Historical Background (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Though Edgar Allan Poe generally is considered the father of detective fiction, some historians of the genre go as far back as ancient Greece and Herodotus’s tale of King Rhampsinitus or to the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders for the origins of this popular literary form. These putative sources share elements with mystery fiction—natural cunning, the cross-examination of witnesses, false clues—but lack major essentials. The same can be said about many other claimants, such as the popular crime narratives and rogue pseudomemoirs of eighteenth century England and also Voltaire’s Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; originally as Memnon: Histoire orientale, 1747; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749), in a chapter in which the hero uses analytical deduction to reach conclusions about things he has not seen. François-Eugène Vidocq’s Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de la police de sûreté jusqu’en 1827 (1828-1829; Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827, 1828-1829; revised as Histoire de Vidocq, chef de la police de sûreté: Écrite d’après lui-même, 1829), however, is a forerunner that was a direct influence on Poe and his successors. A former criminal who became the first head of the French police, Vidocq later set himself up as a private detective.
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Edgar Allan Poe (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—which takes place in Paris, as do his other mystery stories—is the seminal work from which all subsequent detective fiction descends. It is, first of all, the archetypal locked-room mystery, a subgenre in which a body is discovered in an apparently sealed room. Second, C. Auguste Dupin, the first fictional private detective, solves crimes that perplex the police and is the prototype of many later brilliant men (including Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, and Hercule Poirot), whose activities are described by admiring chroniclers. Third, in this and the other two stories in which he appears (“The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”), Dupin reaches solutions through what Poe called ratiocination, the process of logical and methodical reasoning. Finally, in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Dupin is a prototypical armchair detective, working from newspaper accounts to deduce a solution. In two other detective tales—“The Gold Bug” and “Thou Art the Man”—Poe also introduces devices that would become commonplace in the genre: false clues, the use of ballistics, a deciphered code, the detective as narrator, and the least likely suspect as culprit.
In the decades following the publication of these innovative stories, crime and detection were favorite subjects of the popular press in England, notably the sensational “penny dreadfuls” periodicals and Charles Dickens’s...
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Sherlock Holmes (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
With Dr. John Watson’s casebook of Sherlock Holmes, the detective story finally came into its own as a distinct genre. Building upon the example of Poe, a debt he acknowledged, Arthur Conan Doyle created the genre’s indelible pattern: a crime attempted or committed, a sleuth either working independently or aiding the baffled police, and a solution arrived at by the detective. Significantly, he added a vital element. Whereas Poe’s Dupin is an undeveloped, shadowy figure, Doyle’s Holmes is a real person, and in his fifty-six stories, Doyle presents a myriad of information about the character, whose activities add details to his persona. A Nietzschean superman, Holmes not only acts superior to others but also actually is so. He is an intriguing eccentric, uses drugs, plays the violin, is a master of disguise, is almost passionless, is an expert in anatomy, chemistry, the law, and mathematics, and has written many scholarly monographs on such varied topics as bees, tobacco, and the Cornish language. Holmes puts his far- ranging intellect to practical use in the stories, which tends to personalize the narratives. Also serving this function is the narrator, Dr. Watson, Holmes’s obsequious physician friend. An honest, likable man of average intellect, he is one with whom the reader can identify. While some tales, particularly later ones, are marred by improbabilities, contradictions, and inexplicable lapses in Holmes’s deductive acuity, the detective’s mythic...
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In the Wake of Holmes (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Holmes’s popularity spawned other sleuths who either share some of his major traits or are almost polar opposites. Among the supermen-detectives, for example, is Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, the creation of Jacques Futrelle, an American from Georgia. Van Dusen, an eccentric genius with many university degrees, is the omniscient sleuth in two collections, The Thinking Machine (1907; also known as The Problem of Cell Thirteen) and The Thinking Machine on the Case (1908; also known as The Professor on the Case). Futrelle’s best-known story is “The Problem of Cell Thirteen,” a locked-room mystery in which Van Dusen escapes from prison, disproving the challenge that “no man can think himself out of a cell.” Another superman in the same mode is Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah’s blind detective, who relies not only upon his deductive skills but also upon his superior sensory perception. For instance, he can tell that someone is wearing a false mustache because he smells adhesive and can read newspaper headlines by an acute sense of touch that enables him to distinguish areas of printer’s ink. Carrados also has what Bramah labels an elusive sixth sense, actually just a keen understanding of human psychology. In the Doyle pattern, Bramah provides a myriad of details about Carrados’s life, so he is a convincingly credible character, and the extent to which he has overcome the limitations of his affliction...
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Holmes Contemporaries and Successors (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
In deliberate contrast with the Holmes pattern, Arthur Morrison, a Doyle contemporary who also published in The Strand Magazine, wrote eighteen stories featuring law clerk Martin Hewitt, a determinedly ordinary man whose cases a journalist friend narrates. G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown also seems to be unexceptional but proves to be otherwise in fifty witty stories (published from 1911 to 1935) that are constructed around paradoxes. A prototype for later clergymen-sleuths, Father Brown relies on intuition and insight more than on deduction and clues, but like Holmes is a keen observer, trying to get inside the mind of a suspect and noticing what others overlook, as in “The Invisible Man,” in which the culprit disguises himself as a mailman, someone so familiar that people disregard him. Sympathetic toward criminals, the priest sometimes lets them go free so they can repent their sins and reform. Another detective who, like Father Brown, appears to be unexceptional, is M. McDonnell Bodkin’s Paul Beck, who also was deliberately conceived as the opposite of Holmes. Beck claims to muddle his way through cases, and other professionals scorn him, but his native wit serves him well. Similar to Holmes as a master of disguise but otherwise very different is A. J. Raffles, a gentleman burglar, safecracker, amateur cricketer—the brainchild of E. W. Hornung, Doyle’s brother-in- law. Supposedly created as an intentional contrast with Holmes (Hornung...
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American Pulp Magazines (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
During the decades covered thus far of the developing crime fiction genre, the short story was the dominant form, though most authors also wrote novels. Novels became the preferred form after World War I because of social, economic, and other developments, not the least of which was the rise of lending libraries in the United States and Great Britain, but many magazines in both countries continued to provide outlets for mystery stories.
Among them were the American “pulps,” which flourished between the world wars and published all kinds of popular fiction. The first crime fiction pulp magazine, Detective Story, debuted in 1915, and by the 1930’s many different pulps were devoted solely to the genre. Initially, most of their stories had Holmes-like Victorian settings, but soon an increasing number featured contemporary American milieus. Black Mask, which first appeared in 1920, quickly became the preeminent pulp, and its most prominent detective was Race Williams, whose 1923 debut story was “Knights of the Open Palm,” in which he infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. The brainchild of Carroll John Daly (who earlier had created a sleuth dubbed Three-Gun Mack), Williams became the first popular hard-boiled sleuth in a long line of such private investigators, including Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. A superb gunman, Williams is a fearless, snarling tough guy who engages in whatever seems...
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Guilty Vicarage Crime Fiction (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
While Daly, Hammett, Chandler, and their pulp peers were honing a distinctively American innovative approach to crime fiction, most American whodunit writers were still producing stories and books in the so-called Guilty Vicarage mold, basically English in setting and attitude, with detectives and plots that were almost as eccentric and aristocratic as those of Doyle and his followers. The phenomenally successful Philo Vance books by S. S. Van Dine, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s equally popular novels, and the early Ellery Queen are prime examples. In Great Britain, the successful old formula remained the order of the day, though with significant variations.
A landmark event in British crime fiction was the 1913 publication of E. C. Bentley’s Trent and the Last Case, which he intended as a gentle burlesque of detective conventions. It introduced the fallible sleuth and ironically is widely considered to have inaugurated the golden age of the English detective novel. (John Franklin Carter, a 1930’s journalist and White House official who wrote such mysteries as “Diplomat,” called Bentley the father of the contemporary detective story.) As Bentley explained his approach, it wasa more modern sort of character-drawing. The idea at the bottom of it was to get as far away from the Holmes tradition as possible. Trent does not take himself at all seriously. He is not a scientific expert; he is not a professional crime investigator. He is an artist, a...
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Peter Wimsey and Mr. Fortune (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Dorothy L. Sayers said that she based her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, in part on Philip Trent, and in fact, both are friendly, tactful, and gently humorous human beings. Historian and critic as well as practitioner of the craft, Sayers is considered by some to be a stellar writer of detective fiction, with imaginatively conceived, carefully wrought plots, and original means of murder; but to others she is verbose, writes peripheral and lengthy dialogues, and has a pompous snob, Lord Peter Wimsey, as her detective. Indeed, some of her stories and novels are more manners narratives than whodunits. Wimsey appears in twenty-one short stories, most of which proceed more briskly than do the novels, and in the later ones he is less a dandy and more a sleuth. The first collection Lord Peter Views the Body (1928) has a dozen stories, of which “The Abominable History of the Man with the Copper Fingers” is the among the most effective in its build-up of suspense. Of the twelve stories in Hangman’s Holiday (1933), Wimsey is in just four, and six of them feature another Sayers amateur sleuth, wine salesman Montague Egg. Of special interest in the volume is “The Man Who Knew How,” which has no detective. In the Teeth of the Evidence, and Other Stories (1939), the third collection, has two Wimsey stories, five Egg, and ten nonseries, one of the best being “The Inspiration of Mr. Budd.” In sum, Sayers’s nearly forty stories are...
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Agatha Christie (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Agatha Christie, a Bailey and Sayers contemporary, began writing when Sherlock Holmes took “his last bow” in 1917. The world’s most widely read whodunit writer, and one of the most prolific, she turned out more than eighty novels and short-story collections. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Detective Story, was published in 1920; four more novels plus a Hercule Poirot collection of stories followed in the next five years, and in 1926, she produced The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was both widely popular and highly controversial since the Watson-like narrator turns out to be the murderer. Although Christie built most of her narratives for half a century upon a standard template, she often springs Ackroyd-like surprises, but however much the deceptions perplex readers, she always plays fair. Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1928 defense of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is applicable to most Christie whodunits: “All the necessary data are given. The reader ought to be able to guess the criminal, if he is sharp enough, and nobody can ask for more than this. It is, after all, the reader’s job to keep his wits about him, and, like the perfect detective, to suspect everybody.”
Christie’s early works usually have the tripartite Doyle pattern of a private sleuth (Holmes/Poirot) and a foil (Watson/Hastings) helping the police (Lestrade/Japp), but within a decade she sent ignorant Hastings back to Argentina,...
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Ellery Queen (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
During the height of Christie’s popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, Ellery Queen became the best known American name in the genre as both a crime fiction sleuth and the pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. As Queen, they wrote novels and stories; in 1941 founded Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), which rejuvenated detective short fiction and remains an indispensable outlet for novice and established writers; edited anthologies that helped shaped the canon; and served as the genre’s unofficial bibliographers. Created in imitation of Philo Vance, an American Peter Wimsey, the Queen character (in his early manifestations) is a pseudosophisticate and pseudointellectual dandy with a pince-nez. The first book of Queen stories, The Adventures of Ellery Queen, was published in 1934, and its subtitleProblems in Deduction—unequivocally places it squarely in the Holmes tradition, as does “The Adventure of ” start to each title. Central to the stories is how young Queen solves sometimes bizarre riddles, such as finding a kidnapped banker in “The Adventure of the Three Lame Men.” Notable, too, is “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party,” a clever narrative whose events parallel those in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). A collection of nine stories, The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, appeared in 1940. Of four with sports backgrounds, one is a classic, “Man...
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Ross Macdonald (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Also transcending the limits of the genre, but very differently from Ellin, is Ross Macdonald, whose career ran from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. Having begun as a spy novelist, Macdonald in 1947 published Blue City (as Kenneth Millar), his first hard-boiled novel in the Hammett-Chandler tradition. In it and his later works, the fully realized characters and atypically complex plots are vehicles for such recurring themes as the Oedipal search for a father and variations on how people corrupt the American dream by greed and lack of vision. Each Macdonald novel is a tragedy wherein destruction is wrought from within the characters, who unleash avenging furies whose disastrous forces endure through generations. Through the efforts of private eye Lew Archer, the moral center of almost all the tales, evil finally is purged, and those who remain can look ahead to normal lives.
Macdonald wrote only nine stories, mainly early in his career. Two were published in EQMM, and all were collected, with some revisions, in Lew Archer, Private Investigator (1977). They are set in Southern California, like most of the novels, and echo them. One of the EQMM stories, “Find the Woman,” opens with what would become a familiar Macdonald motif: a parent hiring Archer to search for a missing child. “Wild Goose Chase,” the second EQMM story, is a domestic tragedy built around entangled relationships and greed and has an ironic...
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Macdonald Followers (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Indebted though he was to Hammett and Chandler, Macdonald moved beyond their influence, shaping more complex plots that exemplified his moral and social themes, writing in a more polished and allusive style, and muting the hard-boiled traits of his compassionate and introspective private eye. Among Macdonald’s descendants in the hard-boiled Hammett-Chandler tradition are Robert B. Parker, Bill Pronzini, and Lawrence Block. Of the trio, only Pronzini has produced volumes of short stories, Casefile (1983) and Graveyard Plots: The Best Short Stories of Bill Pronzini (1985), both of which feature a private eye known as Nameless who first appeared in a 1968 Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story, “It’s a Lousy World.” There is a wistful, nostalgic quality to Nameless. Like Hammett’s Continental Op, he is middle-aged, overweight, and based in San Francisco. After working in Army intelligence and the San Francisco police department, he became a private eye and now lives alone in a dirty apartment whose only orderly area is where he keeps thousands of old pulp magazines. Nameless dreams about early pulp detectives, fantasizes about being one of them, and always carries a magazine to read at odd moments. Emotional, compassionate, and a worrier, he does not carry a gun and is closer to Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer than to Race Williams, Sam Spade, or Mike Hammer. Pronzini’s method also has an affinity with traditional crime writers...
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Dick Francis (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
In the last third of the twentieth century, EQMM was one of the few remaining general circulation magazine outlets for crime short stories, and because the economics of publishing favored the novel over the shorter form, most major writers of the period—such as Dick Francis, P. D. James, Elmore Leonard, Martha Grimes, Tony Hillerman, and Ed McBain—produced relatively few stories. Francis, for instance, began as a novelist in 1962 (Dead Cert), and produced thirty-five more before publishing his first story collection, Field of Thirteen, in 1998. Eight of the stories date from 1975 to 1980 and five previously unpublished ones Francis calls “recent.” Like the novels, all have horse-racing backgrounds or themes, but there the resemblance pretty much stops. Absent are the novels’ admirable young men, narrator-heroes who reluctantly are caught up in life-threatening challenges for which they are temperamentally unprepared but who nevertheless excise corruption and restore the code of honor and normal tranquillity to their world, whose locus usually is the Jockey Club. On the other hand, the stories, such as “Raid at Kingdom Hill” and “The Day of the Losers” generally do not have such a moral core, are peopled by rogues rather than criminals, often lack violence and death, and frequently have a whimsical tone. The aforementioned stories, as well as “Haig’s Death,” “Blind Chance,” “Nightmare,” and “Song for Mona”...
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Rumpole of the Bailey (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
The surprise twists with which Francis wraps up his carefully wrought plots also are standard devices in John Mortimer’s stories featuring London barrister Horace Rumpole, whose international popularity rivals that of Holmes. Since his first appearance in Rumpole of the Bailey (1978), the self-described Old Bailey hack has demonstrated his wit, compassion, knowledge of William Shakespeare and William Wordsworth, and sometimes even legal acumen in dozens of stories (and a short novel) gathered in ten collections and dramatized for television. In “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” which opens the 1978 book, he introduces himself in the following manner:“I, who have a mind full of old murders, legal anecdotes, and memorable fragments of the Oxford Book of English Verse (Sir Arthur Quiller- Couch’s edition) together with a dependable knowledge of bloodstains, blood groups, fingerprints, and forgery by typewriter; I, who am now the oldest member of my Chambers, take up my pen at this advanced age during a lull in business. ”
Though he has not risen to Queen’s Counsel and most of his cases are ones his colleagues shun, Rumpole is satisfied with his lot, perhaps because he almost always bests nominal superiors, including judges and the boorish head of his chambers. Typically, a Rumpole story has two complementary plots, courtroom and personal, the latter either a domestic crisis between Rumpole and his wife Hilda (referred to...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper and Row, 1989. A classic compendium by two voracious readers of crime writing, this book is more useful as a bibliography than as a guide to its authors’ likes and dislikes.
Frank, Lawrence. Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence: The Scientific Investigations of Poe, Dickens, and Doyle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Provides the framework for the development of the genre of detective fiction.
DeAndrea, William L. Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. New York: Prentice Hall, 1994. Not as comprehensive as its title suggests, this very personal book by a writer of crime fiction thoroughly covers radio, film, and television detection in addition to the print medium.
Herbert, Rosemary, ed. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Essays and brief entries by hundreds of authorities span every conceivable aspect of the genre, making this an invaluable reference work for the student, casual reader, and scholar.
Keating, H. R. F., ed. Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense, and Spy Fiction. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982. Tilted somewhat toward British crime fiction, this nevertheless is an informative and entertaining gathering...
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