|T. S. Eliot|
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|
[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.