Saturday, May 2, 2015

Seriously? Intellectuals and the Golden Age Detective Novel 1: T. S. Eliot

We often hear about twentieth-century literary great T. S. Eliot's praise of Wilkie Collins' classic nineteenth-century sensation novel The Moonstone, but, oddly, we rarely hear much in genre studies about his views of detective fiction from his own day. We rarely hear, for example, that in the 1920s Eliot was a great reader of contemporary crime fiction and that his favorite detective novelists from that decade were R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts (two writers, as we have seen, praised by Raymond Chandler--particularly RAF).  He also was impressed with detective novels by S. S. Van Dine and J. J. Connington and with Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

T. S. Eliot
Eliot reviewed mystery fiction and wrote theoretical pieces about it in the 1920s in The Criterion, the literary magazine he edited.  He even came up with rules for detective fiction--or rules of "detective conduct"--that run along lines similar to those of Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine (Eliot's rules actually preceded the others).  I wrote about all this in an essay in Mysteries Unlocked (2014), called "Murder in The Criterion: T. S. Eliot on Detective Fiction," one of two essays on intellectuals and detective fiction in this collection (the other, by Henrique Valle, will be discussed later on this blog).

Eliot's Twenties enthusiasm for puzzle-oriented detective fiction should not really be surprising, as such writing was tremendously popular among intellectuals at that time. Yet often today people write about Golden Age detective fiction as if it were loathed by intellectuals until Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy L. Sayers came along to make it acceptable to brainy folks.

P. D. James
Here's P. D. James in her charming 2009 book Talking about Detective Fiction meditating on Golden Age detective fiction, Hammett and Sayers (the second quotation comes from a piece on Sayers originally published by James in 1978):

[Hammett] raised a commonly despised genre into writing which had a valid claim to be taken seriously as literature.

To her admirers [Sayers] is the writer who did more than any other to make the detective story intellectually respectable, and to change it from an ingenious but lifeless sub-literary puzzle into a specialized branch of fiction with serious claims to be judged as a novel.

The idea that puzzle-oriented detective fiction was not "intellectually respectable" and was a "commonly despised genre" is belied by the fact, I think, that intellectuals spent so much time talking about it in the period.  To be sure, some intellectuals never were interested in detective fiction and did despise it, but there were others, like T. S. Eliot, who became quite attracted to it and even theorized about it, in that way intellectuals have.

I think the crux of the matter for people like P. D. James, however, is revealed in her words "taken seriously as literature" and "with serious claims to be judged as a novel." Take note of the word serious. While many intellectuals enjoyed puzzle-oriented detective fiction, while they desired to know just as anxiously as members of the common masses who murdered Roger Ackroyd and who was behind the Starvel Hollow Tragedy, they didn't believe that Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and Crofts' Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) were serious novels, but rather entertaining tales.

T. S. Eliot: an admirer of detective fiction puzzles

Writers like P. D. James and Ruth Rendell didn't want to be thought of as "mere" entertainers but serious novelists, and grew restive with the Crime Queen labels and the inevitable comparisons to Agatha Christie.  On the other hand, some genre theorists, such as the late Jacques Barzun, argued for decades that crime fiction properly belongs to the category of fiction known as the tale and should be respected as such, without aiming to be taken seriously as higher literature.

There have always been intellectuals who respected ratiocinative detective fiction as intelligent and respectable entertainment without demanding that it aim for greatness as serious art.  Indeed, T. S. Eliot thought it was tricky to try to merge detective fiction with the mainstream novel. Although he allowed that Wilkie Collins succeeded splendidly with The Moonstone, a number of others, he believed, had failed in the attempt.

Avatar of Alibis: Freeman Wills Crofts

Of Freeman Wills Crofts Eliot wrote, "Mr. Crofts, at his best...succeeds by his thorough devotion to the detective interest; his characters are just real enough to make the story work; had he tried to make them more...he might have ruined his story."  Yet even Crofts in the 1930s would get the urge to produce more "serious" detective novels, as we see, for example, with Antidote to Venom (1938), recently reprinted by the British Library. The desire to be taken seriously is a powerful human motivation and crime writers have been no exception in this regard.

19 comments:

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    1. And he may have had a hand in helping Gypsy Rose Lee write her mystery novel when they and others shared a house in Brooklyn -- 7 Middagh Street.

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  2. Eliot also incorporated dialogue from Doyle's The Musgrave Ritual in his play Murder in the Cathedral. The play's very title reflected Eliot's wish to get detective story fans to come and watch what would turn out to be a religious play.

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    1. He knew the fans! Of course my essay title "Murder in The Criterion" was meant to allude to this play.

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  3. The P. D. James quotes are worrying. When someone uses terms like “a commonly despised genre” and “ingenious but lifeless sub-literary puzzle” they’re engaged in polemics rather than criticism. A genre despised by whom? How despised was a genre that enjoyed immense popularity and numbered people like T. S. Eliot among its admirers? It might have been despised by P. D. James. She seems to be making the dangerous and intellectually lazy assumption that the views of all right-thinking people must naturally coincide with her own views.

    There’s nearly always a touch of intellectual elitism behind such polemics. An assumption that popular taste must be wrong and that elite tastes must be superior.

    I wonder if that’s a peculiarly English prejudice? Or an Anglophone prejudice?

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    1. Well, I think she means "commonly despised" by intellectuals. And I think it is true that some intellectuals did grow bored with the mystery fad in the 1930s. There was a move away from from the so-called "pure puzzle" mystery in the 1930s, which, as we know, only accelerated after WW2.

      However, I think she misses that during the earlier part of the Golden Age especially quite a few intellectuals thought those puzzles were pretty neat. Some, like Barzun, read and enjoyed ratiocinative detective fiction for virtually their entire lives. Jacques Barzun was reading Golden Age detective fiction during the Jazz Age and still writing about it in the 21st century.

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    2. Also, I should add, I don't really think of Talking about Detective Fiction James as polemical, like Chandler was, by his own admission, in "The Simple Art of Murder." It's really rather a charming book, though of course I have my disagreements with it. James is always an enjoyable essayist. It's meant to be more of a collection of thoughts on her craft by an acknowledged master of it.

      James views actually came to reflect to a great extent those of Sayers, as they developed over the 1930s. Sayers herself came to write rather dismissively of the "mere puzzle" mystery, although, it should be noted, she kept reading them (see "Was Corinne;s Murder Clued?").

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  4. Ernest Mandel wrote an insightful book called "Delightful Murder" based on his lifetime's reading in the thriller and mystery genres.

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    1. Jay, I note this from your blog:

      http://marxistupdate.blogspot.com/2014/07/httpsdrive.html

      "In all the decades we thought Ernest Mandel was exploring imperialist political economy and laying bare the roots of traitorous Stalinism, he was actually spending his time reading mystery novels and thrillers. He also watched Kojack and Starsky and Hutch between paperbacks.

      Delightful Murder is filled with fruitful discussions of the social roots and crime and punishment, and the social roots of popular fiction about it."

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  5. You say: "Writers like P. D. James and Ruth Rendell didn't want to be thought of as "mere" entertainers but serious novelists, and grew restive with the Crime Queen labels and the inevitable comparisons to Agatha Christie."

    Rendell was a bit more grounded than that. Here's from her long Guardian obituary:

    Although Rendell did not like the title often bestowed on her – queen of crime – calling it snide and sexist, she did not go along with the many reviewers, among them AN Wilson and PD James, who called her a great novelist. “Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer,” she said. “I don’t mind because I do the very best that I can and thousands, millions of people enjoy my books.”

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    1. Definitely grounded, but I can find you over the years many excerpts from Rendell where she bridled at comparisons with Christie and stressed that she was, unlike Christie, a serious writer. And, you know, Rendell *was* a serious writer, one who entertained as well. When you read a Rendell novel like A Dark Adapted Eye or Asta's Book, it's clear that there is, in addition to the puzzle aspect, a serious purpose behind it. And that they are, I would argue, good novels.

      I want to be clear here. I think there's nothing wrong with crime writers have "higher" literary aims with their books; in fact, I commend it. But I also commend those who are happy to concentrate on putting together clever plots. At her best Rendell did both.

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  6. excerpts from Rendell where she bridled at comparisons with Christie and stressed that she was, unlike Christie, a serious writer.

    In that sense of "serious" I'd go along with her -- and I'd certainly decry the Christie comparisons. She had a seriousness of intent in much of her work.

    Oddly enough, I'd quite accept comparisons of Christie with P.D. James. The last few novels of hers I've read are really just Christie-style entertainments, but bloated by long pompous tracts of not very good "posh" writing.

    To be honest, I've never been wowed by Rendell's more traditional works, the ones that drew the Christie comparisons -- i.e., the Wexfords. On the other hand, I haven't read any of the later Wexfords, and I gather they began to transcend their chosen form.

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    1. I have to admit I gradually lost interest in the later James books. For me they seemed to get longer and longer without really adding anything to the earlier ones except more descriptive detail.

      I like the older more puzzle-like Rendell Wexfords, but she obviously tired of that and I do think with some of her later books she was successful at trying new things, or expanding the interesting, non-puzzle aspects of her earlier books. There are the "psychological" non-Wexford Rendells, the social detail of the later Wexfords and the sheer richness of the best Barbara Vines, which remind of the old triple-decker Victorian novels, with less cloaked sex and violence.

      She left us a very rich legacy in crime fiction. Entertaining, but also often moving and thought-provoking.

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    2. She had a seriousness of intent in much of her work.

      Seriousness of intent is all well and good but really it's irrelevant. What matters is whether you have the talent to pull off seriousness of achievement. I could decide to do a painting and I could approach it with great seriousness of intent. I could tell myself that my painting was going to say all sorts of important things about the human condition and about various socio-political issues. But given that I have zero talent as a painter the result would inevitably be an embarrassing load of rubbish.

      That's the problem with so much contemporary writing - writers today think that seriousness of intent is all they need when what they actually need is talent.

      I'm not suggesting Rendell lacked talent. I haven't read enough of her work to make any sort of judgment on it. I'm just suggesting that seriousness of intent on its own means very little. Which is probably the point you yourself were making.

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  7. Obviously some writers will succeed better than others in importing elements beyond the puzzle into the mystery novel. As T. S. Eliot said, some might have been better advised not to try it at all! And for some puzzle fans, these elements will seem extraneous, no matter how well-handled. In Rendell's career, she gave us the more purely puzzle-focused Wexfords between 1964-83 and the more theme-oriented ones from 1994-2013, I would say (the period in between is more transitional). So, arguably, one gets the best of both worlds.

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    1. I've only read one Rendell and that was a later one (Road Rage) and not to my taste at all. I suppose I should give one of her early books a try. Do you have any particular early Rendell recommendations?

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  8. Try From Doon with Death, Wolf to the Slaughter, The Best Man to Die, A Guilty Thing Surprised.

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  9. And the best of the Barbara Vines: ASTA'S BOOK, A DARK-ADAPTED EYE, A FATAL INVERSION, THE HOUSE OF STAIRS, THE BRIMSTONE WEDDING, THE CHIMNEY-SWEEPER'S BOY...

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