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Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Foreword

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The detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds,—PHILIP GUEDALLA
My theory is that people who don't like mystery stories are anarchists.—REX STOUT
 

    WHEN Nazi Luftwaffe squadrons unleashed their wanton fury on London in the late summer of 1940, initiating to their own consternation a deathless epic of human courage and resistance, they also drove a city of eight million souls beneath the earth's surface for nightly refuge. After the first shock of a kind of battle new in the annals of warfare had passed, life underground began to take on some ,of the aspects of normality. One of the earliest harbingers of rehabilitation was the appearance of books in the fetid burrows while the bombs rained overhead. What volumes, asked curious Americans from the comfortable security of their homes, could men and women choose for their companionship at such a time? The answer was soon forthcoming in dispatches' from the beleaguered capital, telling of newly formed "raid" libraries set up in response to popular demand to lend detective stories and nothing else. The implications contained in this circumstance, as applied to the underlying appeal of the detective novel, might easily constitute a superior essay in themselves (and are perhaps unfathomable at that). But surely no more striking illustration could be found of the vital position which this form of literature has come to occupy in modern civilized existence, for whatever reasons.
That detective stories are a mere hundred years old seems, in fact, beyond belief; in the same sense that imagining daily life without the telephone or the radio strains all credulity. For to-day it is a matter of sober statistical record that one out of every four new works of fiction published in the English language belongs to this category, while the devotion the form has managed to arouse in millions of men and women in all walks of life, the humble and the eminent, has become a latter-day legend.
No less a qualified authority than Mr. Somerset Maugham has recently ascribed this state of affairs to the fact that "the serious novel of to-day Is regrettably namby-pamby." The charge is outside the province of the present volume and can not be examined here. But Mr. Maugham goes on, at least half seriously, to predict the day when the police novel will be studied in the colleges, when aspirants for doctoral degrees will shuttle the oceans and haunt the world's great libraries to conduct personal research expeditions into the lives and sources of the masters of the art.
Whatever the merits or likelihood of these suggestions, the surprising circumstance is that no adequate factual or analytical history of this movement—so clearly the outstanding literary phenomenon of modern times—yet exists. There have been, of course, the excellent but brief critical studies by Dorothy Sayers, Willard Huntington Wright, and E. M. Wrong; and the longer but relatively inaccessible (and, it must be said, rather academic)
treatises of H. Douglas Thomson, Regis Messac, and Francois Fosca, the first published only in England and now out of print, and the latter two available only in French. These, together with a handful of prefaces, and a larger but widely scattered and uncoordinated body of magazine articles, and one or two "how-to-write-it" manuals, constitute the entire published literature on one of the most vigorous and virile types of all contemporary writing. A form which, to many readers, has come to occupy the solacing spot which Robinson Crusoe held in Gabriel Betteredge's affections: a "friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life"—the one dependable and unfailing anodyne in a world so realistically murderous that fictive murder becomes refuge and retreat! . . . The present book has been undertaken in the hope of at least partially remedying this deficiency: of providing a reasonably readable and useful outline of the main progress of the detective story from Edgar Allan Poe to the present moment.
Throughout the book, the reader will find, emphasis has been placed on the actual and factual rather than the theoretical phases of the subject; with side excursions, when space has permitted, into those fascinating if trivial problems of idiosyncrasy and mannerism so dear to the heart of the true enthusiast. In short, the underlying object of the work has been pleasure—for reader and writer alike.
In making any such book, the problem of exclusion must be, necessarily, more difficult than that of inclusion. The question of just what constitutes a detective story will be considered at some length in the body of the work. For the present we can do no better than repeat again
John Carter's useful and often quoted dictum, as the basis upon which authors and their various works were accepted or rejected: "If we decide, as surely we must, that a detective story within the meaning of the act must be mainly occupied with detection and must contain a proper detective (whether amateur or professional), it is clear that mystery stories, crime stories, spy stories, even Secret Service stories, will have to be excluded unless any particular example can show some authentic detective strain." *
Thus, the volume in hand has been restricted to the bona-fide, the "pure," detective story and its craftsmen —as distinguished (to quote Carter again) from "mere mystery on the one hand, and criminology on the other." Regrettably, it has been impossible to discuss at length all the competent authors who come legitimately under even this rule. Their number has become so increasingly great within recent decades that only a veritable encyclopedia could deal with them adequately. Too, this volume is of necessity concerned less with literary merit per se than with setting forth the history and evolution of detective fiction as a recognizable form. This has made the basis of choice chiefly historical rather than appreciative. Hence, detailed discussion has been limited to those practitioners whose works, in the writer's opinion, have most significantly influenced the progress of the police romance throughout the years, either in technique or in popularity. The premise has sometimes meant the inclusion of authors of no very great distinction in themselves, and the omission of others (including many personal favorites) whose achievements, judged by purely literary standards, might be considered of a higher order. Nevertheless, the attempt has been made to recognize if only in the several lists and indexes most of the authors who have contributed ably and consistently to the form.
In addition to these general premises, a few personal observations may, perhaps, be permitted. It has not been my wish in undertaking this work to set myself up in any sense as an "authority" on the subject of the detective story. Naturally, I own to a strong bias in favor of the police novel among the several forms of recreational and pleasure literature—else I should not have attempted this labor of devotion at all. But I have tried to approach the subject in the spirit of the average friendly reader, and, so far as possible, to synthesize and express that hypothetical individual's opinions and reactions, likes and dislikes, rather than those of professional or formal criticism. If I have succeeded in doing this in any degree, I shall perforce be satisfied.
I should not be honest, however, if I did not confess to certain preferences and antipathies which other readers may or may not share. Some of these predilections and aversions are admittedly of little save personal importance, and have been treated accordingly. But, while I have tried to be fair at all times, I have not spared the horses when discussing any tendencies which seem to me really dangerous to the future welfare of my favorite form of reading and that of several million equally fortunate individuals. On the opposite side, I have conscientiously attempted to avoid over-solemnity about the subject, but have endeavored at all times to consider it only for what it is—a frankly non-serious, entertainment
form of literature which, nevertheless, possesses its own rules and standards, its good and bad examples, and at its best has won the right to respectful consideration on its own merits. (But I venture to believe that the demonstrable relationship between the detective story and democratic institutions, discussed in one of the chapters, is not without some serious implication in the present day.)
Acknowledgment is hereby gladly, if of necessity anonymously, expressed to a long list of individuals and corporations who have assisted invaluably by one means or another in the preparation of this book: the personal friends who have listened so patiently and contributed so many helpful suggestions, and the friendly and equally helpful correspondents among authors, editors, and publishers; more specifically, to the magazines in which some of the material has appeared prior to book publication, including the Saturday Review of Literature, the London .Spectator, American Cavalcade, and the Wilson Library Bulletin.
In conclusion, it is perhaps unnecessary to say that every effort has been made to achieve completeness and accuracy within the bounds laid down. But it is inescapable that in any work exploring a comparatively uncharted field and involving so much detail, some errors and omissions at least will have occurred. Some of the interpretations, too, while made with every intention of objective fairness, may be open to question. I shall welcome correspondence from interested readers on any such points, for correction or modification in possible future editions.

Introduction  

 

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

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