The Early Days of the Detective Story

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story. The first chapter deals with the question of whether the detective story is literature, and if so, whether it is good literature. There are two things that particularly caught my attention: the enormous popularity of the detective story, and the basic morality of the detective story.

The first is very interesting because I’ve seen it in detective fiction from the era, but I never knew what to make of that. The example which most leaps out at me is Harriet Vane’s reception by the dons in Gaudy Night. A great many of them had read her books and were fans. It almost has the same feeling as the near-universal name recognition of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. In Jessica’s case, however, we know this to be a tremendous exaggeration. It was more plausible in the case of Harriet Vane, though, because television had not yet been invented and talkies (movies with recorded dialog) were only in their infancy. It is, therefore, interesting to see a description, if, granted, from an interested party, of how widespread was the interest in detective stories around the time of 1930. It was popular with educated people, with common people, with respectable people—in short, there was no notable group of people not reading detective stories at this time.

The other interesting thing which leapt out at me was the critique of the detective story as dangerous to morals, and the response that the detective story was, fundamentally, a moral story. That is, the detective story takes as given the ordinary moral framework of right and wrong and man’s duty to do right and to refrain from doing wrong. This interests me so much, not because it is a revelation—it is, after all, obviously true—but because I’ve seen it used as an explanation for why the detective story is so enduringly popular even until our own times (I write this at the end of the year of our Lord 2019).

It has been argued (possibly even by me) that the detective story and its modern television cousin, the police procedural, is the only modern story in which basic morality is taken for granted. It is curious to see that this was to some degree true even in the early days of detective stories.

An example given as contrast was An American Tragedy, which was the only assigned reading in highschool I never finished. I just couldn’t stand the book; I made it about halfway through and gave up, reading the Cliff’s Notes instead of finishing the wretched thing. The short short version of it is that a young man makes all sorts of awful life choices during the great depression and is eventually executed for murdering a woman he seduced (in order to be available to marry a rich woman). The main character is a bad man who learns nothing, and the book does not even appreciate the justice of him paying for his crime.

It was published in 1925.

Bad books have been around for quite a long time.

One thought on “The Early Days of the Detective Story

  1. Pingback: The Red Thumb Mark – Chris Lansdown

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