Who Killed The Classic Murder Mystery? Pt 2


Edmund Wilson had upset the apple cart with his comments on the perceived illiteracy of the mystery writers, but he wasn’t done yet. He followed his accusing article with another one after receiving outraged mail. This time he cast his net wider, but what he found gave him even greater cause for alarm. Published under the title ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ he reached a damning conclusion…

Three months ago I wrote an article on some recent detective stories. I had not read any fiction of this kind since the days of Sherlock Holmes, and, since I con­stantly heard animated discussions of the merits of the mystery writers, I was curious to see what they were like today. The specimens I tried I found disappointing, and I made some rather derogatory remarks in connec­tion with my impressions of the genre in general. To my surprise, this brought me letters of protest in a volume and of a passionate earnestness which had hardly been elicited even by my occasional criticisms of the Soviet Union.

Of the thirty-nine letters that have reached me, only seven approve my strictures. The writers of almost all the others seem deeply offended and shocked, and they all say almost exactly the same thing: that I had simply not read the right novels and that I would surely have a different opinion if I would only try this or that author recommended by the correspondent. In many of these letters there was a note of asperity, and one lady went so far as to declare that she would never read my articles again unless I were prepared to reconsider my position. In the meantime, furthermore, a number of other writers have published articles defending the detective story: Jacques Barzun, Joseph Wood Krutch, Raymond Chandler and Somerset Maugham have all had something to say on the subject—nor has the um­brageous Bernard De Voto failed to raise his voice.

Overwhelmed by so much insistence, I at last wrote my correspondents that I would try to correct any in­justice by undertaking to read some of the authors that had received the most recommendations and taking the whole matter up again. The preferences of these readers, however, when I had a tabulation of them made, turned out to be extremely divergent. They ranged over fifty-two writers and sixty-seven books, most of which got only one or two votes each. The only writers who got as many as five or over were Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, Raymond Chandler and the author who writes under the names of Carter Dickson and John Dickson Carr.

The writer that my correspondents were most nearly unanimous in putting at the top was Miss Dorothy L. Sayers, who was pressed upon me by eighteen people, and the book of hers that eight of them were sure I could not fail to enjoy was a story called The Nine Tai­lors. Well, I set out to read The Nine Tailors in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever en­countered in any field.

The first part of it is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanol­ogy. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations be­tween conventional English village characters: “Oh, here’s Hinkins with the aspidistras. People may say what they like about aspidistras, but they do go on all the year round and make a background,” etc. There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey, and, although he was the focal character in the novel, being Miss Dorothy Sayers’s version of the inevitable Sherlock Holmes detective, I had to skip a good deal of him, too.

In the meantime, I was losing the story, which had not got a firm grip on my attention, but I went back and picked it up and steadfastly pushed through to the end, and there I discovered that the whole point was that if a man was shut up in a belfry while a heavy peal of chimes was being rung, the vibra­tions of the bells might kill him. Not a bad idea for a murder, and Conan Doyle would have known how to dramatize it in an entertaining tale of thirty pages, but Miss Sayers had not hesitated to pad it out to a book of three hundred and thirty, contriving one of those hackneyed cock-and-bull stories about a woman who commits bigamy without knowing it, and larding the whole thing with details of church architecture, bits of quaint lore from books about bell-ringing and the aw­ful whimsical patter of Lord Peter.

I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well, and I felt that my correspondents had been playing her as their literary ace. But, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more con­sciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level. In any serious department of fiction, her writing would not appear to have any distinction at all. Yet, commonplace in this re­spect though she is, she gives an impression of brilliant talent if we put her beside Miss Ngaio Marsh, whose Overture to Death was also suggested by several corre­spondents. Mr. De Voto has put himself on record as be­lieving that Miss Marsh, as well as Miss Sayers and Miss Allingham, writes her novels in “excellent prose,” and this throws for me a good deal of light on Mr. De Voto’s opinions as a critic.

I hadn’t quite realized before, though I had noted his own rather messy style, to what degree he was insensitive to writing. I do not see how it is possible for anyone with a feeling for words to describe the unap­petizing sawdust which Miss Marsh has poured into her pages as “excellent prose” or as prose at all except in the sense that distinguishes prose from verse. And here again the book is mostly padding. There is the notion that you could commit a murder by rigging up a gun in a piano in such a way that the victim will shoot himself when he presses down the pedal, but this is embedded in the dialogue and doings of a lot of faked-up English county people who are even more tedious than those of The Nine Tailors.

The enthusiastic reader of detective stories will indig­nantly object at this point that I am reading for the wrong things: that I ought not to be expecting good writing, characterization, human interest or even atmos­phere. He is right, of course, though I was not fully aware of it till I attempted Flowers for the Judge, con­sidered by connoisseurs one of the best books of one of the masters of this school, Miss Margery Allingham. This tale I found completely unreadable. The story and the writing both showed a surface so wooden and dead that I could not keep my mind on the page. How can 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? How can you probe the possibili­ties of guilt among characters who all seem alike, because they are all simply names on the page? It was then that I understood that a true connoisseur of this fiction must be able to suspend the demands of his imagination and literary taste and take the thing as an intellectual problem. But how you arrive at that state of mind is what I do not understand.

In the light of this revelation, I feel that it is probably irrelevant to mention that I enjoyed The Burning Court, by John Dickson Carr, more than the novels of any of these ladies. There is a tinge of black magic that gives it a little of the interest of a 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. I want, however, to take up certain points made by the writers of the above-mentioned articles. Mr. Barzun informs the non-expert that the detective novel is a kind of game in which the reader of a given story, in order to play properly his hand, should be familiar with all the devices that have already been used in other stories. These devices, it seems, are now barred: the reader must challenge the writer to solve his problem in some novel way, and the writer puts it up to the reader to guess the new solution. This may be true, but I shall never qualify. I would rather play Twenty Questions, which at least does not involve the consump­tion of hundreds of ill-written books.

A point made by three of these writers, Mr. Maugham, Mr. De Voto and Mr. Krutch, is that the novel has be­come so philosophical, so psychological and so symbolic that the public have had to take to the detective story as the only department of fiction where pure story-telling survives. This seems to me to involve two fallacies. On the one hand, it is surely not true that “the serious novelists of today”—to quote Mr. Maugham’s assertion—”have often,” in contrast to the novelists of the past, ‘little or no story to tell,” that “they have allowed themselves to be persuaded that to tell a story is a negligible form of art.” It is true, of course, that Joyce and Proust—who, I sup­pose, must be accounted the heaviest going—have their various modern ways of boring and playing tricks on the reader. But how about the dreadful bogs and obstacles that one has to get over in Scott? the interpolated es­says in Hugo? the leaking tap of Thackeray’s reflec­tions on life, in which the story is always trickling away? Is there anything in first-rate modern fiction quite so gratuitous as these longueurs? Even Proust and Joyce and Virginia Woolf do certainly have stories to tell, and they have organized their books with an intensity which has been relatively rare in the novel and which, to my mind, more than makes up for the occasional viscosity of their narrative.

On the other hand, it seems to me—for reasons sug­gested above—a fantastic misrepresentation to say that the average detective novel is an example of good story-telling. The gift for telling stories is uncommon, like other artistic gifts, and the only one of this group of writers—the writers my correspondents have praised— who seems to me to possess it to any degree is Mr. Ray­mond Chandler. His Farewell, My Lovely is the only one of these books that I have read all of and read with enjoyment. But Chandler, though in his recent article he seems to claim Hammett as his master, does not really belong to this school of the old-fashioned detective novel. What he writes is a novel of adventure which has less in common with Hammett than with Alfred Hitch­cock and Graham Greene—the modern spy story which has substituted the jitters of the Gestapo and the G.P.U. for the luxury world of E. Phillips Oppenheim.

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms. To write such a novel successfully you must be able to invent char­acter and incident and to generate atmosphere, and all this Mr. Chandler can do, though he is a long way be­low Graham Greene. It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough. It fails to jus­tify the excitement produced by the elaborate build-up of picturesque and sinister happenings, and one cannot help feeling cheated.

My experience with this second batch of novels has, therefore, been even more disillusioning than my expe­rience with the first, and my 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. This conclusion seems borne out by the violence of the letters I have been receiving. Detective-story readers feel guilty, they are habitually on the defensive, and all their talk about “well-written” mysteries is simply an excuse for their vice, like the reasons that the alcoholic can always pro­duce for a drink. One of the letters I have had shows the addict in his frankest and most shameless phase. This lady begins by pretending, like the others, to guide me in my choice, but she breaks down and tells the whole dreadful truth. Though she has read, she says, hundreds of detective stories, “it is surprising,” she finally con­fesses, “how few I would recommend to another. However, a poor defective story is better than none at all. Try again. With a little better luck, you’ll find one you admire and enjoy. Then you, too, may be A mystery fiend.”

This letter has made my blood run cold: so the opium smoker tells the novice not to mind if the first pipe makes him sick; and I fall back for reassurance on the valiant little band of my readers who sympathize with my views on the subject. One of these tells me that I have underestimated both the badness of detective stories themselves and the lax mental habits of those who en­joy them. The worst of it is, he says, that the true addict, half the time, never even finds out who has committed the murder. The addict reads not to find anything out but merely to get the mild stimulation of the succession of unexpected incidents and of the suspense itself of looking forward to learning a sensational secret. That this secret is nothing at all and does not really account for the incidents does not matter to such a reader. He has learned from his long indulgence how to connive with the author in the swindle: he does not pay any real attention when the disappointing denouement occurs, he does not think back and check the events, he simply shuts the book and starts another.

To detective-story addicts, then, I say: Please do not write me any more letters telling me that I have not read the right books. And to the seven correspondents who are with me and who in some cases have thanked me for helping them to liberate themselves from a habit which they recognized as wasteful of time and degrading to the intellect but into which they had been bullied by convention and the portentously invoked examples of Woodrow Wilson and Andre Gide—to these staunch and pure spirits I say: Friends, we represent a minority, but Literature is on our side. With so many fine books to be read, so much to be studied and known, there is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish. And with the paper shortage pressing on all publication and many first-rate writers forced out of print, we shall do well to discourage the squandering of this paper that might be put to better use.

Tomorrow we’ll need to reach a verdict on Mr Wilson.

25 comments on “Who Killed The Classic Murder Mystery? Pt 2”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    I wonder what Mr. Wilson would say if he were exposed to this generation’s fad for “cosy” mysteries: naive and sweet keepers of specialty shops or practitioners of rare crafts who are perennially exposed to seemingly horrendous and brutal murders. They do not deepen in character through these exposures nor do their personal lives develop in any meaningful way but people read the list through, enjoying something so ineffable that it does not touch down onto the physical page. I plead guilty to this weakness. There is a series about a book restorer in the US who is named for the city in which she was allegedly conceived and I enjoy the talk of bindings, glues, and papers which fill the books. The murders are secondary to the craft, if that is not a shockingly callous statement and that seems to be something which offends Mr. Wilson, probably quite rightly.

  2. Brooke says:

    Thank you, Helen, for going there. I was holding off. Add to your cosy list the volumes of “mysteries” that somehow involve cats, Victorian gentlewomen, and resurrected characters from Sherlock Holmes, present it to Mr. Wilson and he would say, “Told ya so.”

  3. Kathy Keenan says:

    What do you expect from the man who said about The Lord of the Rings that “Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form.”

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Was Mr Wilson using his verbosity and ire to camouflage the fact that he was obviously a frustrated mystery writer, I wonder? There seem to be enough ‘sour grapes’ in his writings to fill a hogshead or two with the bitterest of whine (sic) (deliberately so).

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    Could write a similar article about non-mystery writing.

  6. Martin Tolley says:

    But I do have to agree with him regarding DLS. In one novel I can never forget seven or more pages of the intricacies of railway timetables from some benighted village to somewhere else being explained to some unfortunate who didn’t follow the “train of thought” and kept repeating what had just been said to him. And NONE of it was relevant to the plot.

  7. SteveB says:

    Mr Wilson and I simply enjoy different things. I agree with a lot of what he says but I don’t care. I read wat I enjoy.
    I don’t agree that Raymond Chandler is so far below Grahame Greene though. I enjoyed both of them as pure adventure stories as a teenager, and being able to enjoy a book at a naive level is central to a great book in my opinion. If anything The Long Goodbye is superior the different versions of the writer himself is something even as a teenager I picked up on and actually never forgot.
    So Mr. Wilson may be 100% right but who cares.

  8. SteveB says:

    Oops i do know how to spell what!!!

  9. SteveB says:

    And as for repetitive stuff what about Victor Hugo and his chapters of newpaper headlines etc etc. But still a great book I think!!!

  10. SteveB says:

    OK I’m on a roll and I want to add one other thing.
    One hallmark of the true greats is being able to look coldly and dispassionately from the outside. It’s almost like being able to switch on an internal psychopath. Greene Chandler and Shakespeare could all do that. Didn’t Greene say something about not confusing emotion and sentimentality? I think that’s what the true greats have.

  11. RDaggle says:

    So, all Edmund Wilson’s friends read and enjoy mysteries, but he doesn’t. He’s going to tell everybody how what they like is garbage, and how stupid they are for reading it.

    Poor Edmund Wilson — an Internet Troll born before his time.

  12. snowy says:

    If we accept the view that “Eddie-Baby” was a misanthrope in general, [a misogynist in particular*], had an extreme dislike of absolutely anything English and was stuck in the past. His views reveal themselves as formed purely from his personal prejudices and not a strictly literary judgement.

    [See an account of his visit to Oxford and London in: Edmund Wilson Among the ‘Despicable English’]

    [* This might explain in part his liking for Chandler, but made his kink for ladies feet problematic, this he, ahem.. appears to have ‘relieved’ by seeking out ladies that offered ‘professional services’.]

  13. Ken Mann says:

    I’d be interested the article by Jacques Barzun that he refers to, as the thing that strikes me most about Edmund Wilson’s article is how badly written it is, following the iron clad rule that if you criticise someone’s punctuation you will inevitably make a blatant error of your own. Barzun at least writes elegantly.

  14. snowy says:

    The late Prof. Barzun would seem to have had a more reasoned view of things.

    A quote from him pointing out that the hard-boiled noir detectives of Chandler & Co, [The ones Eddie liked], exist within a set of rules just as rigid as any Country house mystery.

    “A private detective, usually low in funds and repute, undertakes single-handed and often without fee the vindication of some unfortunate person – a man or woman with no other friends. The attempt pits the hero against a ruthless crime syndicate or against the whole corrupt government of the town, or both. During his search for evidence, he is threatened, slugged, drugged, shot at, kidnapped, tortured, but never downed for very long. In many of the variants of the genre, he drinks quantities of whisky neat and proves equally ready for fighting and fornication. None of this affects his work; he is guaranteed indestructible. Others’ bullets pass him by; his own – especially in the final scene of carnage – always find their mark. And despite the gruelling physical pace, he finds the time and the wit, without the aid of discussion or note-taking, to figure out the discrepancies that reveal the culprit and his motive”

  15. Brooke says:

    In 100% agreement with Edmund Wilson. I particularly like his comments on “Lord of the Rings.” (Thank you, Kathy Keenan). In times gone by, I read deeply of all the writers Mr. Wilson found wanting in talent— and enjoyed them. I’ve read more widely now and simply cannot re-read AC, DLS, etc. for the reasons Wilson cites. However, as SteveB says, I read what I enjoy and the occasional Lovesey, Bellairs, Bramah, etc. does no harm.

    Btw, ad hominen arguments don’t answer Wilson’s point (that mystery writers should be held to standards of good fiction writing). EW may have been a misanthrope, and/or a frustrated mystery writer, but that doesn’t make him wrong; Admin has made a similar argument (e.g. see his comments on AC).

  16. Bob Low says:

    These are witty, entertainingly acidic articles. Of the authors he takes apart that I’ve read recently, I think he is probably most unfair to Margery Allingham. ‘Tiger In the Smoke’ is a remarkable novel about post-war London. Oddly enough, and this may be a point to Wilson, Albert Campion himself, and the detective story part of the plot are probably the least interesting elements of the book. I only read one Ngaio Marsh, and quite enjoyed it but never felt the urge to read another. The one Wilson read sounds much better than the one I did – the piano rigged up with a loaded pistol primed to shoot the player when a pedal is pushed down is almost worthy of Dr Phibes. As Snowy said, overall most of Wilson’s attacks on individual authors tell us more about his own prejudices than anything else , however amusingly expressed. I can’t help wondering what he would have made of Edmund Crispin’s Dr Fen novels, or the works of Margaret Miller and Ross MacDonald.

  17. snowy says:

    Brooke, I do take, [and respect], your point and will even admit to sharing some of Eddie’s views on particular authors.

    However in an relatively short article in which the writer uses ‘I’ fifty one times, pointing out that he was a miserable old sod, a complete snob, disliked women and was vehemently prejudiced against the English is not completely unfair.

    [Mentioning his foot-fetish was a bit cheeky, but any man that so abuses his third wife that she tries to set fire to the room he has locked himself in by skimming sheets of burning paper under the door, surely has to have his character called into account?]

    This is a subject that Wilson seemed compelled to return to as he continued to hurl scorn on the genre in another column entitled “Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound” (Feb.17th. 1945)

  18. Andrew Holme says:

    I’m quite intrigued by this notion of reading for the wrong things. When we read a certain book, part of the process is expecting certain things. So I’m reading Agatha Christie for a puzzle that engages me for a few hours and a solution that beats me.If I’m looking for in depth characters, dazzling wordplay and insights into my existential dilemmas, I’m not going to read Agatha Christie, I’m going to read Joyce. Of course, if I’m reading Joyce I’m trying to look good on the train. I cannot fault Wilson concerning ‘Lord of the Rings’, though. Awful book.

  19. John Griffin says:

    While I share or even double-down on Mr Wilson’s view of DLS, context is everything, as Mr Holme writes above. I found myself in the summer of 1973 dumped by my girlfriend Josette, minding an acquaintances house in Nottingham, and waiting to go down the dole office. The problem was I had two days to wait for the £££, was completely skint, and only some teabags and a loaf of bread stood between me and involuntary slimming. I scoured the house for cash and found a tatty copy of LOTR. I am pleased to say I was so thoroughly involved the time to visit Castle Boulevard Labour Exchange came as an unwelcome intrusion. I have since returned to LOTR and found much of it quite hard work.
    Wilson has half a point, though I would dispute Allingham. It also depends on which book of an author’s output you light upon. I found the first half of John Harvey’s Resnick series compelling, the remainder increasingly less so; Peter Robinson’s Banks output contains the superior ‘Aftermath’, and so on. ACD hooks me more with Lady Sannox and even Challenger than with many of the post-Reichenbach stories.

  20. John Griffin says:

    PS Just for balance, I prefer Admin’s vanishing Victoria and incinerated vagrants, as well as forgotten authors, to his horror output.

  21. Brooke says:

    Snowy, sod that I am, using “I” in every sentence, your description of EW’s wife’s behavior makes me like him even more. Third wife… what was it she didn’t get? Can’t remember her name now and too lazy to do the research; recall that she too had an ascerbic temperment, lashing out publicly at other authors –usually female.

  22. snowy says:

    Mary McCarthy, of whom one could never say, “was backward in expressing her personal opinions”. [ smiley whot-not ]

  23. Ken Mann says:

    Thanks for that quotation Snowy. Ah yes, that final scene of carnage. Makes me think of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole novels, each one of which ends with a scene that ought to result in the incarceration of all the survivors, and yet somehow the next novel always starts with our hero mysteriously not in prison.

  24. eggsy says:

    I’m afraid I skipped most of Wilson’s article – clearly that entitles me to a negative opinion of him and his views?

  25. Helen Martin says:

    I determined to advance my annual reading of The Nine Tailors to June -just because, but I seem to have miislaid it. One piece of information that almost put me off it was that some scientific person alleges that you cannot kill a person by locking him up with church bells and claims scientific proof. Hooha! As others have said, I read what I like and I like the people of that village, including the people who were concerned about the actions of the various water and drainage boards. It’s what inevitably happens, including the death, and it doesn’t matter whether it had anything to do with the murder. There’s more to life than death, after all.

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