Poirot's Voice

In Masters of Mystery, by H. Douglas Thomson, there’s a chapter called The Orthodox Detective (as opposed to “the realistic detective story,” “the domestic detective story,” “the thriller,” etc). Curiously, it is entirely about Agatha Christie. I suppose that this is almost fitting, as in 1930 she was something of a genre unto herself.

In some ways, she still is.

Anyway, there’s a section where Thomson talks about Poirot’s voice, in the sense of how he speaks, and he translates a small section from the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze into how it would read as a Poirot story. I think he does a excellent job of it, so I wanted to quote it here as it’s very interesting to compare and contrast.

In Silver Blaze:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing int he night-time.”
“That was the curious incident.”

In translation:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“There is the dog,” he said. “Always I think of that dog in the night. Always it perplexes, that one. It is of a mystery the most profound.”
“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Précisément,” he replied softly. “That is the mystery, mon ami.”

Thomson goes on to note that when Poirot is in the thick of things, his language becomes more direct and even “mon ami” gets softened to “my friend”.

This is intentional on the part of Christie, she talked about it outside of the stories and even Poirot occasionally talked about it within his stories. Poirot tended to speak in Frenglish in one of two circumstances:

  1. When he wanted to disarm people. A man who has difficulty speaking the language will presumably have difficulty understanding the language and so he can’t be much of a threat.
  2. When he was dealing with people who disliked foreigners. He found that with such people the best way forward was to be very frankly a foreigner and so to give them the opportunity of forgiving him for it.

To some degree Poirot’s being a Belgian refuge from “The War” (i.e. World War I) served to explain why he was a private detective rather than a police officer—he had been a police officer in his native country but could hardly become a police detective in England.

His being a Belgian refuge also helped to make him interesting, and moreover, exotic enough to feel realistic in the unrealistic genre of the murder mystery. Unfortunately—or fortunately, as one sees it—crimes are rarely plotted out with brilliant intricacy and still less often are they unraveled by a brilliant detective who puts together the clues which other people miss. Whether this is because of the rarity of the brilliant crime or simply the rarity of catching the brilliant criminal, we cannot say for we do not know. It may be that brilliant people never commit carefully planned out murders. It may be that carefully planned murders happen all the time and people either do not suspect that the deaths are murders or the patsy who was framed is framed successfully and pays for the crime he didn’t commit, or perhaps these are just unsolved crimes where we know the crime was committed but have no leads.

Be that as it may, the brilliant detective solving a murder simply does not happen in real life (or at least nowhere near often enough for a man to build up a reputation, to say nothing of supporting himself on the proceeds of investigating such crimes). This creates a sort of tension in detective fiction because the fun comes from most of the story being realistic.

The solution generally seems to be to make the detective eccentric in some fashion. Not just any eccentricity will do, however. It has to be an eccentricity which pervades his interactions with his fellow creatures. If the reader’s normal experience of the detective is outside of the reader’s normal experience of real life, then the unreality of him being a detective at all is much easier to forget.

Forgotten Literary Influences

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. (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.
  2. (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.

One of the Great Mystery Endings

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. It’s an interesting book that I will share more from soon(-ish), but there was one little snippet which stands on its own and which I just have to share.

The reprint of The Leavenworth Case attracted some attention. A post-prandial pronouncement of Mr. Baldwin was presumably the origin of this venture, for on the jacket we read in bold black type from some continental foundry:

“Mr. Baldwin—speaking at a dinner of the American Society in London on the 29th of November, 1928, said: ‘An American Woman, the successor of Poe, Anna K. Green gave us The Leavenworth Case, which I still think one of the best detective stories ever written.'”

Something must have been wrong with the dinner. The Leavenworth Case is not by any means a first-class detective story. The detection is singularly elementary. The plot is hopelessly drawn out, and the melodrama is a sample of unnatural and stilted writing. It may be unfair to cut out a sentence or two from its context, but the climax cries aloud for glorious isolation:

“A silence ensued which, like the darkness of Egypt, could be felt. Then a great and terrible cry rang through the room, and a man’s form, rushing from I knew not where, shot by me and fell at Mr. Gryce’s feet shrieking out, ‘It is a lie! A lie! Mary Leavenworth is innocent as a babe unborn! I am the murderer of Mr. Leavenworth. I! I! I!”

I know nothing about The Leavenworth Case, and even my deep curiosity about all things will likely not involve me actually reading the thing. It is interesting to contemplate, however, that such a story was not only written, but published, and a room full of people who had just eaten was told that it was one of the finest detective stories ever written.

There is hope for us all.

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.

Talking of the Past in the Past

A few years ago a dear friend of mine gave me the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story, and I’ve finally started reading it. I’ll be writing about what it says about the detective story in another post; here I want to talk about something interesting in the timing of the book, and of the introduction which came later, as the copy I was given is actually a reprint.

Masters of Mystery was written by H. Douglas Thomson and originally published in 1931. The reprint and its foreward were made in 1978, three years short of the book’s fiftieth anniversary.

The book itself was written at an interesting time, given that 1931 was only the middle of the golden age of detective fiction and had yet to see most of the work of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, to name just two giants of the genre.

Further making it an interesting time, detective fiction was not that old. Granted, the first detective stories are generally reckoned to be Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin stories, the first of which, Murders in the Rue Morgue, being published in 1841. There seems to be fairly little—in English—before Conan Doyle published Sherlock Holmes in 1887. 1931 was a scant 44 years later. That is enough time for much to have happened, but it was still early days.

We come, now, to the foreward which interests me, being written a slightly longer time in the future, and taking a historical look at how Masters of Mystery held up. It was written by a E.F. Bleiler, who according to Wikipedia was “an American editor, bibliographer, and scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature.” He worked as an editor at the American publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons at the time of the reprint, but as he only left Dover in 1977 and it was Dover that did the reprint, it is possible that he wrote it while an editor at the publisher. He may have been, therefore, less an expert sought out for his opinion and more a man who happened to be around.

He praises the book, but also notes some weaknesses. Some may be fair, such as noting that Thomson leaves off much about the early days of detective fiction—for the understandable reason that not much was known, especially then and even now, of it.

He makes the somewhat odd claim that Detective mysteries were at the time Thomson wrote predominantly “house party” crimes. This is odd in that it’s simply false if predicated of the famous stories of the time. It was a common enough setting, but among the detective stories which have come to us at the time of my writing, it certainly did not predominate. How common it was amongst the stories which have long since been forgotten, I cannot say.

The really interesting claim, though, is rooted firmly in its time:

Thomson’s critical standards were often a function of his day, but two more personal flaws in his work must be mentioned. His worst gaffe, of course, is his failure to estimate Hammett’s work adequately. While Hammett-worship may be excessive at the moment, it is still perplexing that Thomson could have missed Hammett’s imagination, powerful writing, and ability to convey a social or moral message. Related to this lacuna is Thomson’s lack of awareness of the other better American writers of his day, men who stood just as high as the better English writers that he praises. It was inexcusable to be unaware of the work of Melville D. Post, F.I. Anderson and T.S. Stribling. It is also surprising, since all three men were writers of world reputation at this time.

To deal with the last, first: I’ve never heard of Post, Anderson, or Stribling. F.I. Anderson does not even have a wikipedia page. Such is the short duration of fame, I suppose, that a man can be castigated for not talking about famous men 48 years after his book that, 44 years later, are generally unknown.

Dashiell Hammett, I do of course know of. That said, it is funny to me to speak of Hammett as some sort of master that everyone must talk about. I’ve met exactly one person who seriously likes Dashiell Hammett’s writing, and I don’t even know his name—I struck up a conversation with him while waiting to pick up Chinese food one night.

I suspect that Hammett’s reputation in the 1970s was a product of the success of the movies based upon his books. The casting for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man were excellent, and anyone having seem them—as an editor working for Dover in 1977 almost certainly would have—cannot help but read the tremendous performances of the actors into the words on the page. If one does not picture Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, much of the magic is lost.

Again, I should note that in the main Blieler’s foreward is positive and mostly about how Masters of Mystery is worth reading. I was merely struck by how much the retrospective criticisms of it were a product of their time, but were phrased as if they were now timeless.