Sinclair Lewis once pronounced that the "four essential mystery stories" are
- Bleak House (1853), by Charles Dickens
- The Lodger (1913), by Marie Belloc Lowndes
- Malice Aforethought (1931), by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
- The Nine Tailors (1934), by Dorothy L. Sayers
|Literary Might Have Beens:|
In the 1920s Sinclair Lewis
wanted to write detective stories
Only one of Lewis' listed novels, The Nine Tailors, is a true detective story in form. Malice Aforethought is an inverted mystery, about a man plotting murder, while The Lodger is a psychological study of a London landlady who comes to suspect that her gentleman lodger is a serial murderer (one obviously based on Jack the Ripper). Finally, Bleak House, I would urge, is not a "mystery story" at all, but a straight, or so-called mainstream, novel, with a crime element.*
In 1943 Sinclair Lewis noted the popularity of the "crime-mystery-detective school of fiction," declaring: "A bishop or burlesque queen who does not have a crime story on the bedside table is suspect and perhaps ruined."
Lewis defended the place of the mystery genre in literature, but seemingly only in the case of those works that might be said, to use a seriously overworked modern phrase, to have transcended the genre:
"The quantity of dreary trash in this school is not surprising. What is surprising is the quantity of authentic literature, shrewd and competent writing with that power of suggesting more than is said, of awakening the emotions and the imagination, that is the sign of literature."
|"awakening the emotions and the imagination"|
a still from a film version of The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Obviously, Sinclair Lewis differed from critic and man of letters Edmund Wilson, who in his notorious essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" shortly would denounce mystery novels--including specifically The Nine Tailors--as unpardonable, time-wasting, brain-rotting trash. Yet Lewis seems only to be defending those works of mystery fiction that have, in his view, "the quantity of authentic literature": i.e., crime novels, for the most part.
It is interesting to note, however, that back in the 1920s--the heyday of true, puzzle-oriented, no literary frills detective stories--Sinclair Lewis himself wanted to write them.
|Another turn of the screw?|
Sinclair Lewis, mystery writer
This announcement from Lewis did not find favor with Harcourt, to say the least!
Lewis' publisher "had an awful fear that Lewis was reverting to his bad magazine habits," writes Lingeman. Lewis was warned that a detective story series "would devastate his reputation as a serious novelist." Moreover, Harcourt declared, when published in book form the detective story collection would, even with Lewis' name on it, have but a "a modest sale compared to a new Lewis novel in the lineage of Main Street and Babbitt."
Lewis capitualted to Harcourt's concerns and went back to the doctor novel, which was published in 1925 under the title Arrowsmith (one of Lewis' most famous books). With Arrowsmith nearly completed, however, Lewis, overseas enjoying a season in London, again was fondly imagining spinning a detective yarn. He wrote Harcourt that he hoped to write "either a lovely detective story I've enjoyed planning, or the big religious novel I've planned so long." The "lovely detective story" never came to pass, but the religious novel, Elmer Gantry (1927), did.
|Read any good murder yarns lately?|
Yet had Lewis written that "lovely detective story" in 1925 or 1926, might it not have more resembled, say, Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? And would that great scold Edmund Wilson have cared whodunit?
*Note: Discussing Sinclair Lewis' list of essential mystery stories in a Washington Post book chat, Michael Dirda opined that his list of four essential Golden Age mystery stories would be
- The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie
- Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes
- The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
- The Three Coffins, by John Dickson Carr