|a cornerstone genre history|
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 romance...one 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
"women who gum up the plot"
"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
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."
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.