Paul Grimstad's recent New Yorker essay
, "What Makes Great Detective Fiction, According to T. S. Eliot
" is an interesting and well-written piece, to be sure, though it tends to fall into the standard pattern of reflexively contrasting "quaint and artificial" "British murder mysteries"--"decorous country house puzzles"--with the "meaner, starker, bleaker kind of urban crime thriller" "taking shape across the ocean" from Britain in the United States.
Of course Grimstad means by the latter American hard-boiled crime fiction. T. S. Eliot's admiration for the classical, clue-puzzle detective novel (by no means always British) Grimstad suggests stems from Eliot's "sharp turn to the right politically," "his conversion to a man of royalist proclivities and religious faith." Eliot liked classical detective fiction, in short, because it provided order in a "fractured modern world."
The view that classical detective fiction and its audience are right-wing and hard-boiled detective fiction and its audience are left-wing is a common one, though in fact one familiar with the genre can easily find examples of left-wing writers and readers of detective fiction and right-wing writers and readers of hard-boiled crime fiction. Dashiell Hammett's left-wing sympathies are well-known, but Raymond Chandler himself is on record as criticizing Franklin Roosevelt and the Soviet Union and declaring
that he would have fought for the Confederate States of America during what he termed the "War Between the States." Some of the attitudes he evinced toward homosexuals and racial and ethnic minorities have caused even some of his fans (I like a good deal of his work myself) to squirm.
Similarly, in Britain the leftist intellectuals GDH and Margaret Cole were great fans of classical detective fiction, and began writing it themselves in the 1920s. Indeed, one could argue, I think, that the Socialists and Communists of the 20s and 30s had quite an interest themselves in instituting order in the world, albeit an order of a different sort.
So perhaps the popular right-life binary view of "cozy" and hard-boiled crime fiction is in need of some revising, but that I will save for a later day. I touch on some of this in an essay on Chandler called "The Amateur Detective Just Won't Do: Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction
," published in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in honor of Douglas G. Greene
(2014). I recommend it to Grimstad.
Incidentally, I wonder whether Grimstad read some of my work already? I first wrote on Eliot and his detective fiction criticism in The Criterion
, a surprisingly neglected subject (usually one just reads about his admiration for Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone
), in an article in CADS
in 2011, which I expanded into an essay, "Murder in The Criterion: T. S. Eliot on Detective Fiction
," also published in Mysteries Unlocked
I discussed my essay on my blog last June
, including in this piece a discussion of T. S. Eliot's detective fiction rules (rules of "detective conduct"), which he set down in The Criterion
in 1927. I had earlier discussed Eliot's great interest in classical detective fiction of the Golden Age on my blog in May
of that year.
I don't know whether Grimstad has read any of this work--there's certainly no mention of it in his New Yorker
piece--but what was even more striking to me when I read his essay is that he opens it discussing the correspondence concerning detective fiction between Russian author Vladimir Nabokov and American author and critic Edmund Wilson, the latter notoriously a detective fiction hater. To this subject I devoted an entire February 2015
blog piece, "The Bells and the Bees: Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov Discuss Detective Fiction
Here's Grimstad in the New Yorker
Yet everyone [Wilson] knew seemed to be addicted [to detective fiction]. His wife of the time, Mary McCarthy, was in the habit of of recommending her favorite detective novels to their emigre pal Vladmimir Nabokov; she lent him H. F. Heard's beekeeper whodunit "A Taste for Honey," which the Russian author enjoyed while recovering from dental surgery. (After reading Wilson's essay, Nabokov advised his friend not to dismiss the genre
tout court until he'd tried some Dorothy L. Sayers.)
I discuss all these points, and more, in my blog piece. It's the fifth most-read blog piece in my blog history, on account of the fact that Michael Dirda linked to it in a Washington Post review article
he wrote on the crime writer Todd Downing and my book about Downing, Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing
On other matters, I have about completed my current book project and there will be more about this soon on the blog, as well as some other projects of late and another book review. I hope it will be as interesting as discussions about Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot!