More detection

Follow-ups to my posting on Ronald Knox and his ten “rules” for detective fiction (enjoining writers to play fair with their readers): the origin of the rules; floutings of the rules; and attacks on detective fiction as a genre.

(Thanks to a number of Facebook friends for leads to the material that follows.)

Origins. On the Detection Club, from Wikipedia:

The Detection Club was formed in 1930 by a group of British mystery writers, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Arthur Morrison, John Rhode, Jessie Rickard, Baroness Emma Orczy, R. Austin Freeman, G.D.H. Cole, Margaret Cole, E.C. Bentley, Henry Wade, and H.C. Bailey. Anthony Berkeley was instrumental in setting up the club, and the first president was G.K. Chesterton. There was a fanciful initiation ritual with an oath probably written by either Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers, and the club held regular dinner meetings in London.

Knox’s rules (reproduced in my previous posting) were drawn up in 1929 as a set of bylaws for the club.

The club continues to this day. Presidents: G.K. Chesterton (1930-1936), E.C. Bentley (1936-1949), Dorothy L. Sayers (1949-1957), Agatha Christie (1957-1976), Lord Gorell (1957-1963, jointly with Christie), Julian Symons (1976-1985), H.R.F. Keating (1985-2000), Simon Brett (2000–present).

Floutings. Almost immediately, members of the club began flouting the rules. Agatha Christie, in particular — most famously in her 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. From Wikipedia:

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in the United Kingdom by William Collins, Sons in June 1926 and in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company on the 19th of the same month. It features Hercule Poirot as the lead detective.

It is one of Christie’s best known and most controversial novels, its innovative twist ending having a significant impact on the genre.

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Eventually we get to Josef Škvorecký and his Sins for Father Knox. From a Los Angeles Times review of the book (2/26/89) by Ross Thomas:

There lived in England from 1888 to 1957 an occasional mystery novelist and full-time Anglican priest (later converted to Catholicism) with the wonderful name of Ronald Arbuthnot Knox, who issued 10 tongue-in-cheek commandments that set forth what is and is not permissible in the crime or detective story.

Sixty years have passed since the promulgation of this remarkable codex, and it’s doubtful that any of today’s crime novelists have ever paid it the slightest heed — or even heard of it, for that matter. Comes now Josef Skvorecky, late of Czechoslovakia, who systematically sets out to break each of Father Knox’s commandments. The results, I regret to say, are just awful.

It was Skvorecky’s inspiration to write 10 short stories, each of them violating one of the priest’s rules, hence the title, “Sins for Father Knox.” While this is a pretty enough conceit, the effect is so arch and contrived that, while reading the stories, what sprang to mind time and again was the late Edmund Wilson’s fretful question: “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?”

… The recurring character, who helps break all of Father Knox’s rules in the stories, is Eve Adam, a saucy minx and nightclub blues singer from Prague, whose adventures take her to Sweden, Paris, New York, Berkeley, Italy and, finally, back to Prague. She possesses an almost unschooled but extremely logical mind along with an unusually observant eye. And she uses both mind and eye to solve various crimes, including murder, that baffle the local police who are never as swift as the heroine with the cute biblical name.

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On the author, from Wikipedia:

Josef Škvorecký … (September 27, 1924 – January 3, 2012) was a Czech-Canadian writer and publisher. He spent half of his life in Canada, publishing and supporting banned Czech literature during the communist era… He and his wife were long-time supporters of Czech dissident writers before the fall of communism in that country. Škvorecký’s fiction deals with several themes: the horrors of totalitarianism and repression, the expatriate experience, and the miracle of jazz.

… He wrote four books of detective stories featuring Lieutenant Boruvka of the Prague Homicide Bureau: The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka, Sins for Father Knox, The End of Lieutenant Boruvka and The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka.

(Note that Wikipedia reproduces the Czech diacritics, but the writer’s American publisher suppresses them.)

Also flouting Knox’s rules right and left is the movie Murder by Death. From Wikipedia:

Murder by Death is a 1976 American mystery comedy film with a cast featuring Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, and Estelle Winwood, written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore.

The plot is a spoof of the traditional country-house whodunit, familiar to mystery fiction fans of classics such as Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The cast is an ensemble of British and American actors playing send-ups of well-known fictional sleuths, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade.

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Critiques. Now to G. J. Demko’s Landscapes of Crime site and his piece “Detective Fiction and Edmund Wilson: A Rejoinder (more than 50 years late)”, beginning:

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.

The Wilson articles are: “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” (October 14, 1944); “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd: A Second Report on Detective Fiction” (January 20, 1945); “Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound” (February 17, 1945).

Demko tears Wilsn’s sour columns apart and then moves to positive comments on detective fiction:

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 mean 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.

Turn now from classic detective fiction (still, of course, being produced in large amounts by many writers) to a more recent development, the series detective mystery. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels (starting with Indemnity Only in 1982); Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.), Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small novels (Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, etc.); and many others. But Ben Yagoda doesn’t care for this development. From his “The case of the overrated mystery novel” in Salon 1/6/04:

Robert Parker [with his detective Spenser], Dennis Lehane, [with his protagonists Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro] Lawrence Block [with recurring characters in two major series: recovering alcoholic P.I. Matthew Scudder and gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr], Michael Connelly [featuring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch] — I’ve read them all. Amid the logrolling and endless hype, one thing gets obscured: Raymond Chandler [with detective Philip Marlowe] and Ross Macdonald [with detective Lew Archer] did it first, and did it a lot better.

Edmund Wilson’s 1945 New Yorker essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (the title referred to Agatha Christie’s 1926 novel “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”) more or less demolished the “classical” country-house murder mysteries of Christie and her school. The series detective novel took its place, and today it rules the realm of crime fiction. These books provide pleasure to many loyal fans, which is all to the good. What’s not so good is the inflated critical reputation of the better writers, and of the genre as a whole. The American detective novel may be commercially viable, but it is devoid of creative or artistic interest.

It’s a lot to ask that detective novels should be literary masterpieces (as many would characterize several of Chandler’s books, and earlier than them, some of Dashiell Hammett’s, featuring detectve Sam Spade). Surely there’s room for well-crafted genre fiction?

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