A. E. W. Mason Essay - Critical Essays


In the first decade of the twentieth century, the detective novel was still young and unestablished. Nineteenth century mystery fiction writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle had already established a style and formula for the writing of detective novels. The genre had become very popular, as is evidenced by the number of inexpensive, mass-produced detective-fiction magazines published at the turn of the century. Yet these stories usually focused primarily on action with very little character development. A. E. W. Mason’s chief contribution to the genre was that, while he certainly utilized action and realistic backgrounds in his novels, he paid much attention to character development.

Mason researched the locales for his novels thoroughly. In an era when Great Britain in particular and European nations in general administered and maintained peace throughout most of the world, he traveled widely. Using his yacht and his substantial income, he explored the Sudan, Morocco, Spain, South America, South Africa, India, Burma, Ceylon, Australia, and many other areas of the world. Always seeking adventure, he sailed oceans and rivers whenever he could; he also became an avid mountain climber, climbing the mountains of England, Switzerland, and Morocco. As might be expected, Mason’s experiences during World War I were also adventurous; he was a secret service agent in Spain and Mexico. Using his keen eye for detail and an almost photographic memory, Mason observed many scenes that later appeared in his stories. For background information for his crime stories, Mason attended many notable trials in Great Britain and on the Continent, using these details in his stories as well.

Yet while others researched similarly, Mason’s true forte in writing was character analysis. Mason’s first career on the stage had taught him how to learn from observation instead of experience. He had learned to study characters and to form himself into the role that he was to play. Of necessity, he had also learned to study other characters in the plays. To develop this ability, he began to study his friends and acquaintances in order to learn their motivations and their responses to various stimuli. This passion for character development was transmitted directly to his novel writing. One need only note that many of his novels ultimately became plays, or vice versa, to see the correlation between the two. At trials, Mason would carefully study the criminal in the dock as well as the witnesses on whom the fate of the criminal rested. He wanted to know how these people felt and acted. This insight, in his best novels, led to strong character development and to insight into human behavior.

In analyzing Mason’s crime novels, particularly his Hanaud series, one is immediately struck by his understanding of the importance of the detective. Mason himself wrote, for an article titled “Detective Novels” in 1925, thatall the great detective novels are known by and live on account of their detectives. . . . The detective must be an outstanding person, actual, picturesque, amusing, a creature of power and singularity. Without such a being, the detective novel, however...

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