Thursday, September 7, 2017

From Sweet Delight to Sheer Dross? George Orwell on the Transformation of British Detective Fiction, 1890-1940

It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war.  The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk.  You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by a suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood.  Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight. The air is warm and stagnant.  In these blissful circumstances, what is it you want to read about?

Naturally, about a murder....

                              --George Orwell, The Decline of the English Murder (1946)

It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid.  Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel--the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novels--seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories.  [Emphasis added--TPT.]  But their consumption of detective stores is terrific. One of our subscribers to my knowledge read four or five detective stories every week for over a year, besides others which he got from another library. What chiefly surprised me was that he never read the same book twice.  Apparently the whole of that frightful torrent of trash...was stored for ever in his memory.

In a lending library you see people's real tastes, not their pretended ones....

                              --George Orwell, Bookshop Memories (1936)

Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.  In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be "This book is worthless," while the truth about the reviewer's own reaction would probably be "This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to." But the public will not pay to read that sort of thing.  Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation.  But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.  For if one says--and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week--that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word "good"?

The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books, and to give very long reviews--1,000 words is a bare minimum--to the few that seem to matter....

                              --George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer (1946)

By his own declaration, George Orwell (1903-1950) was not a fan--to quote one of the favorite cliches of the most recent American president--of the Golden Age mystery novel, either in its puzzler or thriller variants. (Neither Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men, see above, nor Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, see below, met with his approbation.) This fact makes it odd to me that it has been speculated that Orwell might have "ghosted" Murder at Liberty Hall, a 1941 detective novel by an old school chum, art critic Alan Clutton-Brock. (Review coming!)

Yet Orwell for all his adult life retained great affection for the detective writers he had read in his youth: Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), R. Austin Freeman (Dr. Thorndyke), Ernest Bramah (Max Carrados).  In 1949, less than eleven months before his death, he passingly wrote his childhood friend Jacintha Buddicom of his fondness for Freeman, asking her:

Do you remember our passion for R. Austin Freeman?  I have never really lost it, and I think I must have read his entire works except some of the very last ones.  I think he only died quite recently, at a great age" [RAF in fact had passed away six years earlier, having reached his 81st year, which may well have seemed quite an advanced age to the 45-year-old, grievously ill Orwell]

In a 1945 essay, Good Bad Books, Orwell classified under this heading--which he defined as "the kind of book which has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished"--the crime tales of Doyle, Freeman and Bramah, as well as the Raffles stories of E. W. Hornung.

His longest statement on the subject is found, however, in "Grandeur et decadence du roman policier anglais," an essay originally published in 1943 in the Free French journal Fontaine that has remained obscure for decades (perhaps because it first appeared in the French language, or perhaps because Orwell authorities simply have not been interested in a somewhat lengthier exploration by Orwell of this topic).

In this essay Orwell again praises the trio he read in his youth--Doyle, Freeman, Bramah--while condemning that which was then "modern" crime fiction.  Appallingly to admirers of between-the-wars, or Golden Age, detective fiction, Orwell pinpoints precisely this era as the period when detective fiction declined into the "frightful torrent of trash" to which he had referred so scathingly in Bookshop Memories:

It was between 1920 and 1940 that the majority of detective stories were written and read, but this is precisely the period that marks the decline of the detective story as a literary genre.  Throughout these troubled and frivolous years, "crime stories" as they were called (this title includes the detective story proper as well as the "thriller" where the author follows the conventions of Grand Guignol), were in England a universal palliative equal to tea, aspirins, cigarettes and the wireless. These works were mass-produced, and it is not without some surprise that we find that their authors include professors of political economy [this presumably a reference to the leftest English academic GDH Cole, one of the subjects of my book The Spectrum of English Murder] and Roman Catholics [apparently a reference both to Ronald Knox, a priest, and to G. K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown detective tales seem to receive short shrift, or no shrift whatsoever, from Orwell, whose 1945 essay Antisemitism in Britain accused Chesterton of engaging in "literary Jew-baiting...of an almost continental level of scurrilty"] as well as Anglican priests.  Any amateur who had ever dreamed of writing a novel felt capable of tackling a detective story, which requires only the haziest knowledge of toxicology and a plausible alibi to conceal the culprit.  Yet soon the detective story started to get more complicated; it demanded more ingenuity if its author were to satisfy the reader's constantly growing appetite for violence and thirst for bloodshed.  The crimes became more sensational and more difficult to unravel.  It is nevertheless a fact that in this multitude of later works there is hardly anything worth re-reading.  

Things were not always like this....

Orwell then goes on to contrast this current dismal state of affairs, as he saw it, with the detective fiction of the years of his youth (the 1910s):

a spot of violence, surely
Entertaining books are not always bad books. [How about "good bad books"?--TPT]  Between 1880 and 1920 we had in England three specialists in the detective story who showed undeniably artistic qualities. [Orwell then cites, once again, Doyle, Freeman and Bramah] The Memoirs and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Max Carrados and The Eyes of Max Carrados by Bramah, The Eye of Osiris and The Singing Bone by Freeman are, together with the two or three short stories of Edgar Allan Poe which inspired them, the classics of English detective fiction.  We can find in each of these works a quality of style, and even better an atmosphere, which we do not usually find in contemporary authors (Dorothy Sayers, for example, or Agatha Christie or Freeman Wills Croft [sic]).*

*(In a review of Sayers's Gaudy Night, Orwell wrote:

By being, on the surface a little ironical about Lord Peter Wimsey and his noble ancestors, she is able to lay on the snobbishness ["his lordship," etc.] much thicker than any overt snob would dare to do.  Also, her slickness in writing has blinded many readers to the fact that her stories, considered as detective stories, are very bad ones.  They lack the minimum of probability that even a detective story ought to have, and the crime is always committed in a way that is incredibly tortuous and quite uninteresting.)

Was Orwell like the users who haunt music upload pages on YouTube, lamenting--albeit in his case most eloquently at 1500 to 2500 words at a time--how today's songs are so much worse than the wonderful tunes of their youth?  I can imagine admirers of Dorothy L. Sayers scoffing at the notion that R. Austin Freeman's works--which crime writer and critic Julian Symons, a friend of Orwell's (see below), compared the reading of to chewing straw--have more "atmosphere" and "quality of style" than Sayers's.  (Of course Symons had some dismissive things to say about Sayers as well.)

Whatever you may think of Orwell's criticism, however, it is clear that he thought crime fiction from the between-the-wars period was far from representing, to borrow a recent term, a "Golden Age of Murder."  In his view, as he expressed it, Golden Age crime fiction was not golden but rather, dross--the so-called Golden Age being a time when, as he saw it, sensation and over-complication overtook the genre, to its grave detriment.

Dorothy L. Sayers: an extremely
morbid interest in corpses?
In  a letter written to Julian Symons in 1949, at about the same time he was writing Jacintha Buddicom extolling the merits of R. Austin Freeman, Orwell urged Symons to send him a copy of Bland Beginning, Symons's latest mystery "thriller."  "I'm rather an amateur of detective stories," Orwell confided to the younger author, "although, as you know, I have old-fashioned taste in them.  I recently by the way read for the first time The Postman Always Rings Twice--what an awful book...."

Given his consistently expressed repulsion for violence in crime fiction, Orwell's distaste for the shocks and horrors that James M. Cain's Postman delivered hard on the nose is not a surprise (though perhaps the fact that he waited fifteen years after the book's publication to read it is).

In one of his more famous essays, Raffles and Miss Blandish (1944), Orwell, drawing on the tales of Hornung's hero and James Hadley Chase's crude Sanctuary knockoff, the crime novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), again contrasts English crime fiction "then and now," condemning what he deems the sadism and authoritarianism of the modern stuff. 

"Some of the early detective stories do not even contain a murder," notes Orwell, again drawing on his sacred trio, Doyle, Freeman and Bramah. "Since 1918, however, a detective story not containing a murder has been a great rarity, and the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited. Some of the Peter Wimsey stories, for instance, display an extremely morbid interest in corpses."

Orwell is one of my favorite writers and a brilliant and brave essayist, but I can but conclude that in the paragraph above he is rather talking out of his hat, which certainly is not the first time a carping intellectual has done so about detecitve fiction.

Part of the problem here is Orwell's loose language in this context. Just what does he mean by "stories"? In the pre-WW1 period, mystery writers like Doyle, Freeman and Bramah wrote primarily longish short stories, while in the postwar period the novel became unquestionably the more popular form for mystery.

During the Golden Age the ratiocinative detective novel was considered the province of murder, not because of morbidness or sensationalism, as Orwell suggests, but because it was believed that murder was the only crime worth the candle, so to speak--the only sin that was sufficiently serious to justify lengthy fictional investigation. Jewelry thefts and financial frauds were all well and good, and they continued to crop up with considerable frequency in the short stories of the Golden Age, but they were merely appetizers to the main course of murder in most people's eyes. Similarly pre-WWI crime novels (as opposed to short stories) by Doyle and Freeman, like later ones by Sayers and Christie, most often concerned not lesser crimes, but murder. (I am sure some fans out there could provide some exact statistical breakdowns.)

Of course Orwell was perfectly free to dismiss the modern thriller, including the hard-boiled and noir variants, on the grounds that they were too coarse and sensationalistic for him (many modern fans of classic mystery feel the same way); but I think Orwell erred in so sweepingly condemning the Golden Age's true detective novel.

To be sure, there were plenty of hacks churning out hack work and even, let's be frank, flat-out rubbish in that era, but then so too were there in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.  Freeman and Bramah were undoubted aces from that age, but the "rivals of Sherlock Holmes," as they have been termed, also included some pretty pale imitations, individuals who were not producing genre gems but rather pure paste.  Yet both periods deserve ultimate judgment based on their better writers, surely.

a good violent murder with lots of blood
However, Orwell professed not to like first stringers Sayers or Christie or Crofts either. I think Orwell went through a process some of us go through, when we feel we have "outgrown" detective fiction upon reaching adulthood and attending college--though Orwell still retained a nostalgic fondness for his childhood favorites, Doyle, Freeman and Bramah. 

I know this happened with the late James Yaffe and the author and critic Michael Dirda, who has charmingly written about this subject in his work, and it definitely happened with me as well. Some of us, like Yaffe and Dirda (and myself as well, obviously), later returned to mystery fiction with a renewed passion for it, recovering for it the zest of our youth, tempered in a fashion by time.

With this in mind, I suspect that Orwell was frequently more tempted by detective fiction than he preferred to acknowledge (just like Raymond Chandler had more of a liking for classic British detective fiction than he cared to admit publicly--he shared Orwell's admiration for austere R. Austin Freeman, for example, though neither man liked Sayers's more posh stuff).

There is something rather puritanical about Orwell's attitude toward crime fiction: touch not the unclean thing, it's escapist entertainment!  Like Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), the American writer and critic of "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" infamy (to vintage mystery fans), who also had derived pleasure from the Sherlock Holmes tales in his youth, Orwell thought there were better and more important books to read in the insufficient mortal time we are all allotted on this earth.

So, while I doubt Orwell actually wrote Murder at Liberty Hall, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he talked about it with Alan Clutton-Brock--a bit of a vicarious thrill, as it were.  But I'll be talking more about this matter in my review of the novel, coming soon as mentioned!

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