A reading of "So You're Going to Write Mystery" makes clear that what one might call Kurt Steel's aesthetics of mystery writing were similar to those of Raymond Chandler, who followed Steel into print with a novel, The Big Sleep (1939), by four years, although he had been publishing short fiction in the pulps since December 1933, with the appearance of "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" in Black Mask. Both men cited Dashiell Hammett as a guiding angel, though Steel in the article also discusses S. S. Van Dine, to whom deference still was paid at this time by many in the United States (where he had once been a huge bestseller) as one of the leading exponents of the classical, puzzle-oriented mystery novel.
In the beginning of the essay Steel (who was actually NYU philosophy professor Rudolf Kagey) jumps right into a problem that then much preoccupied mystery fiction theorists of the day (and would continue to do for decades to come, as, for example, when Julian Symons and Jacques Barzun jousted over the question in the 1970s): the distinction between the mystery as story and the mystery as puzzle. Steel was most definitely in the story school, as he saw it.
|Rudolph Kagey (aka Kurt Steel) in the classroom|
at left are three NYC policemen who were taking special classes at NYU
"The problem of compiling a puzzle is one which belongs properly to the realm of logic and mathematics," Steel pronounced. "As such it has nothing to do with the problem of writing a story. Nothing whatever. If you intend to write mysteries, you must understand that, and you must bear it in mind constantly. You must learn, first of all, to write a story, a yarn, fiction that is honest and true in its own right, about people who are real with that impelling reality that people in well-written fiction have always had since Homer's day."
Steel declared that the "traditional detective story," by which he meant one centered strictly on the murder problem ("Who killed Cock Robin?"), is "simply a freezing of this universal pattern into one small and cramping mold."
|the classic confession scene|
Like other prominent mystery fiction theorists at the time like Chandler and Dorothy L. Sayers, Steel was calling on the mystery story to move into the mainstream of fiction by adopting the qualities of the so-called "straight" novel; not relying "merely" on the puzzle to carry the tale, but rather the qualities of good writing, characterization, setting and scene.
"If you expect to be a success at writing mystery stories, you must set yourself to impressing people in such a way that they will not readily forget the stories you write. That is the test. To do that you must create something, not merely record the intricacies of the puzzle....a cash customer's experience in reading your story must be predominantly emotional. He must, in the act of reading what you have written, feel sympathy, suspense, hatred, grief, concupiscence, jubilation. In short, he must participate in events which are dramatic because they involve the lives of genuine people brought together only incidentally by crime...."
Steel turned for an example to Dashiell Hammett's keystone hard-boiled text, The Maltese Falcon:
|creator of the "blond Satan"|
The Maltese Falcon is a book you don't forget, and it is that because it is a whale of a good yarn about fascinating people."
This emphasis on the mystery as being dependent primarily on the reader's emotional rather than ratiocinative engagement certainly goes against the Barzun school of mystery criticism, which cherishes the problem-oriented detective novel above all other forms of mystery. However, Steel did not, as Chandler sometimes seemed to, utterly discount the matter of the puzzle.
|sitting in judgment|
S. S. Van Dine
Seventeen of the rules, Steel pronounced, "should be committed sternly to heart by anyone who tries to construct detective stories," as they "give a brilliant and simple chart of the pitfalls to be avoided."
Steel doesn't say what are Van Dine's three offending rules, but I feel confident that two he had in mind were the ones dealing with love interest and, to quote Van Dine's memorable term, "literary dallying":
#3 There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment.
#16 A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and detection.
Then there's the one (#17) that proscribes professional criminals as culprits, on the ground that the crimes such people commit "are the province of the police department--not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives." Sniffed Van Dine: "Such crimes belong to the routine work of the Homicide Bureau." (And. I might add more cynically, it saves the author from having to learn about police procedure.)
Steel offered three substitutions for Van Dine's "dubious trinity":
|the sharp slap of reality|
2. The detective should be mortal like his opponent, not an observer of human frailties from the arctic eminence of his infallibility. I have always been very careful to record Hyer's shortcomings candidly, never to gloss over his mistakes and the jams in which they land him. Anyone who likes Hyer, likes him as a human being, not a calculating machine.
3. The pattern of the story should be such that minor characters are permitted to manifest a wider range of emotional response than merely fear, bewilderment, and prostration at the genius's feet. That is, they should reveal idiosyncrasies, get into peripheral scrapes, make love. In Judas, Incorporated I have extended the emotional latitude to include Hyer himself.
|a chess problem|
No "oh-so-irritating wise guy crap here" (see my immediately previous post). Just well-meant advice for neophyte mystery-writers. How on point do you find it? Certainly it was in accord with the temper of the times, as most modern crime fiction, I believe, tries, at least, to follow ideas similar to those laid out in Steel's three addenda.