As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, written by H. Douglas Thomson in 1931. One of the things which I’ve been getting out of it is an idea of what the popular mystery novels were at the time, which I’ve never heard of.
For full disclosure, the mystery authors I’ve actually read something by, from the early days and the golden age of mystery, are, in no particular order: Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, S.S. Van Dine, and Mary Roberts Rinehart.
It’s not a long list, and not all of them have been by recommendation. I read Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue because it was the first detective story. I read S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case out of curiosity since Van Dine had written up a set of rules of detective fiction I’ve seen referenced numerous times on Wikipedia. I read The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart because it was supposed to be the origin of the phrase, “The Butler Did It”. (See my series on that phrase, if you haven’t read it yet.) And I’ve read most of Fr. Knox’s mysteries, but I started because he was a friend of G.K. Chesterton and because he wrote a famous ten commandments of detective fiction.
So if we subtract those, the mystery writers from that era which I’ve actually read because someone recommended them to me are: Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, and Christie. In my youth, that was my impression of the time period.
As I grew older, I realized that there must be other mystery writers of the time period that I was just unfamiliar with, but it was only in recent years that I came to appreciate just how popular a genre mystery was in those days, both to read and to write.
The thing which really drove it home to me was a short story entitled What, No Butler? about the accidental detective, Broadway. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:
Incidentally, I looked up the two works cited. “What, No Butler?” seems to be a short story by Damon Runyon. I can’t find much information about it; according to Wikipedia it was in a book called Runyon on Broadway. It was performed on radio in 1946 and that performance is available on youtube. I don’t know when it was originally published. The story does have humor in it, but to call it satire seems like quite a stretch. Early in the story, the character Broadway (who I believe is a theater critic) says authoritatively upon finding out that a man was murdered that the butler did it. When he’s told that the victim didn’t have a butler, he insists that they have to find the butler, because in every play he sees with a murder in it, the butler did it.
What caught my attention was the reference, not to novels or even to magazine stories, but to plays. I know of literally one detective play, The Mousetrap, by Agatha Christie, which I only know about only because I was reading the wikipedia article about Ms. Christie. (Incidentally, it is the longest running play ever put on, being continually put on since 1952. Its 25,000th performance was in 2012.) There is evidence, though, that detective plays were fairly common.
This escaped me in no small part because plays have largely gone away as a form of common entertainment. Aside from high schools and community theater, plays are mostly a broadway affair for wealthy people and tourists in NYC. (This is not quite true, as there are actually plays elsewhere, but it is approximately true.) Back in the day, however, they seem to have had more of the role of television, these days, with plays being frequently written and performed for only a short time to be replaced by others. Television is a superior medium for this sort of fast-paced churn of mediocre writing, so it is natural that it would have eliminated it. But in that vane, we might take all of the episodes of a show like Murder, She Wrote to be somewhat representative of what plays of the era might have been like. Here today, gone tomorrow, and only meant for an evening’s entertainment.
Another blind spot in my knowledge of the time were short stories printed in magazines. Because novels are the dominant form of written fiction in our day, I tend think primarily of the novels written during the early days of detective fiction, or of collections of short stories. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, magazines had enormous circulations and were apparently where the real money was in writing fiction. Even novels which we read today as novels, from the time period, were frequently originally published as serializations in a magazine. But of course short stories were extremely popular.
Of these blind spots, I was to some degree cognizant. What Masters of Mystery really drove home to me was the great number of popular detectives even available in novels which I had never heard of.
I had seen a few references to Dr. Thorndyke in the Lord Peter Wimsey stories—it turns out that he was a character in Dr. Austin Freeman’s popular detective stories. There were many others I had not heard of, though, and the push and pull of what constitutes the ideal detective story, as each writers takes in his turn to write his own detective, is quite interesting to see.
Possibly the most interesting to me at the moment is Mr. A.E.W. Mason’s Inspector Hanaud. First appearing in a story published in 1910, he is thought to have had some influence on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, especially when it comes to physical description, but also to brilliant intuition and a psychological approach. Interestingly, in looking this up to confirm some points on Wikipedia, I ran into this:
Poirot’s name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.
So it seems that perhaps the second most famous detective of all time (the most famous being Sherlock Holmes) drew very heavy inspiration from a number of sources, most of which (aside from Holmes) have been long forgotten.
It is yet more evidence that it is not originality which matters, but the quality of execution.
That said, Agatha Christie was a very original writer. Not, precisely, in her subject matter, but in her approach to it. She managed to pull off things which others could not. Perhaps the greatest example of this is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Prior to this, Fr. Knox, in his decalogue, had given two rules which are here relevant:
- (1) The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
- (7) The detective himself must not commit the crime.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd broke both, and did so not only well, but even fairly. So well and so fairly that in a 1938 commentary on his rules, Fr. Knox said:
The second half of the rule is more difficult to state precisely, especially in view of some remarkable performances by Mrs. Christie. It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.
One such ingenious story would be enough for everyone, but Mrs. Christie pulled off at least a second, with her Murder on the Orient Express. This one did not break one of the rules of the decalogue, but it did break the generally unstated rule that there should be one or two murderers. Instead, Mrs. Christie pulled off a story in which everyone (with a few minor exceptions) did it. Every suspect (and several non-suspects) turned out to be guilty. Her originality consisted not in the idea—”everyone did it” is the sort of thing anyone might think of—but in figuring out how to make it work.
This is something those of us writing today should take to heart. In English class in high school we hear much about originality and genius. The reality of writing novels is that what really matters is doing a good job.