Vincent Starrett Essay - Critical Essays


Although Vincent Starrett wrote prolifically in the mystery genre, he spent much of his life wishing that he could afford to do otherwise. He produced hundreds of stories for pulp magazines simply to support himself. His great loves were literary biography and poetry, areas in which he was not very successful. He did, however, have a real admiration for Doyle and his fictional creation Sherlock Holmes and wrote all of his successful mystery fiction in the style of Doyle, featuring Holmes and Watson imitations.

Starrett wrote highly stylized prose, prose that did not even suggest reality. His is a special-purpose prose that creates a special-purpose universe: one in which interesting mysteries can be presented and resolved in a direct—and ever so slightly ironic—way. The characters who inhabit his stories and plots are not living, breathing people; they are fictional people who wear the costumes needed to present an interesting criminal puzzle. The deaths are theater deaths—slightly amusing and unreal. The reader half expects the victims to climb out of the coffins and graves after the denouement to take a bow with the rest of the cast.

“Out There in the Dark”

Starrett is also a very efficient writer. He gets to the point (murder, theft) quickly. The plot is never slowed down by description and psychological intricacies. There are no psychological gradations in the Starrett universe; there are simply good people and bad people. The good are either detectives or victims, the bad are crooks. There are wily crooks and dull-witted crooks, but, basically, a crook is a crook. Such Lavender stories as “Out There in the Dark” and “The Woman in Black” are typical: Good people are threatened and sometimes killed by bad people, yet the reader is not encouraged to feel any real compassion for the murder victim. The servant with the broken skull in “Out There in the Dark” is merely a necessary plot-pawn, not a human being whose life is brutally abrogated. The star is the detective, and the emphasis is on his intellectual contortions to earn the right to receive applause in the end for a job well done.

The focus of Starrett’s novels and stories is on plot—and only plot. There is very little characterization. Often, characters are not even described; their appearance and emotions do not matter, for their sole purpose is to carry the plotline, like tin soldiers who fall in the line of duty or move mechanically as the plot dictates. The effect is often entertaining, but never captivating. For the reader, it is difficult to become involved—except as he would in a mathematical problem. Starrett’s stories can seem a bit sparse, a bit schematic. Yet Starrett is a deft creator of plots, very satisfying plots of the kind that evolve slowly, adding piece after piece after tiny piece of information until the picture is complete.

The End of Mr. Garment and The Unique Hamlet

Most of Starrett’s works are set close to home. In The End of Mr. Garment (1932), a novelist is murdered en route to a meeting with a group of his peers. In The Unique Hamlet, Holmes and Watson are unearthed (although it must be acknowledged that Starrett never thought that they died, as is clear to anyone who has read his Holmes biography) to solve a mystery involving a lost Hamlet quarto (dated 1602) with a personal dedication by “Wm. Shakespeare.” In this work the dramatis personae are book collectors, like Starrett himself, and he pokes good-humored fun at the practitioners of his own beloved hobby. Several of the Lavender stories involve journalists and book collectors. Starrett’s detectives are all bibliophiles or literary scholars, and their foils are mystery writers (such as...

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