justice is entertaining and may be profitable.”

   (1) Adventures of the World’s
Greatest Detectives
, George Barton. 

   While the foregoing is true, the study of the methods of criminal investigation is not entertaining to the reader, unless written as literature, — indeed, as fiction.

   A simple description of a crime and the methods pursued in regard to its investigation make dry reading. The setting, the characters, the atmosphere, of a well-constructed story are necessary to make it entertaining.

   The preface we quote goes on to state frankly that the detectives they tell about, work in the most prosaic manner imaginable, but they somehow manage to get results, and that is what counts in the police world.

   Here we have merely facts. Their work doubtless is prosaic, but a prosaic account of it entertains nobody.

   Let us look at one of the stories of this book. It begins thus:

   One crisp December morning Louis Hanier, a Frenchman, the owner of a little wine shop on West Twenty-sixth street in New York City, was found dead in the hallway of his home. The bullet of a .38-caliber revolver was discovered in the man’s heart.

   He had been murdered.

   Well, and suppose he had been. Outside of the impulse of common humanity, the reader has no interest in Louis Hanier. This is not the reader’s fault. He cannot be expected to have an interest in a mere name. But the author of detective fiction will arouse such an interest in the reader’s mind before announcing the murder.

   Next we are informed that

   The problem was to find the man who had committed the crime — to pick him out of the millions of people in New York City. The newspapers were filled with the horrible story. The coroner’s inquest attracted the usual crowd of morbid-minded people. The minor police officials became very busy — and accomplished nothing. After the hysterics were over, the puzzle finally made its way to the one man in New York City who had the genius and persistence to solve it.

   The problem, as stated, rouses no thrill of expectancy. There is no cause for interest, wonder, or curiosity. It is all “The truthful treatment of the material,” and has no art in presentation or implication. Now we come to the description of the detective:

   In a few minutes the door opened and a strong, well-built man with square shoulders shambled into the room. He had gray hair, a thick nose, blue eyes, a smooth face and a perpetual smile. He glanced about him in a furtive way and realized that he was in the presence of the triumvirate of talent that ruled the under-world of Paris. He squared himself as a man would who was preparing to be on the defensive.

   A commonplace description of a commonplace man, which does not in the least provoke our desire to know more of him.

   And so, through the dull and prosy story, we read the uneventful proceedings which led to the conviction of the criminal.

   Never would Detective Stories have a vogue if they were written thus. But it is not so much the presence of the facts as the absence of the fiction that is the trouble. The plain unvarnished statements leave us no room for expectation, no reason for surprise. Detective Stories are not built around truthful incidents.

   Another volume of “True Stories of Crime”, by Arthur Train, gives us this foreword:

   “The narratives composing this book are literally true stories of crime. In a majority of the cases the author conducted the prosecutions himself, and therefore may claim to have a personal knowledge of that whereof he speaks. While no confidence has been abused, no essential facts have been omitted, distorted, or colored, and the accounts themselves, being all matters of public record, may be easily verified. The scenes recorded here are not literature but history, and the characters who figure in them are not puppets of the imagination, but men and women who lived and schemed, laughed, sinned and suffered, and paid the price when the time came, most of them, without flinching. A few of those who read these pages may profit perhaps by their example; others may gain somewhat in their knowledge of life and human nature; but all will agree that there are books in the running brooks, even if the streams be turbid, and sermons in stones, though these be the hearts of men. If in some instances the narratives savor in treatment more of fiction than of fact, the writer must plead guilty to having fallen under the spell of the romance of his subject, and he proffers the excuse that, whereas such tales have lost nothing in accuracy, they may have gained in the truth of their final impression.”

   The stories in this book may be interesting to a lover of human documents, but to the reader of “Detective Stories,” they are dull and prosy, except where “the writer fell under the spell of romance.”

 

5. The Interest of the Detective Story

   Poe says, in speaking of the writer’s plan:

   “A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents — he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”

   The interest of the Detective Story depends entirely on its rousing the reader’s curiosity. Every detail of its plan must sustain and heighten an intense determination to know the solution of the riddle; and as this curiosity becomes keener, and this determination more inflexible, so much more necessary is it that the explanation shall be adequate and satisfactory.

   But this result cannot be achieved if the author undertakes his work in the spirit shown by the authors of “The Wrecker”, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, when they say:

   “We had long been at once attracted and repelled by that very modern form of the police novel or mystery story, which consists in beginning your yarn anywhere but at the beginning, and finishing it anywhere but at the end; attracted by its peculiar interest when done, and the peculiar difficulties that attend its execution; repelled by that appearance of insincerity and shallowness of tone, which seems its inevitable drawback. For the mind of the reader, always bent to pick up clews, receives no impression of reality or life, rather of an airless, elaborate mechanism; and the book remains enthralling, but insignificant, like a game of chess, not a work of human art. It seemed the cause might lie partly in the abrupt attack; and that if the tale were gradually approached, some of the characters introduced (as it were) beforehand, and the book started in the tone of a novel of manners and experience briefly treated, this defect might be lessened and our mystery seem to inhere in life.”

   The technique of the Mystery Story does not permit it to be a novel of manners, and yet the manners must not be neglected. If a Detective Story is to be literature, what may be called its manners must be looked after quite as carefully as its plot, though by no means with such conspicuous result. Intrinsic merit must be the real basis of its interest.

   It is the care and artistic conscience that count, notwithstanding the ideas expressed in “The Wrecker”.

   Mr. Julian Hawthorne truly says, “You cannot make a riddle story by beginning it and then trusting to luck to bring it to an end. You must know all about the end and the middle before thinking, even, of the beginning; the beginning of a riddle story, unlike those of other stories and of other enterprises, is not half the battle; it is next to being quite unimportant, and, moreover, it is always easy. The unexplained corpse lies weltering in its gore in the first paragraph; the inexplicable cipher presents its enigma at the turning of the opening page. The writer who is secure in the knowledge that he has got a good thing coming, and has arranged the manner and details of its coming, cannot go far wrong with his exordium; he wants to get into action at once, and that is his best assurance that he will do it in the right way. But O! what a labor and sweat it is; what a planning and trimming; what a remodeling, curtailing, interlining; what despairs succeeded by new lights, what heroic expedients tried at the last moment, and dismissed the moment after; what wastepaper baskets full of futilities, and what gallant commencements all over again! Did the reader know, or remotely suspect, what terrific struggles the writer of a really good detective story had sustained, he would regard the final product with a new wonder and respect, and read it all over once more to find out how the troubles occurred. But he will search in vain; there are no signs of them left; no, not so much as a scar. The tale moves along as smoothly and inevitably as oiled machinery; obviously, it could not have been arranged otherwise than it is; and the wise reader is convinced that he could have done the thing himself without half trying. At that, the weary writer smiles a bitter smile; but it is one of the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes. Nobody, except him who has tried it, will ever know how hard it is to write a really good detective story. The man or woman who can do it can also write a good play (according to modern ideas of plays), and possesses force of character, individuality, and mental ability. He or she must combine the intuition of the artist with the talent of the master mechanic, but will seldom be a poet, and will generally care more for things and events than for fellow creatures.”

   Mr. Julian Hawthorne also discusses this question of interest as maintained by the inverse order of narration.

   “… One charge, at least, does lie against the door of the riddle-story writer; and that is, that he is not sincere; he makes his mysteries backward, and knows the answer to his riddle before he states its terms. He deliberately supplies his reader, also, with all manner of false scents, well knowing them to be such; and concocts various seeming artless and innocent remarks and allusions, which in reality are diabolically artful, and would deceive the very elect. All this, I say, must be conceded; but it is not unfair; the very object, ostensibly, of the riddle story is to prompt you to sharpen your wits; and as you are yourself the real detective in the case, so you must regard your author as the real criminal whom you are to detect.”

   It is safe to say that Poe’s conception of the interest-element in the Detective Story, as illustrated by his three great tales, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Marie Rôget,” was that the great point was not the fascination of the mystery itself but the interest the reader would take in following the successive steps of reasoning by which the crime was ferreted out. The reader is thus turned into an analytical observer who not only delights in the mental ingenuity exhibited by the detective, but actually joins with him in working out the intricacies of a problem which, though at first seemingly insoluble, is at length mastered entirely. Thus his admiration for the “investigator” is happily coupled with his own delight in unraveling the skein which the author has woven expressly for the purpose, as Poe himself expresses it when he admits all the merits of the device, but modestly disclaims that his ingenious stories have real greatness. He speaks thus about them:

   “They owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious — but people think them more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method. In the ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ for instance, where is the ingenuity of unraveling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unraveling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.”

   Of course the ingenuity of the author and that of his character are identical, as they are in the case of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.

   Doctor Doyle admits frankly his indebtedness to Poe, and though he claims another prototype than Dupin for his detective, yet he makes this acknowledgment:

   “Edgar Allan Poe, who, in his carelessly prodigal fashion, threw out the seeds from which so many of our present forms of literature have sprung, was the father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own. For the secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hearer. Everything else is outside the picture and weakens the effect. The problem and its solution must form the theme, and the character drawing is limited and subordinate. On this narrow path the writer must walk, and he sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him. He is happy if he ever finds the means of breaking away and striking out on some little side-track of his own.”

 

6. A Summing Up

   To sum up, then, we must agree that for devotees the Detective Story sets a stirring mental exercise, with just enough of the complex background of life to distinguish it from a problem in mathematics. Whatever thrills of horror are excited come by way of the intellect, never starting directly in the emotions. The reader divests himself of sympathy, and applies to every situation the dry light of reason. It is only when one’s reason is baffled, leaving the murder unexplained or the ghost at large, that one feels privileged to shudder. And such a shudder is remarkably different from a start that is unthinking. The Detective Story applies reason to some of the big half-mysteries of human conduct; and the result for the ordinary reader is not dissimilar to that felt by the philosopher when trying to square with his poor apparatus the secrets of Nature and Providence.

(End of Chapter VI)

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Published on June 21, 2009 at 10:52 am  Comments (2)  

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