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Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 2

Howard Haycraft - The In-Between Years - Page 3

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 his true stature as a major Victorian novelist is slowly coming to be recognized; but it is significant of human fallibility that there still exists no adequate biography of him.*
Collins died on September 25, 1889. At sixty-five he had already outlived his fame. This fame, so gratifyingly reascendant to-day, rests principally and sufficiently on two works. In 1860, six years before Gaboriau produced V'Affaire Lerouge, Collins published The Woman in White. It was, however, a mystery rather than a detective novel. It remains to-day one of the finest examples of its own genre, but it need not concern us here save as it helped pave the way for what was to come. Early in 1868 the magazine All the Year Round (Charles Dickens, Editor) began serial publication of The Moonstone. In July of the same year the nine-hundred-page novel made its appearance between covers, in three stout volumes. T. S. Eliot has called it "the first, the longest, and the best of detective novels." Purists may question the strict accuracy of at least the first two adjectives, but few who have read this astonishingly modern masterpiece will quarrel with the spirit of Eliot's magnificently unqualified estimate.
One distinction, however, should and must be made for the sake of technical probity. Excellent and predominant
* Alexander Woollcott—who has done such notable work in bringing. Collins to the attention of present-day readers—is authority for the statement that Dorothy Sayers, the eminent English detective novelist, has been working for some years on such a biography. "But," he adds (in his foreword to the Modern Library's combined edition of The Moonstone and The Woman in White"}, "I am oppressed by a doubt that she will ever get around to finishing it." Mr. Woollcott's reputation as a prophet seems in this instance unfortunately only too safe. His statement was made in 1937, and no announcement, of the biography has yet come from Miss Sayers or her publishers.

as are the detectival elements in The Moonstone, Collins •—like Gaboriau before him—stopped just short of creating a really new form. What he did, essentially, was to write a full-bodied novel in the fashion of his time, using detection as a central theme to catalyze the elaborate ingredients; much as another novelist of the same era might have employed a love or revenge motif as the unifying factor for the crowded canvas of his three-decker. Collins accomplished the amalgamation far more tactfully than did poor Gaboriau. He did not try to mix oil and water. He chose compatible elements. Yet the position of the two writers with respect to the detective novel is strongly analogous. Both embodied the theme in an already existing form, rather than creating a new type of literature. The story of the theft and fate of the Yellow Diamond is in itself as perfect a detective plot as the world has known. But it is only a part, if a highly important and integral one, of the novel as a whole. Detection is the plum in the pudding, but it is by no means the entire pudding.... And Collins' detective is only a subordinate character, not the principal actor in the drama. (Paradoxically, however, the outstanding trend in the present-day detective story, as will be discussed in later chapters, is the abandonment of rigid formulas in favor of blending the detective elements with the novel of manners and character, much as Wilkie Collins did three-quarters of a century ago. Furthermore, The Moonstone has achieved the distinction of being directly paraphrased in several modern works, including, among others, two of the finest detective novels of this generation: Dorothy L Sayers The Documents in the Case and Michael Innes Lament for a Maker. Thus does the wheel revolve!)
To describe here the wonderfully imaginative plot of The Moonstone would be an insult to those who have met that affection-inspiring work, and an act of distinct unfriendliness toward those who still have the delectable experience ahead of them. But it will betray no vital secret to say that Collins drew both inspirationally and directly from the English criminal cause of the decade, the controversial Constance Kent or "Road Murder" case of 1860. The episode in The Moonstone of the paint-stained nightgown and the washing-book is taken almost bodily from the Kent trial. So, too, Superintendent See-grave in the novel is the real-life Superintendent Foley, and SERGEANT CUFF is ho one but Inspector Whicher in slight disguise; the roses were Collins' own contribution.
If the book were notable for nothing else, it would be memorable as the first novel of detection to include real humor in the writing—and humor not of the forced, injected variety, but springing logically and naturally (as it should) from situation and character. The characterization itself is the quality, even more than the plot, which makes the book the thing of joy it is. In all fiction there will be found few more delightful personages than Gabriel Betteredge, a figure who can hold his own with the best of Dickens' creations. One must wonder, too, what the Drusilla Clacks of the day thought of Collins' acid and revealing sketch of their sister busybody—but no Clack of any era would be likely to read anything as wholesome as The Moonstone] The portrayal of the pious villain would lead modern readers to suspect him rather quickly, through wishful thinking if nothing else; yet this would scarcely have been true in Collins' time. It is perhaps an additional commentary on the author's essential subordination of the detective element that SERGEANT CUFF, in spite of the roses, is the least vivid character in the narrative. Ezra Jennings, who is not generally regarded as a detective, but whose contribution some readers consider truer sleuthing than anything the professional CUFF did, is far more unforgettably drawn. Franklin Blake, Rachel Verinder, Rosanna Spearman, Matthew Bruff— all are living beings, valued friends, and the prototypes of a long lineage of detective dramatis personae. Psychology the novel certainly has, as well as physiology of a high order. Both are represented in the great laudanum experiment, a tour de force that has seldom been surpassed in the literature. The setting of the story is thoroughly natural and contemporary to its date, eschewing the Gothic trappings so much in favor when Collins wrote. On the purely technical side, tts handling of the "least-likely person" theme (i.e., with regard to the identity of the thief) is the most ingenious—with the possible exception of Agatha Christie's debatable Murder of Roger Ackroyd—in detective fiction. The pace of the narrative may at first seem slow by modern standards; when considered in relation to the subject-matter it is leisurely and rich in detail without being unduly prolix or digressive; the very deliberateness heightens and enhances the moments of excitement when they arrive. Of Collins' skill at conveying suspense, Arthur Compton-Rickett has written: "[He] excites us not by what he tells us, but by what he does not tell us." Truly enough, Collins' power lies less in frontal assault than in suggestion, an effective auctorial asset in any type of fiction. In a formal sense, The Moonstone belongs midway between the' romance of incident and the novel of character. The detective portion, judged by itself, is an almost perfect example of the balanced type—a consummate blending of narrative and logical deduction.
Wilkie Collins made one masterful contribution to detective literature. We regret his subsequent apostasy, laudable as were his motives, much as we deplore the ambition of a fine comedian or character-actor to play Hamlet. His single, superb novel will live as long as detective stones are read and enjoyed. Numberless grateful readers will agree with the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes' verdict, at ninety-two: "The best there is."

Two works by Charles Dickens are sometimes included in historical listings of detective fiction: Bleak House (1853) and the uncompleted Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). They will not detain us long. Both were even more indirect and casual contributions than those of Gaboriau and Collins.
In Bleak House, only fourteen of the sixty-six chapters have any bearing on the investigations of INSPECTOR BUCKET, who is said to have been based on the author's personal friend, Inspector Field of the London Metropolitan Police Force. Furthermore, the topic of the inquiry is no more than a sub-plot in the novel as a whole.*
* However, Julian Hawthorne in his anthological Lock and Key Library, published some years ago, made an ingenious and on the whole surprisingly successful attempt to create from these materials a bona fide detective story in Dickens' name. He separated the fourteen chapters from the rest of the book., arranged them in sequence, and gave the resulting work the" title Inspector Bucket's Job. Barring a not unexpected jerkiness, the Job is not at all a bad one. Nevertheless, this interesting experiment scarcely makes the parent novel anything but what it was before—a typical Dickens full-canvas work, including an incidental detective tale in the manner of a "play within a play." But BUCKET himself remains, if nothing else, the first English fictional detective; and as
such he needs no apologies.
As for Edwin Drood, which is supposed to have been prompted by Dickens' desire to outglitter The Moonstone, there is puzzle enough; but several authorities have pointed out the absence of a determinable detective. (While another school of thought holds out for Datchery.) It is possible, of course, that the author may have had an indisputable detective in mind for the later stages of the story. Dickens lived to complete only twenty-three chapters, and for a Dickens novel this was a bare beginning; there was ample space for the later introduction of a bang-up sleuth if he wanted one. There is room for belief, too, that the rivalry which inspired the book in the first instance would have produced such a conclusion. What the Sage of Gad's Hill might have accomplished had he lived to create an important fictional detective is a no less intriguing literary mystery than the unrevealed solution of the story itself, which has occupied so many minds. That distinguished writer on criminology, the late Edmund Pearson, called the latter puzzle "the foremost problem in fiction," though he admitted that "it is perfectly futile to some folk," while "perfectly fascinating to others."
G. K. Chesterton accorded Edwin Drood and its author an even more double-edged compliment when he wrote: "The only one of Dickens' novels which he did not finish was the only one that really needed finishing. He never had but one thoroughly good plot to tell; and that he has told only in heaven." A sizable literature has grown up on the subject of Edwin Drood, and a good score of attempts have been made by
various hands to complete it, but with consequences thus far more curious than significant. So far as we are concerned in the present volume, it must remain only a potential detective story.
 

Gaboriau, Collins, Dickens. Each contributed something toward fictional detection. Jointly, they kept the form alive: saved the theme, perhaps, from premature extinction. Arid Collins dropped, in passing, a single, matchless pearl. But the creation of a really great detective character, the writing of full-length detective stories concerned with detection and nothing else, was still two decades away—locked in the questing brain of a red-cheeked school-boy in Edinburgh.

Chapter 3 Page 1

 

Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942     Layout © R.D. Collins
Howard Haycraft

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