The Detective Story circa 1930

“We do not have to decide who is the villain in a detective story or who is the hero; nor does it lead us to the melancholy conclusion that there are neither heroes nor villains in life but only men. The fight it portrays is a straight fight, and the detective must win. It is a battle of wits – an eternal line instead of the tediously eternal triangle. Thus any extraneous matter introduced into a detective story – love interest, for instance – spoils it.”

This excerpt from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s newspaper write-up at his death on July 8, 1930, gives us a view of how the mystery was viewed in its golden years. Pure escape for the weary, with no messy morality or romance. Sherlock Holmes was certainly that sort of a detective, extremely rational, even to the point of irrationality, but mostly without an emotional side. He appeals to a certain type of reader who mostly reads to suss things out, to crack the puzzle. For me a story, whether detective or not, needs to reflect human nature and be realistic. Not so to this Guardian writer seventy-three years ago:

“A good detective story should be all detective. The characters should not be alive, but only opposed forces working to plan. For detective stories, like chess, have their openings, and the end of a good game is always mate.”

Wildly popular to this day, Sherlock Holmes is more than a thinking robot though. He is the kind of man who is smarter than us all, who leads us to the truth, who finds the detail everyone else has missed. He may not be pleasant to live with, ask Mrs. Hudson, but he is indispensable. And we love him for that. The writer tipped his hat to Doyle’s American forbearer:

“The first writer who saw the possibilities of crime investigation in fiction was Edgar Allan Poe. In such stories as “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Mystery of Marie Roget” he successfully applied the method of inductive reasoning to the solution of crime problems. It was a lucrative vein, and now everyone reads detective stories. The appeal they make is, perhaps, a little morbid: the same sort of appeal that leads people to queue up for hours to get a place at a murder trial or cluster in little groups round a closed door behind which they know an execution is going to take place. But detective fiction interests as well because it is so purely intellectual. That is to say, it creates no moral problems: analyses no tangled emotions.”

Today detective fiction deals with almost exclusively moral problems. We’ve come a ways since Sherlock Holmes. Not sure how lucrative the veins are, but readers do still love a twisty tale of intrigue and murder. We haven’t come so far as that.

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