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Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 4

England 1890-1914 - The Romantic Era Page 3

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the Mason-HANAUD combination: the wealth of atmosphere, the effortless portrayal of character, the brooding sense of evil, the mordant and brilliant humor. But whichever title we choose, it will be amply evident that Mason was the first writer after Collins to make significant use of the psychological element in the detective story. Like R Austin Freeman whom he resembles in no other respect—he was far ahead of his time. AEW Mason is still writing to-day, at well past seventy. It is surely permissible to hope for at least one more of the matchless HANAUD tales before he chooses to lay down his pen. It would be both impractical and unnecessary in a volume of the present scope and purpose to go into any detail concerning the career or the multitudinous and varied works of Gilbert K Chesterton (1874-1936), one of the genuinely distinguished English men-of-Ietters of this century. Our interest here is confined to only one of his many phases, but one that for its protagonist may possibly outlive his more pretentious and "serious" writings. Chesterton's love of paradox is too well known to require comment. He must have delighted in the fact that by the creation of his erstwhile meek, round-faced priest-detective, FATHER BROWN, he gave body to one of the most famous and best loved of detective characters —while writing tales that often are not detective stories at all!
The FATHER BROWN series is composed exclusively of short stories, of which there are fifty, collected in five volumes: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914), The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), and The Secret of Father Brown (1927), and the belated and definitely inferior The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). Chesterton also created two lesser quasi-detectives: HORNE FISHER of The Man Who Knew Too Much* (1922) and MR. POND of The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (1936). Both imitated the BROWN formula, but neither one equaled or amplified it in any significant way.
The" best BROWN stories, from a detectival standpoint, are found in the first two volumes. In the final three the artificiality and fantasticism that tinge all the tales to a certain extent are even more pronounced. To say that FATHER BROWN is the greatest of "intuitive" detectives is to suggest by the same word the most serious failure of his adventures by deductive standards: for deduction, not instinct, is the root of all convincing criminal investigation. Chesterton partly circumvented the difficulty by explaining (a trifle too frequently and insistently) that BROWN'S magician-like ability to produce full-fledged solutions out of his globular head was only the logical operation of his profound knowledge of human wickedness, acquired in his priestly calling. Many critics have objected also to the backgrounds of the stories. Far from meeting the verisimilitude test of plausible fictive detection, they are often too abstruse to carry conviction even as fantasy (which also needs some connecting link with reality to achieve its purpose). Nevertheless, there are numerous points in the little priest's favor, as detective as well as man of wisdom. And Chesterton's vivid imag-
* Related only by title to the remarkable Alfred Hitchcock film-melodrama of the same name.

ination, on the occasions when he kept it within the range of plausibility, greatly enriched and revivified the stereotyped form into which the detective story was beginning to fall when he started writing.
Nearly all the problems in the BROWN stories are problems of character. But Chesterton's approach was philosophical, where A. E. W. Mason's (for example) was psychological. As Willard Huntington Wright points out, FATHER BROWN is chiefly concerned with the moral and religious aspects of crime. In fact, it may well be Chesterton's chief contribution to the genre that he perfected the metaphysical detective story. Though not particularly suited to the metier, and for that reason seldom found in its pure state among other writers of detection, influential traces of it are present in the works of many of the better Moderns. A few of the individual stories are undeniably brilliant, whether judged as detective tales or as that problematical thing called Art. Chesterton is at his best when he states a problem in apparently supernatural terms and then resolves it by philosophical paradox—see such tales as "The Hammer of God," "The Invisible Man," and that anthologists' favorite, "The Queer Feet." Unfortunately, the explanations are sometimes as fantastic as the premises, and too frequently the author seizes the occasion to intrude personal dogma and mysticism.
But such faults are largely forgivable in the light of the greater achievement. When Chesterton began to write the FATHER BROWN narratives, the detective story had only two main classifications: increasingly heavy-handed romanticism on the one side, and the new scientificism on the other. (Mason, it is true, had re-introduced the
element of psychology, but he did not follow it up until well after the War.) Chesterton's brilliant style and fertile imagination brought new blood to the genre; gave it a needed and distinctly more "literary" turn that was to have far-reaching effect. His great reputation and the instant response to FATHER BROWN as a character combined to create an aura of prestige and respectability which detective fiction at the time was beginning to require it was to survive and progress.
Too many of Chesterton's tales will not meet the full test of good detection, but he can not be lightly dismissed. He belongs definitely among the important innovators.

The next significant English name, in any chronological consideration of the post-Doyle years, is that of EC Bentley, whose epoch-making novel, Trent's Last Case, appeared in 1913. Detailed discussion of this author and book are reserved to a later chapter, however, for reasons which will appear at that point. Suffice it to say here that though Freeman and Mason and Chesterton were ahead of their time, they were logically enough precursors; but Bentley, despite his dates, definitely belongs to a later period, the era we call Modern.
The last important English author of the HOLMES period proper (which may be said, approximately, to have ended with Sarajevo) is Ernest Bramah, whose blind detective MAX CARRADOS appeared in the London bookstalls in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. (This may account for the fact that the first CARRADOS book, entitled simply Max Carrados, was never published in the United States, but only in England.) Later books in which the sightless investigator appears are The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923) and Max Carrados Mysteries (1927), together with a single story in The Specimen Case (1924). All are collections of short stories: there is no CARRADOS novel.
Mr. Bramah, who is also widely known for his humorous works, including the delightful pseudo-Chinese parables, "The Kai Lung" tales, is one of the most self-effacing of modern authors. "I am not fond of writing about myself," he explains diffidently, "and only to a less degree about my work. My published books are about all that I care to pass on to the reader." So successful has he been in this objective that not even the year of his birth is certain—though his autobiographical first book, English Farming and Why I Turned It Up (1894), places the event inferentially in the 186o's or early 1870's. Described by his friends as "the kindest and most amiable of men," the author lives to-day in quiet retirement in Hammersmith. A small bald man with twinkling black eyes, he is an authority on numismatics (an attribute shared by CARRADOS), while the knowledgeable backgrounds of the Kai Lung books suggest a sometime residence in the Far East. Aside from these few circumstances, little is known of him save that he writes under a partial pseudonym (he was born Ernest Bramah Smith).
The blindness of MAX CARRADOS, in the skilful Bramah stories, is never the meretricious bid for popularity that it would become in the hands of a less able or conscientious author, but a unique and legitimate adjunct to detection. Drawing on the well-known fact that a disability of one of the senses often enhances and sharpens the others, Bramah endows CARRADOS with the entirely believable capacity of "seeing" by other means than with his eyes. This gives him as a criminologist (at least as a fictional one) an advantage that more than compensates for his handicap. Occasionally the tales lean a little too far in the direction of intuition, and at other times they partake of the monotony of the arm-chair method; but for the most part they have a basis of sound investigation and deduction, imaginatively set forth.
Wise, witty, gentle MAX CARRADOS is one of the most attractive figures in detective literature—and a worthy protagonist to bring the epoch to an end.

No discussion of the era will be complete, however, without brief mention of the "one-book" authors—those writers better known in other fields of literature, who made a single contribution to the detective story—and a few of the outstanding "border-liners."
Israel Zangwill's (1864-1926) partly satiric novelette, The Big Bow Mystery (1891), clearly deserves a better fate than its present obscurity; perhaps some enterprising publisher may be persuaded to bring it back into print in a format suited to the present day. Lord Charnwood (1864- ), the distinguished British biographer of Abraham Lincoln, wrote a modern and eminently readable detective novel in Tracks in the Snow (1906). Produced before his elevation to the peerage, it was originally issued under his family name of Benson, and has been republished in recent years under his present title. Grand Babylon Hotel (1904), by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), reveals at least a strong vein of detectivism. Some critics include The Wrong Box (1889), by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, in lists of police fiction.
Among the earliest attempts to create feminine sleuths we must recognize Catherine Louisa Pirkis' Experiences of Loveday Brooke: Lady Detective (1894), George R. Sims' (1847-1922) Dorcas Dene: Detective (1897), and M. McDonnell Bodkin's Dora Myrl: The Lady Detective (1900). Michael Dred: Detective (1899), by Robert and Marie Connor Leighton (parents of Clare Leighton, the artist), has some interest as perhaps the first story to make the detective the murderer. Hesketh Prichard's (1876-1922) woodsman-sleuth NOVEMBER JOE finds place also among the oddities and curiosities.
The "border-liners"—authors whose fiction falls somewhere between the undoubted detective story and such related forms as mystery, criminal adventure, or intrigue—can not occupy us long. The adventures of Louis Tracy's (1863-1928) INSPECTOR FURNEAUX and M. P. Shiel's (1865- ) PRINCE ZALESKI were claimed by their respective creators to be detection, but seem in retrospect somewhat closer to mystery; the disputed collaborations of the two as "Gordon Holmes" present the same objection. Another collaboration, that of L. T. Meade (1854-1914) and Clifford Halifax, in the 1870's, produced some early examples of the scientific method. "Robert Eustace" has lent his medical knowledge to a number of professional fictionists. John Silence (1908), by Algernon Blackwood (1869- ), is now and then included in lists of this sort. Vincent Starrett calls Grant Alien's (1848-1899) Hilda Wade (1899), completed by Conan Doyle from Alien's notes, "one of the great stories of pursuit and detection and one that is too little known"; some others of Alien's stories also qualify in some part. A few of the "Johnny Ludlow" tales of Mrs. Henry Wood (1814-1887), better known as the genteel authoress of East Lynne, disclose a strain of domestic sleuthing against Cranfordian backgrounds. The countless spy-and-intrigue novels written by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866- ) occasionally approach detection, as do the rather imitative secret service tales of William LeQueux (1864-1927). While Thomas W. Hanshew's (1857-1914) CLEEK stories, beginning with The Man of the Forty Faces  must, in John Carter's words, "be read to be believed." Mrs. Belloc Lowndes (1868- ) made two notable contributions to the fringe of detective fiction with The Chink in the Armour (1912), a psychological study from the point-of-view of the unsuspecting object of a murder plot, and The Lodger (1913), a masterly fictional analysis of the Jack-the-Ripper murders. Mrs Lowndes has published many later novels, repeating and varying the formulas of her two memorable tours de force, but none of them has ever had the success of the originals. Her HERCULES POPEAU stories represent a legitimate, if rather slight, approach to detection per se. RAFFLES, the Robin Hood-ish and once highly popular crime-hero created by E. W. Hornung (1866-1921), Conan Doyle's brother-in-law, sometimes varied his burglarious career with investigation, and even when he played an unrelieved criminal role, his adventures were good detection in reverse. The RAFFLES stories are worth re-reading to-day—if only to discover what Earle F. Walbridge, an American aficionado of "the blood," means when he says that over them hovers "a faint suggestion of decadence." To the modern reader they frequently present aspects of humor not intended by the author. Hornung's The Crime Doctor (1914), is "straight" if forgotten detection. Barry Pain's (1862-1928) CONSTANTINE Dix stories also view the problem through the culprit's eyes. In their respective metiers, Mrs, Lowndes and the Messrs. Hornung and Pain all bear a discernible ancestral relationship to the Inversionist school of the following generation: Francis Iles, Richard Hull, Anthony Rolls, et al.
These are only a few, e pluribus; The list could be continued indefinitely. But it is not the obligation of this book to recognize every author who has at one time or another approached the hem of detection. Our work is sufficiently cut out to suggest and trace a few of the principal trends and study in some detail the really influential contributors.


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

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