Detective Fiction and Edmund Wilson: A Rejoinder

(more than 50 years late)

About fifty years ago Edmund Wilson, the noted critic, author, and curmudgeon penned a regular column for The New Yorker entitled, "Books". At the end of 1944 and in early 1945 he wrote three columns dedicated to detective fiction in which he unmercifully and rather clumsily attacked detective fiction and those who read it. It is not clear how much damage he inflicted or how many timid readers he coerced into becoming closet mystery fans but it is time to respond and repudiate his flawed and arrogant arguments.

His first column "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?" (October 14, 1944) begins with a comment that explains a great deal about his negativity toward the genre. He states, "Almost everybody I know seems to read them and they have long conversations about them in which I am unable to take part!" We can only assume that he hobnobbed with some distinguished members of the literati but was not keeping up with the newest trend in hot literature. He was clearly miffed (he does actually mention luminaries such as Jacques Barzun, Bernard DeVoto and Somerset Maugham who were detective story fans and defenders!). He decided therefore to take a look at some specimens of this school of writing and pass judgements. He then rendered very negative assessments of Rex Stout (although he rather enjoyed Nero Wolf's rich dinners, quiet evening and residence on farthest West 35th Street), Agatha Christie (I did not care for Agatha Christie and never expect to read another one of her books!), and Dashiel Hammett (The Maltese Falcon was not much above newspaper picture strips).  He never provides any explanation other than ex-cathedra loathing for the stories in most cases.  Even more interesting is his concern for the great and growing popularity of detective stories - he glibly explains this by noting that the years between the world wars filled people with guilt and fear of impending disaster and the detective provides the murderer and relief: it is not a person like you or me, after all. If only Wilson had stopped pontificating and read enough detective stories he would have found that many of the murderers and assorted other culprits were indeed just like us! In all three columns, however, Wilson confesses a great weakness for Sherlock Holmes stories and, for him, Moriarity was a wonderful arch villain resembling no normal person. In most crime fiction the perpetrator is usually someone the reader never suspects would be a villain is a very normal person!

The second article, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd: A Second Report on Detective Fiction" (June 20, 1945) is largely a response to what he describes as a volume of passionate mail protesting his analysis in the initial piece. Our magnanimous keeper of the canon thus decides to read even more of the "stuff". He read Dorothy Sayers and claimed that Nine Tailors was "one of the dullest books I have ever encountered". I will grant that Sayers can be dull and Lord Peter Wimsey, her crime solver, can be a pain, but Nine Tailors is a superb work, filled with believable characters and a wondrous landscape that plays an eerie and important role in the novel. He claims it is too long and too detailed (his own To The Finland Station is 590 pages and truly dull!). He becomes gravely vicious stating that Sayers "attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level". This consistently contradictory critic then tells the readers that he enjoyed Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely! In typical fashion, however, he concludes by claiming the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.

The third column, "Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound" (Feb.17th. 1945) continues the vitriol and contradictions. He claims he had received even more letters and that most agreed with him. The negative letters, he notes, contained furious reactions that "confirm me in my conclusions that detective stories are actually a habit-forming drug for which its addicts will fight like tigers". One can only conclude that he wrote this column in his cups because he does confess, "in my turn, that since first looking into this subject last fall I have myself become addicted, by spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes". This final contradiction is followed by a loving recounting of the great Doyle stories literature on a humble but not ignoble level and the admirable settings.

What is to be made of this cockamamie trio of pieces that appear to be stimulated by Wilson's contrary nature and characterized by confessions, condemnations and contradictions? Surely not much. Mr. Wilson found himself left out of a new reading trend and rather than objectively getting into the game, he condemns, belittles and finally admits that even the great Pooh-Bah finds himself somewhat addicted to some of it is amazing given the little he actually read. The three articles are much more revealing about the character of Mr. Wilson than the literary genre he tried to demean. Unfortunately he may have influenced the large readership of the New Yorker which is why it is important to point out the serious flaws in the articles and arguments.

Given this background it seems only fair that the other side of the argument regarding mystery fiction or detective stories be told and that is the aim of this piece.

I do wonder at times if Wilson's influence isn't the reason I am frequently disappointed when I enter into a conversation about the mystery or crime fiction genre. All too often I am confronted with disparaging remarks about this body of literature and the quality of "that stuff". Such opinions are especially surprising from people who, like Wilson, presumably know a great deal about books and literature. They include librarians, booksellers, book reviewers and other relatively educated individuals. It never ceases to amaze me how widespread are such negative and misinformed opinions and I sense the ghost of that old curmudgeon hanging about. Clearly there is a need to correct such an unfortunate situation.

Detective fiction or mysteries is a body of literature that engages the reader. One can hardly read passively when one is invited to pay close attention to the characters and the plot in order to try to solve the crime before the author solves it for the reader. A good mystery invites the reader into the action and provides a level of intellectual stimulation (even in the worst of crime novels). The reader is not lectured at or enveloped in the emotional travails of some lovelorn soul in pain.

Secondly, the mystery always begins with an ordered society that becomes disordered by the commission of a crime of some sort (anyone who reads this literature knows that the crimes can range from theft to murder and even more esoteric types of disorder). Consequently, the reader is introduced to a real society - a society filled with many types of people in a social, economic, geographic context that informs, entertains and enlightens. As the great Eudora Welty has pointed out, there is no fiction without place. Hence, the mystery must deliver a real place over which the action takes place. Places range from the country house to the mean urban streets to wherever crime occurs - everywhere! In a sense the mystery is social science literature laden with information about people, environments, social structures, politics, law enforcement systems and much more. Readers can become one with the Navaho country of Tony Hillerman or the means streets of Chicago with Sarah Paretsky or the beaches of touristy Martha's Vinyard with Philip Craig. Many mystery authors are much better than tourist guides and much easier to read. Try Donna Leon to really get to know Venice or read Dana Stabenow to experience vicariously the beauty of Alaska and the fascination of its native cultures.

Even more intriguing are mysteries set in foreign places. The mystery as literary genre spatially diffused from the original Poe story (set in Paris) to all points of the globe. It is especially important to understand that the detective story was adopted and adapted to the special conditions of each culture in each country. The crime story in Japan, for example, was added to a tradition of fiction with ghosts and spirits that still appear in modern Japanese mysteries. These stories reflect a society where guns are rare and there is an aversion to violent, swashbuckling private detectives. The Japanese mystery is almost always a police procedural reflecting the nation's concern for an orderly society defended by establishment police. Incidentally, mysteries are extraordinarily popular in Japan. In many parts of Latin America the mystery has been turned upside down and the criminals are depicted as the "good guys" and the police or the state are the "criminals". The mystery in many Latin contexts has become a political protest literature. Authoritarian governments in the former Soviet bloc used the genre to depict their heroic security forces (KGB, etc) as defenders of the state from Western capitalists and spies. Although the mystery arrived in Israel relatively late, it has been warmly embraced by mainstream writers and even poet. It has been used effectively to depict the social problems of this complex society. This remarkable genre embraced in every culture of the world, has been altered to meet the tastes and needs of that special place. In sum, the mystery is a remarkable genre. It takes many forms in many places and can educate, stimulate and entertain the open-minded, intelligent reader.

A singular problem of detective stories is their immense popularity. It is, by my estimate, the most popular form of literature in most countries. Consequently, the demand for mysteries is huge and results in a great deal of low-quality material produced for a voracious market. This is, however, not a failing of the genre but rather a failure of publishers and a weakness of the reading public. Raymond Chandler once noted that there are as many mediocre novels written as mysteries but the mediocre novel does not get published! Indeed, publishers are guilty because they are primarily influenced by the bottom line and thus the taste employed in selecting material for publication is determined all too often by bizarre topics and exaggerated crimes. In many ways crime fiction resembles the American movie industry where they believe the most violent, sexy, crude, and salacious stuff sells best and is easier to sell to an international market (explosions, screams and bare bodies need little translation!). To resolve the problem a better-educated audience is needed - one not influenced by Wilsons who know little and understand less about mysteries. Readers should read intelligent reviews and subscribe to journals about mysteries (there are many) and use the resources of the Internet to find the best writers and the best books. The mystery community awards annual prizes in many categories and this information is available in many places. There are superb mystery bookstores in many communities where one can find intelligent and enlightened help (from sellers, buyers, and authors!). Most mystery bookstores have newsletters, web sites and catalogues that are literate and crammed with first-rate information about new books, re-published classics and much more. Publishers, on the other hand must somehow be convinced that there is more to be gained by publishing quality mysteries rather than schlock simply to fill shelves. I don't dare list examples of the litter on the bookshelves of booksellers in recent years because my lawyer would divorce me! In many of the columns I have written, especially about foreign mysteries, I decried the lack of effort and even interest by publishers in some of the finest mystery writing in the world by Argentine, Israeli, Czech, Russian and many other non-English language authors. There is a world of great reading in the globalized arena but it may require a little effort, intelligence and cost to find and translate these remarkable works.

It is fascinating to note that many very interesting, accomplished and important people have been strongly attracted to mysteries. Almost every U.S. president (except the most ditzy or dishonest ones) was a great mystery fan - Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton. Some of the most talented literary stars of the past and present were and are devotees of the mystery and even wrote (write) them. Faulkner, Thurber, Milne, Allende, Twain, Greene, Dostoyevski, Chekhov, Capek, Borges, Updike (whose "Bech Noire" appeared in The New Yorker, June 8, 1998), Oates, Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and many others were readers and authors of mysteries. An excellent recent anthology of stories edited by Michele Slung (Murder and Other Acts of Literature, St. Martin's, 1997) demonstrates deliciously the attraction of crime for many of the world's great writers. There are many mystery writers whose fame and work will never disappear from some fictional hall of fame of literary writers. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes will never fade away (as even Mr. Wilson verified in his dismal columns) and Raymond Chandler has already entered America's literary canon. Agatha Christie's books have sold in the many millions and have been produced on television and in the cinema. Her work as well as that of Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Sayers and many others will still be on bookstore shelves at the end of the new millennium. Many other works by mystery authors such as Chesterton, Stout, Hillerman, and P.D. James (to mention only a very few) will outlive some of the literary luminaries of the past and present because they tell stories to which we can all relate in ways that are elegant and unforgettable.

Many of my friends and acquaintances even today, when pressed, confess to being closet readers of mysteries. It is difficult to understand why it is necessary to be a closet reader of a genre that is worthy of the most demanding, literate and even arrogant reader. The trick is to know something about this body of writing. The mystery is a truly worthy literature. There exists an army of us around the globe who love it and cannot wait for the next adventure into a place where a crime will draw us into a world of mental stimulation and reading pleasure. In the words of one of the most enduring and greatest fictional characters of all time, "the game is afoot": time to pick up a good mystery!


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