Sunday, May 27, 2012

Literary Dynamism: Knight's Gambit (1949)--William Faulkner

When a literary titan deigns to dabble in detective fiction, it's always of interest, on account of this question: Can the Great Personage perform the challenging feat of combining traditional "literary" appeal with a competent puzzle?

Could that be a detective story he's reading?
I can't tell, but William Faulkner did read them.

It used to be considered axiomatic by aestheticians of the detective story that the genre could not absorb what were called the higher literary values.  Too much emphasis on character interest would wreck the "glittering mechanism" of the puzzle plot, declared Dorothy L. Sayers, the great Golden Age Authority on such things, at one point (she later Changed Her Mind).  Modern mystery genre critics tend not to concern themselves overmuch, if at all, with mere "glittering mechanisms" and thus are free to praise anything that the Literary Titan might produce in a vaguely mysterious line, whether or not it offers an interesting puzzle plot.

a Queen's Quorum title
William Faulkner, one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century American literature, published Knight's Gambit, a collection of what are called "six mystery stories," in 1949, though they were written at various times in the 1930s and 1940s.  The publication history is as follows:

"Smoke" (Harper's Magazine, 1932)
"Monk" (Scribner's Magazine, 1937)
"Hand Upon the Waters" (Saturday Evening Post, 1939)
"Tomorrow" (Saturday Evening Post, 1940)
"An Error in Chemistry" (1941, published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in1946)
Knight's Gambit (1942, rejected by Harper's and subsequently revised for Knight's Gambit, 1949)

In 1949, the same year Knight's Gambit was published, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Ellery Queen gave Knight's Gambit a place in the Queen's Quorum of the 125 most important collections of shorter detective fiction works (however, when Faulkner a few years earlier entered "An Error in Chemistry" in the premier Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine short story contest, ironically the story only took second place, losing to "A Star for Warrior," by Manly Wade Wellman).

Is Knight's Gambit one of the cornerstone mystery short story collections? Personally, I would say no. First, half the stories are not even really detective, or even mystery, stories. Second, one of the three that is a mystery/detective story is not very good. The remaining two, "Smoke" and"An Error in Chemistry," are great, but a two out of six success rate means that the majority of Faulkner's plotting gambits fail. There's a lot of literary dynamism in Faulkner, God knows, but also fatal structural weaknesses, if one is looking at him as a detective fiction writer.

grisly crimes
To be sure, in some respects Faulkner and the mystery story seem like a natural fit. Sanctuary, the Mississippian's 1931 self-described "potboiler," had a great impact on American crime writing, with its unsparing and for the time quite explicit combination of violence, sex, and violent sex (the corncob rape sequence has lived in infamy right up to this day, when infamy seems commonplace).  It's visceral stuff indeed.

Moreover, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)--arguably Faulkner's greatest work--seems to me essentially a Gothic novel, with its dark, decaying southern mansion, enshrouded in a complex and horrid history of moral transgressions and murders.  One could say, I think, that Absalom, Absalom! is perhaps the greatest Gothic novel ever written.

Faulkner also worked on Hollywood film scripts in the late 1930s and the 1940s, including most famously the script for Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (Faulkner couldn't figure out who killed the chauffeur either).  Additionally, according to Blood on the Stage, Faulkner voraciously read genre fiction and admired, besides Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout (in the 1950s he also confessed to admiring Georges Simenon, though that in itself is not necessarily a guarantee that one likes true detective stories).

Yet despite all this, Knight's Gambit doesn't quite come off in full, at least for a detective fiction fan.

Gothic horrors
The stories in Knight's Gambit are unified by the setting--Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi--and by the presence of the garrulous county attorney Gavin Stevens and his nephew, Charles ("Chick") Mallison.  Stevens and nephew appeared in the (successfully filmed) novel Intruder in the Dust (1948), as well as The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959), the concluding volumes of the Snopes trilogy.

Stevens had been called by literary critic Irving Howe "surely the greatest wind-bag in American literature" and I have to admit that I tend to agree with this assessment.  The lawyer, who became kind of a fictive alter ego for Faulkner, speaks in this incredibly, implausibly ornate, oratorical fashion that Faulkner himself increasingly adopted for his own third person narration in his novels (one is also unfortunately reminded of John Dickson Carr characters in Carr's later novels).  This ornate style works in the highly Gothic and sensation-ridden Absalom, Absalom! but is too heavy a burden, I think, for a ratiocinative detective story to bear.  Simply put, the detective story is too slight a structure to withstand the crushing weight of all Gavin Stevens' (and Faulkner's) rhetorical baggage.

This narrative style prevents me from enjoying as much as I would like the Gavin Stevens novels and the Stevens novella Knight's Gambit.  At about 120 pages Gambit makes up about half the length of the Knight's Gambit collection.  The basic plot might have made an interesting short had Faulkner kept it to forty pages or less or--dare I suggest it--just handed it over to Mignon Eberhart to write.  A wealthy, word-traveling plantation widow at the dangerous age in those days for women (she's nearing forty) has brought back from her South American tour an Argentinean house guest, one Captain Gualdres.  She also has two young adult children: a daughter who may love the captain and a son who definitely hates him.  And there's the local farmer's daughter in the mix.  Faulkner himself refers in the story to the characters being "like the stock characters in the slick magazine serial, even to the foreign fortune hunter."  He's certainly right about that, so why try to dress it up as Great Literature?

The prolific American mystery writer
Mignon Eberhart
could have made aces with the plot of
Knight's Gambit
None of the characters in the novella every become really interesting, though Faulkner makes some effort with Captain Gualdres.  There's also a lot of coming-of-age/World War Two stuff for Gavin's nephew (the novella is set in 1941-1942) and the story of an old romance for Gavin himself (I think this uninteresting plot line was ditched by Faulkner when he came to writing The Town and The Mansion in the late 1950s).  And way too much overwriting, like the 300+ word sentence describing the approach to a plantation (at least I think that's what it was describing).

Basically Gambit could be called an inverted crime story, I suppose (or an inverted attempted crime story), but there's way too much else going to sustain much interest in the basic plot line.

The remaining works in the collection are much shorter pieces, and benefit from being such (Faulkner disciplines himself rhetorically). However, two of them, "Monk" and "Tomorrow," are not even really detective, or even mystery, stories, but, rather, character studies ("Tomorrow" was made into an excellent though quite depressing Robert Duvall film in 1971)--though "Monk" interestingly does use a device associated with several Ellery Queen novels.  Another of the stories, "Hand Upon the Waters," is a detective story, but a weak one, slight as a puzzle and as character study alike.

Yet fortunately there are two grand successes: "Smoke" and "An Error in Chemistry."

"Smoke" (1932)

Anselm Holland came to Jefferson many years ago.  Where from, no one knew....

Melville Davisson Post
creator of Uncle Abner
This story of the accidental (?) death of the tyrannical farming family patriarch Anse Holland and the shooting murder of Judge Dukenfield, the man appointed to be Chancellor of Anse Holland's heir-taunting will, is a delight. With its rural courtly formality it rather reminded of the classic Uncle Abner tales of Melville Davisson Post.

Although regrettably it is not really a fairly clued detective story, we do at least get to see Gavin Stevens legitimately ratiocinate and spring a tour de force trap for the killer.  I enjoyed it immensely and even found that old gasbag Gavin Stevens appealing.

This exchange reminded me of John Rhode's series detective Dr. Priestley, who loathes conjecture with an abiding passion:

"Conjecture is all well enough--"
"All right," Stevens said.  "Let me conjecture a little more...."

Gavin Stevens is no Dr. Priestley, and I don't believe Priestley would tolerate the garrulous gasbag at table for a minute, but he's a whole helluva lot of fun in this tale.  This most definitely is the closest Gavin Stevens ever comes in the short tales to being a Great Detective.  He most certainly is a great showman.

"An Error in Chemistry" (1946)

It was Joel Flint himself who telephoned the sheriff that he had killed his wife....

Faulkner, cigarette in hand,
 closer to the time he wrote "Smoke"
It's not surprising Faulkner submitted "An Error in Chemistry" to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, because it's the best detective story he wrote.  This one concerns Joel Flint, Yankee and "outlander" who marries the spinster (nearly forty again!) daughter of yet another tyrannical farming family patriarch (the county seems to have these in abundant supply) and admits to shooting her a couple years later.  But the crime makes no sense!  What is going on here?

Gavin Stevens finds the answer by means of a (nicely presented) accident, but an astute, experienced reader likely can deduce what's going on beforehand, because wily William Faulkner employs numerous classic mystery devices like a genre fan of long standing.

There also is some definite similarity in theme with Faulkner's brilliant Gothic story "A Rose for Emily," but honor compels me to refrain from saying more.

In "Error" Stevens has an interesting friendship with a Bible-quoting sheriff. I particularly liked this exchange, on the nature of truth versus justice.

"I'm interested in truth," the sheriff said.
"So am I," Uncle Gavin said.  "It's so rare.  But I am more interested in justice and human beings."
"Ain't truth and justice the same thing?" the sheriff said.
"Since when?"  Uncle Gavin said.  "In my time I have seen truth that was anything under the sun but just, and I have seen justice using tools and instruments I wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot fence rail."

The question of what is true justice and just truth sometimes gets addressed in regular old detective stories by regular old detective writers as well, but it's pleasing to see a leading literary light like Faulkner address it.

So would you want to buy Knight's Gambit?  I'm glad I did, for these two stories are very good indeed. Take a chance on it if you haven't read them--you might even like some of the others better than I did.

By the way, here's an interesting paper on Faulkner's use of detective story devices, by Makoto Ohno:

"Faulkner in Mystery" (big spoilers to "An Error in Chemistry," "Monk" and Intruder in the Dust.)--TPT

Death in the Deep South


  1. Great stuff Curt. I really love Faulkner and rate INTRUDER IN THE DUST quite highly personally - seems to in many ways the most successful attempt by Faulkner to integrate mystery elements into his fiction. Thanks for this really in depth look at the stories - really enjoyed it reading about them and makes me really want to go back and read them all as its probably been two decades since I last read the book.

    All the best,

  2. Sergio,

    I'm going to be doing a piece on Intruder in the Dust, the film, soon. Gavin's oratory for me can get a bit tiresome in long form, but I really wish Faulkner had done more detective short stories with him. I suppose he didn't want to do more than stick his toe in the water, but it would have been nice to have a fullscale Uncle Abner type collection from him, of genuine detective short stories.