Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"A Lovely Detective Story": Sinclair Lewis, Mystery Writer?

American novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)--winner of the Nobel prize for literature--is yet another famed literary personage known to have been a keen reader of mystery fiction (see my earlier posts on John Updike and William Faulkner, here and here).

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

This list, short as it is, suggests a marked preference on the part of Lewis for what we today would call the "crime novel," rather than for the detective story ("mystery" is a much more nebulous term).

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
Coming off the great twin satirical successes of Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922)--the latter novel sold 240,000 copies and was the #4 bestseller of 1923--Lewis planned to write a "doctor novel,' taking on the medical world with his acerbic pen.  But then, possibly doubting, biographer Richard Lingeman speculates, "his stamina to undertake" so soon an "epic novel," Lewis shocked his publisher, Harcourt, by announcing that he wanted to write "a series of short stories with a central character, a 'public health detective' who would solve medical mysteries." 

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?
Thus it seems that, like many other "highbrows," Sinclair Lewis was quite immersed in the 1920s fad for true detective fiction. In company with a number of other intellectuals, Lewis eventually tired of "mere puzzles"; but in contrast with Edmund Wilson he retained an interest in mystery stories of a more purely literary nature in his view, such as the later works of Dorothy L. Sayers and the psychological crime novels of Francis Iles.

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


  1. Enjoyed reading your post, re: Sinclair Lewis. I'm surprised no one's thought to bring Lewis to life as a mystery/detective write solving crimes himself. That would be fun.

    I recently read the Sinclair Lewis novel, DODSWORTH and loved it. It remains one of my favorite books even if few people still read Sinclair Lewis. I remember being forced to read ARROWSMITH at a totally inappropriate time and hating it. But thankfully, I didn't give up on Lewis.

  2. Meant to add: I don't have much to say about the four mysteries Lewis chose as the 'essentials'. Simply, I don't agree.

    And Edmund Wilson sounds like a snob and who cares what he thinks. :)

    I'm probably closer to agreeing with Michael Dirda. Though not completely.

  3. I think MALICE AFORETHOUGHT is the most forgotten. Lewis was a great writer. I read all of his books in my youth.

  4. I loved Babbitt and Main Street, which I read in high school. Some of the first "serious" reading I did. Am rereading Main street now!

  5. Interesting post; I must say I'm more interested in Lewis's thoughts on mysteries than in anything Edmund Wilson ever wrote - his essay has always seemed to me both pig-headed and obtuse. I do like Michael Dirda's list very much!

  6. Well, Les, thankfully Lewis at last didn't have contempt for the genre, like the hoity-toit Wilson!

    I'm a dissenter when it comes to admiration for The Poisoned Chocolates Cate, but Dirda's is a good, comprehensive, informed list.