Monday, April 29, 2013

Mabel Seeley's Murders in Minnesota Part One: Some Thoughts on Howard Haycraft and HIBK

In her essay "Women Writers Before 1960" in The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, Catherine Ross Nickerson castigates "influential male connoisseurs" for scorning the so-called "Had-I-But-Known" mystery fiction associated with American crime writer Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) and her followers, such as Mignon Eberhart and Leslie Ford.  The term HIBK was derived from the comic poem Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You (1940), by Ogden Nash (a onetime editor at the major American mystery publisher Doubleday, Doran, Nash read a great deal of mystery fiction).

a cornerstone genre history
In an HIBK novel, the first-person narrator (almost invariably a woman) looks back over a recent course of mysterious and murderous events, interpolating into the text foreboding reflections on what she might have done differently to have avoided the various calamities that befell her and the people around her, had she but known....

This style of writing can be an effective suspense-building devise, but it also lends itself to parody (see Ogden Nash). When Howard Haycraft published his influential genre study, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story in 1941, the year after Nash's poem was published in the New Yorker, Haycraft gave clear indications that he had been influenced by Nash's satirical jab at HIBK.

"Not only is it phony writing," Haycraft bluntly pronounced of HIBK, "its day of doom is clearly in sight."

Besides mentioning satirical jabs aimed at HIBK (including Nash's), Haycraft cited a 1941 survey of "several hundred habitual readers of the form," in which, he noted, the HIBK style of writing placed third on a list of "pet dislikes."  Placing first, he added, was "too much love and of the cardinal sins of the HIBK sorority."  Haycraft also noted that comments from the survey participants included condemnations of "such moth-eaten HIBK devices and trappings as

"nosy spinsters"
"women who gum up the plot"
"super-feminine stories"
"heroines who wander around attics alone"

Anticipating accusations of "misogyny among the voters," Haycraft pointed out that "almost as many women readers as men replied to the questionnaire" and that the most popular authors in the survey were women: that redoubtable British detection duo, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.

participants in a 1941 survey of mystery fiction readers
wanted "nosy spinsters" to get the ax
An irony here is that Dorothy L. Sayers' popularity increased in the 1930s after she introduced love and romance into her Lord Peter Wimsey detective saga, in the form of the brilliant mystery writer Harriet Vane (this love gambit also was followed by rising Crime Queens Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh). However, all three of these Crime Queens eschewed HIBK devices and provided genuine fair play puzzles in their books. All are associated with the "detective novel of manners" approach, which Haycraft heartily admired.

In the view of genre critics like Haycraft, the books of many HIBK writers devolved, if you will, from ratiocinative detective fiction into "mere" mystery.  The reader's interest in these HIBK books, which are descended from Gothic and Victorian sensation fiction, more typically centers on studying the emotional upheavals characters undergo as they confront murder, rather than on solving any formal mystery puzzle per se (there are exceptions to this, however, as some HIBK books do provide fair play puzzles).

It should be noted that Howard Haycraft, who highly valued the classic, puzzle-oriented detective novel, credited "English women detective story writers" like Sayers, Allingham, Marsh and Christie with being "in the vanguard of the most inventive and imaginative minds practicing the form."

Howard Haycraft

Modern academic writers like Catherine Ross Nickerson who dismiss Haycraft as a sexist should consider that clearly at least part of Haycraft's critique of HIBK mystery fiction reflects an aesthetic, rather than a gender, bias (I might also add that it seems a bit condescending on the part of academics to apply the label "influential male connoisseurs" to Haycraft and Symons, as if anyone without an advanced college degree cannot be deemed a "scholar" of the mystery genre; much to the contrary of this elitist view, Julian Symons, for example, was beyond question one of the great twentieth-century autodidacts--not only a formidable writer but a formidable mind).

It also should be noted that Haycraft praised individual HIBK writers.  Of Mary Roberts Rinehart herself, Haycraft lauded her ability to produce "a mood of sustained excitement and suspense that renders the reader virtually powerless to lay her books down" ("despite their logical shortcomings," he added).  Haycraft also singled out for praise, among others, Mignon Eberhart, Leslie Ford, Dorothy Cameron Disney, Anita Blackmon, Margaret Armstrong and Mabel Seeley.

Most of all Mabel Seeley.  To Seeley Haycraft devotes two pages of Murder for Pleasure, dubbing her the "White Hope" who promised to "pilot the American-feminine detective story out of the doldrums of its own formula-bound monotony."

So why this fuss about Mabel Seeley (it will also be recalled that Judge Lynch of the Saturday Review chose her novel The Crying Sisters as one of the seven best crime novels of 1939)?  Find out what I think about all this, if you want, in Part Two, coming tomorrow.


  1. This is a fine encapsulation of that section of Haycraft's book. I also admire the way you continue to point out how the academics tend to misread and reinterpret the reference books of the past in an attempt to create pointless controversy and dissension that does not exist to anyone who reads what's on the page.

    I await your assessment of dear departed Mabel. I'm willing to give her a few points for some creativity and original spins, but I sure prefer Disney to Seeley.

  2. "Would you like to buy a murder mystery which I am sorry to say I did not rent but owns? I wouldn't have bought it had I but known it was filled with had I but knowns."
    With apologies to Ogden Nash, whom I've probably misquoted.

    Dr. Nickerson's criticisms of Howard Haycraft seem interesting, but perhaps with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight coupled with a viewpoint at a great distance from Haycraft's immersion in that period's mystery milieu. I have a great deal of respect for Haycraft's insights into the market and the genre, so I'll merely suggest that Dr. Nickerson has an academic axe to grind at his expense. (But dissing old-fashioned mystery critics is a dangerous pastime in a field that is proud of its "publish or perish" sentiment; you may find yourself the victim in a murder mystery!)

    My own sentiments about the HIBK are that it is a particularly poor brand of commercial fiction, written with more deliberation than skill to appeal specifically to the middle-aged woman who made up a large percentage of the mystery-buying public at the time. Really, the technique is paraphrasable as "Tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you've told them." But I suggest it's a dim reader who needs to be told what she's about to experience so that she'll know she got what she paid for when she reads it. I'm glad the HIBK has passed from fashion.