Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"The Artistic Superstructure of the Epoch of Labor Unionism and Socialization": Ludwig von Mises on the Detective Story

My blogger friend Patrick Ohl recently posted a piece on his At the Scene of the Crime blog on critic Edmund Wilson's famous anti detective fiction diatribe
"Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

To be sure, Edmund Wilson was of a leftist political orientation, but to demonstrate that ill-informed criticism of detective fiction knows no ideological bounds, I direct you to famous libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises' contribution to the subject, "Remarks about the Detective Stories," from "Literature under Capitalism," a chapter in his book The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (1956) (the whole piece can be found here on the Ludwig von Mises Institute website). It certainly offers a different take on the subject, but it also illustrates the pitfalls inherent in heavily theory-driven, insufficiently researched approaches to the study of detective fiction.

One suspects that Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) and Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) had little in common, but they did have this: they didn't think much of detective fiction.  Oh and this: neither man seems well-informed about detective fiction--a failing which nevertheless did not prevent them from making sweeping pronouncements about it (famous intellectuals often don't seem to have qualms about such things).

Forget revolvers and daggers,
watch out for hammers and sickles!
Typically, Golden Age detective fiction has been condemned by leftist-oriented critics like Julian Symons and Colin Watson--not to mention a number of Marxian 1970s academics--as a conservative literary genre promoting "bourgeois hegemony" (not being academics, Symons and Watson don't use that term, but it's what they mean too).

Now, Ludwig von Mises is having none of this!  None at all.

Much, much to the contrary of the Symons-Watson view, Mises sees detective fiction as an essentially  leftist literary genre crafted to undermine capitalism. "The artistic superstructure of the epoch of labor unionism and socialization," he calls it (whew!).

Ludwig unloads: detective fiction
appeals to those afflicted with a
"latent anti-bourgeois tendency"

Mises starts his discussion of detective fiction with what seems to me to be a mistaken notion: that because the Golden Age of detective fiction coincided with the rise to power of Communism and Socialism (not to mention Fascism), there must be some sort of causal relationship between detective fiction and anticapitalism.  He writes:

The age in which the radical anticapitalistic movement acquired seemingly irresistible power brought about a new literary genre, the detective story.  The same generation of Englishmen whose votes swept the Labour Party into office were enraptured by such authors as Edgar Wallace.  One of the outstanding British socialist authors, G. D. H. Cole, is no less remarkable as an author of detective stories.

I'm not sure when this piece on detective fiction was actually written by Mises (the references to Edgar Wallace, who died in 1932, and Douglas Cole, who hadn't published a detective novel since 1942, were dated in 1956, or even 1945, when Labour came to power), but there are some notable errors here:

  • Detective fiction was not a "new literary genre" in the 1920s (although it did achieve new popularity).
  • Edgar Wallace for the most part did not really write true detective fiction, but thrillers, which true detective novelists of the period believed appealed to a less intellectually sophisticated audience.
  • Many Golden Age British detective novelists (and even more so thriller writers) were politically conservative and averse to leftist ideology in their books. Moreover, they often were hostile to the Labour party when it came into power in the 1945-1951 period. The prominent Socialist G. D. H. Cole (apparently Mises did not deem it necessary to mention Douglas Cole's accomplished wife Margaret Cole) was exceptional in this regard.

Mises notes that "many historians, sociologists and psychologists have tried to explain the popularity of this strange genre [yes, Mises means detective fiction!--TPT]. For his part, Mises breezily explains that the reader of "this strange genre"

is the frustrated man who did not attain the position which his ambition impelled him to aim at....he is prepared to console himself by blaming the injustice of the capitalist system.  He failed because he is honest and law abiding.  His luckier competitors succeeded on account of their improbity; they resorted to foul tricks which he, conscientious and stainless as he is, would never have thought of.  If people only knew how crooked these arrogant upstarts are!  Unfortunately their crimes remained hidden....

Did this man inspire the
Golden Age of detective fiction?
Mises then goes on to explain what he terms the "typical course of events in a detective story."  It seems that generally the guilty party in mysteries is a successful businessman type--"an impeccable citizen"--who is revealed as a scheming, fiendish hypocrite.  Thus, the detective's motive in hunting down the criminal, according to Mises, is "a subconscious hatred of successful 'bourgeois.'"

Having established to his satisfaction this "latent anti-bourgeois tendency" in detective fiction, Mises goes on to explains that this "is why the detective story is popular with people who suffer from frustrated ambition."

Recently I did a blog piece on a mystery publisher promotional work called "Successful Men Read." Mises turns this round: it's unsuccessful, embittered men doing the reading!

Now, I won't say Mises' analysis is absolutely worthless.  Indeed, in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012) I note, for example, how after the Wall Street Crash prominent Golden Age British mystery writer Freeman Wills Crofts began portraying aggressive businessmen remarkably unsympathetically, though he was no Marxist--far from it! (indeed, Crofts' famous series detective, Inspector French, is a highly bourgeois police inspector).  And Anthony Wynne, who I last blogged about, was very dubious about modern finance capitalism, though he was a successful surgeon and no Marxist but, rather, a Christian monarchical feudalist.

Can you really imagine Miss Marple knitting
with this group of revolutionary ladies?
On the other hand, Mises' formulation seems to me an implausibly (to say the least) oversweeping generalization about a literary genre.

It's certainly interesting, even amusing, to think of such privileged fictional Golden Age 'tecs as Lord Peter Wimsey, Roderick Alleyn, Albert Campion, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, etc., as an envious gang of anti-capitalist agents!

Typically the view of the Golden Age detective novel is that it's all about the restoration of the traditional (capitalist) order at the conclusion of the tale, after a disruptive murderer has been cast out of Eden, so to speak. Is it possible that Miss Marple was really a Madame Defarge at heart, or that Hercule Poirot was inspired by little red cells?  Mon dieu!


  1. Ha, well I always suspected that the mystery genre was a refuge for a bunch of no-good, pinko commies!

    I have no idea where you find these things Curt, but by all means keep it up. I absolutely love getting these "alternate takes" on the genre.

  2. Fascinating. Thanks for drawing this to our attention, Curt!

  3. Although Mises' claim is a large sweeping generalization, to be fair to him, I suspect that the works Mises was referring to were novels by authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as apposed to Sayer and Christie.

  4. Thanks, Patrick and Martin, I try my best!

    Shawn, I'd like to think so, but the only specific writers that Mises mentions are G. D. H. Cole and Edgar Wallace, not exactly the Hammett-Chandler hard-boiled school! I just don't get the impression he knew too much about the subject. All his references to detective fiction seem to be very dismissive of it as an art.