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Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Introduction

By Nicholas Blake

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IT is a privilege, of which I am highly sensible, to introduce English readers to Mr. Haycraft's book. Murder for Pleasure is the first full-length study I have read of that astonishing phenomenon of modern times—the detective story : how fitting that the country which produced the father of the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe, should now give us so erudite and scholarly a commentator ! No doubt each of us will disagree with a few of Mr. Haycraft's judgments. Some may say he is too serious about a subject that ought to be treated with patronising flippancy: we can hear them muttering words like " escapist ", " fantasy ", " mere entertainment-literature ". " Ah, but you can't lightly dismiss a genre which has captured the imagination of millions of readers," others will reply—and insist that Mr. Haycraft should have included a lengthy thesis on the sociological and psychological significance of the detective story. We shall find, though, that within the terms of reference he has laid down for himself he has written a genuinely authoritative work : if he refuses to go chasing after every hare his subject starts, he is all the more proving himself an able commentator on the most popular of modern blood-sports.
Not the least of the enjoyments Mr. Haycraft affords us is in his catalogueing of ancient and modern detection-writers. I do not refer chiefly to the select list of high-water-mark fiction from Poe and Wilkie Collins to Michael Innes and Mabel Seeley which, with the challenging confidence of the expert, he offers us to shoot at. Nor am I altogether thinking of the pleasure we derive from being reminded of minor works in the genre, that once gave us a few hours' recreation, and were as quickly forgotten. The true detection-fan will peruse lists of books he has never read, with the doting absorption of the cricket devotee, immersed in Wisden, reading the score-sheets of matches he has never witnessed, the names of cricketers unknown to fame. Many honest craftsmen, unknown to fame, are mentioned in these pages: men and women who took pleasure in their craft and gave pleasure by it; who played fair with their readers ; who never concealed a clue or palmed off a coincidence ; who eschewed mysterious Chinamen and poisons unknown to science.
Just as the devotee of cricket will spend happy winter evenings compiling imaginary teams of the greatest ever, so will the detection-addict set himself up as a one-man selection committee to choose the classics of his kind. Mr. Haycraft's judgment here seems to me remarkably sound. Again and again he picks unerringly out of the serried ranks a book whose distinction might so easily have been forgotten : The Second Shot, The Bellamy Trial and X v. Rex* are three cases in point. His serious omissions are very few indeed. I was surprised at finding no reference to CHB Kitchin's Death of My Aunt (not to be confused with Richard Hull's Murder of My Aunt), or to Gladys Mitchell's classic The Saltmarsh Murders. I should like to have seen some allusion to The A.B.C. Murders, which must surely challenge its author's Murder of Roger Ackroyd for ingenuity and brilliant simplicity of plot. Margery Allingham's Dancers In Mourning and S.S. Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case—devilishly sinister, high-fantastical, superbly coloured stories, both of them—might well have received honourable mention : while our attention could have been called to the work of Elizabeth Ferrars, among the most recent generation of detective-writers.
But such little differences of opinion will not lessen our regard for Mr. Haycraft's achievement. Like a good scholar, he combines firmness of judgment with an unprejudiced approach to his subject. Though he is American, he concedes that it is the English writers who have mostly led the way in developing the detective story through its several phases—the novel of plot, the novel of character, the novel of manners. Like a good scholar, too, he has an eye for the recondite fact, the cosy, amusing piece of useless information. We are charmed to discover that Abraham Lincoln enjoyed the mystery and logic of Poe's crime-stories, and that Gaboriau's " sensational novels " were (according to his publishers, at least) the favourite reading of Prince Bismarck. And how fascinating to learn that the biggest-selling novel in the whole annals of detective fiction is—no, not one of the cases of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or Peter Wimsey, not The Moonstone nor At the Villa Rose nor The Innocence of Father Brown nor The Thin Man—but a book called The Mystery of A Hansom Cab, published in 1886, the first of more than 130 hack novels written by an Australian, Fergus Hume a book you and I would find unreadable, which has long since been consigned to oblivion with all its imperfections on its head !
But objectivity, sound judgment and far-reaching research are not the only qualities required for a work such as Mr. Haycraft has undertaken. The sign of a successful study is that it stimulates the reader to discover new problems branching from its main argument. Here again Mr. Haycraft comes up to scratch. After reading Murder For Pleasure, I found a number of idle and curious speculations floating into my mind. For instance, what attitude did the average Victorian paterfamilias take up towards the—to us—archaic detective fiction of his day ? Did he consider it unwholesome ? lacking in high seriousness ? to be banned from his children's bookshelves ? Or did an interest in fictional crime go hand in hand with that " morbid " Victorian interest in accidents (railway and otherwise) which social historians have noted ? Again, I should like to know whether Robert Browning, some of whose poems—My Last Duchess, for instance, and Porphyries Lover and The Ring and the Book—contain magnificent raw material for detective stories, ever read one ? I should like statistics about the number of real-life murderers who were confirmed crime-fiction readers. What, I ask myself, did Dr. Joseph Bell, the original of Sherlock Holmes, think about his Baker Street shadow ? And by what strange alchemy did the authors of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles succeed in distilling so subtly the essence of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods ?
These, " though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture." I must leave them, however, to my fellow devotees and attempt a wider, more fundamental problem which Mr. Haycraft's pages suggest. He has shown masterly resource both in analysing crime fiction and annalising it. He has answered the questions he set himself: " The Detective Story—What ? " ; " The Detective Story—Whence ? " ; " The Detective Story—Whither ? " But there remains one question, to me the most interesting of all : " The Detective Story—Why ? "
answered succinctly, if negatively, by Mr. Haycraft— " Clearly, there could be no detective stories . . . until there were detectives. This did not occur until the nineteenth century." A negative answer, because it merely re-defines the question : after all, there were no railway systems either, until the nineteenth century, but their creation did not produce any considerable body of literature about engine-drivers.
Nor do I intend to discuss at length the subsidiary though fascinating problem, " Why do we write detective stories ? " Many solutions, all of them correct, will suggest themselves to the reader. Because we want to make money. Because the drug addict (and nearly every detection-writer is an omnivorous reader of crime-fiction) always wants to introduce other people to the habit. Because artists have a notorious nostalgic de la boue and our own hygienic, a-moral age offers very little honest mud to revel in except the pleasures of imaginary murder. Democratic civilisation does not encourage us to indulge our instinct for cruelty : the quite different attitude of the dictatorships towards this, as well as their different conception of justice, legal evidence and legal proof, must—as Mr. Haycraft points out— account for the Nazis' banning of all imported detective-fiction and characterising it as " pure liberalism " designed to " stuff the heads of German readers with foreign ideas " : a people whose blood-lust was sublimated by reading and writing fiction murders would certainly have less zest for murdering real Poles.
An agreeable monograph might indeed be written on The First Plunge Into Detective Writing- Gone, alas, are the good old days when " without an idea in his head and with no previous knowledge of crime or criminals, Leblanc (creator of the great Arsene Lupin) took up his pen, and his impudent hero sprang into spontaneous being." So expert and exacting is the detection-fan to-day that the detective novelist must possess a good working knowledge of police procedure, law and forensic medicine if he is to escape severe letters from the public pointing out his errors : (how many plots, I wonder, have been complicated by the writer's need to skirt round some obstacle raised by his technical ignorance ?) From what dark incentive, by what devious and secret psychological passages have detection writers— timid and law-abiding persons for the most part, who faint at the sight of blood and tremble when the eye of a policeman is turned upon them—first set out upon the sinister paths of crime-fiction ?
The question is enthralling. But it must here be subsumed under my general question. "The Detective Story— Why ?" Why, I mean, has the detective story attained such remarkable popularity, rising—as Mr. Haycraft tells us—from a ratio of twelve in 1914 to ninety-seven in 1925 and two hundred and seventeen in 1939, and holding its own even against that most insidious and degraded of mental recreations, the cross-word puzzle ?
We may imagine some James Frazer of the year 2042 discoursing on " The Detective Novel—the Folk-Myth of the Twentieth Century ". He will, I fancy, connect the rise of crime fiction with the decline of religion at the end of the Victorian era. The sense of guilt, psychologists tell us, is deeply rooted in man and one of the mainsprings of his actions. Just as, in the primitive tribe, the idiot or the scapegoat is venerated and the murderer wreathed with flowers, because he has taken upon himself the guilt of the community, so in more civilised times one function of
religion is to take the burden of guilt off the individual's shoulders through the agency of some Divine or apotheosised Being. When a religion has lost its hold upon men's hearts, they must have some other outlet for the sense of guilt.
This, our anthropologist of the year 2042 may argue, was provided for us by crime-fiction. He will call attention to the pattern of the detective-novel, as highly formalised as that of a religious ritual, with its initial necessary sin (the murder), its victim, its high priest (the criminal) who must in turn be destroyed by a yet higher power (the detective). He will conjecture—and rightly—that the devotee identified himself both with the detective and the murderer, representing the light and the dark sides of his own nature. He will note a significant parallel between the formalised denouement of the detective novel and the Christian concept of the Day of Judgment when, with a flourish of trumpets, the mystery is made plain and the goats are separated from the sheep.
Nor is this all. The figure of the detective himself will be exhaustively analysed. Our anthropologist, having studied Mr. Haycraft's work, will have been informed that many readers of crime fiction remembered the name of a detective but not of the book or its author. Sherlock Holmes, Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot were evidently figures of supernatural importance to the reader : and to the writer, for their creators bodied them out with a loving veneration which suggested that the Father Imago was at work. The detective is, indeed—to change the metaphor—the Fairy Godmother of the twentieth century folk-myth, his magic capabilities only modified to the requirements of a would-be scientific and rational generation. It will be noted, too, that these semi-divine figures fell into two categories. On the one hand there was the more primitive, the anthropomor-phised type—Holmes and Wimsey its most celebrated examples—in which human frailty and eccentricity, together with superhuman powers of perception, are carried to a supralogical conclusion. On the other hand there was the so-to-speak modernist detective—generally a policeman rather than an amateur—a figure stripped of human attributes, an instrument of pure reason and justice, the Logos of the detective world.
Such may well be, in brief, the theory advanced by posterity to account for the extraordinary hold which the detective novel possessed on the twentieth-century mind. It would be difficult, at any rate, to explain the popularity of a so fantastic offshoot of literature without reference to some fundamental instinct in mankind.
But the general lines of such an inquiry have not been sufficiently adumbrated if they do not include the minor-curiosity of class-bias in crime fiction. It is an established fact that the detective-novel proper is read almost exclusively by the upper and professional classes. The so-called "lower-middle" and "working" classes tend to read " bloods ", thrillers. Now this is not simply a matter of literary standards, though the modern thriller is generally much below the detective story in sophistication and style. When we compare these two kinds of crime fiction, we cannot fail to notice that, whereas in the detective novel the criminal is almost invariably a squalid creature of irremediably flagitious tendencies, the criminal of the thriller is often its hero and nearly always a romantic figure.
This is, of course, as Mr. Haycraft has pointed out, a natural development of the Robin Hood myth. The detective story's clientele are relatively prosperous persons, who have a stake in the social system and must therefore, even in fantasy, see the ultimate triumph of their particular social values ensured. It is significant that even the "thrillers" most popular with the ruling classes usually represent their hero as being on the side of law and order—the bourgeois conception of law and order, of course (that unspeakable public-school bully and neurotic exhibitionist, Bulldog Drummond, is a case in point), or as a reformed criminal (e.g., Father Brown's right-hand man) ; or, like Arsene Lupin, he starts as a criminal character but, after a number of anti-social adventures, gradually goes over to the other side. Not so with the lower ranks of democratic society. Having little or no stake in the system, they prefer such anarchistic heroes as, from Robin Hood down to the tommy-gun gangster, have held to ransom the prosperous and law-abiding. To such readers the policeman is not the protective figure he appears to your politician, your stockbroker, your rural dean : for them his aura is menacing, his baton an offensive weapon rather than a defensive symbol: and therefore the roman policier does not give them much of a kick.
The guilt-motive perhaps operates here too. On the whole, the working classes have less time and incentive than the relatively leisured to worry about their consciences. In so far as their lives are less rich, the taking of life (the detective story's almost invariable subject) will seem to them less significant and horrifying. They themselves sometimes kill for passion; seldom, unlike their more fortunately placed brethren, for gain. The general sense of guilt (which is the reverse or seamy side of social responsibility), the specific moral problems which tease the more prosperous classes, affect them less nearly. So, for them, the detective novel—the fantasy-representation of guilt—must have a shallower appeal.
 It is the element of fantasy in detective fiction—or rather,
the juxtaposition of fantasy with reality—that gives the genre its identity. Mr. Haycraft mentions Carolyn Wells' dictum that " the detective novel must seem real in the same sense that fairy tales seem real to children ". By implication, this statement defines very accurately the boundaries of the detective novel. The fairy tale does not reach its greatest heights when—as in the Irish fairy stories—fantasy is piled on fantasy, but by a judicious blending of the possible with the impossible. Similarly in crime fiction, if we set down unrealistic characters in fantastic situations, we cross the frontier into the domain of the pure " shocker ". If on the other hand both our action and our characters are realistic, we produce fiction of the Francis Iles type which, as Mr. Haycraft rightly points out, does not come within the strict canon of the detective story.
The detective novelist, then, is left with two alternatives. He can put unreal characters into realistic situations, or he can put realistic characters into fantastic situations. The former method produces the classical roman poltcier, of which Freeman Wills Crofts is perhaps the most able living exponent, where the crime and the police investigation are conducted on strictly realistic lines, and the element of fantasy necessary to the detection novel is achieved by making the characters simple ciphers—formalised simulacra of men and women, that have no life outside the plot they serve. To call this type of novel " mere puzzles " and decry it for its " un-lifelike " characters is to misunderstand the whole paradox of the detective story.
The second alternative, which has produced the at present most fashionable kind of crime fiction, is to place " real" characters in unreal, fantastic, or at least improbable situations. This school of writing covers a wide range. At one extreme we find such books as John Dickson Carr's, where the plot possesses the mad logic and extravagance of a dream, while the dramatis personae are roughed in with just enough solidity to stand out against the macabre and whirling background : (Carr's Dr. Fell, incidentally, may be coupled with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe as the most notable old-style or anthropomorphic detective in contemporary fiction—wayward, masterful, infallible). At the other extreme we get the work of such writers as Ngaio Marsh. Her Inspector Alleyn, like Michael Innes' detective, is gentlemanly, unobtrusive and almost provocatively normal. Her characters have real body, but derive nothing from textbooks on morbid psychology. Where the characters are ordinary people and the plot is neither outre nor melodramatic, one might suppose that the element of paradox necessary to the detective story would be missing. But murder is in itself such an abnormal thing that its mere presence among a number of nice, respectable, civilised characters will be paradox enough.
It is reasonable to suppose that this—the " novel of manners ", as Mr. Haycraft calls it—will remain a predominant type of detective fiction for some time to come. Certainly we can be sure that the general raising of the literary level in the genre has come to stay. Fresher observation, more careful, realistic handling of character and situation are demanded today, and the general level of detective writing is thus improved. But something has been lost in the process. The high fantasy of the old masters cannot now be achieved. No detective novelist today could allow his hero to exclaim, in a moment of strong excitement, " Hold ! Have you some mucilage ? "
Another interesting line of development is in the detective himself. For some years, the sleuth has been undergoing modification—a toning-down from the Sherlock Holmes to the Roderick Alleyn type. Even when, as with Peter Wimsey, his pedigree, family background, hobbies and tastes are diligently documented, he has become a much less farfetched personality. If this process continues, we may expect in the future a school of detectives without personality at all. I myself rather fancy the idea of a detective who shall be as undistinguished as a piece of blotting-paper, absorbing the reactions of his subjects ; a shallow mirror, in which we may see reflected every feature of the crime ; a pure camera-eye. Professor Thorndyke and Dr. Priestley are precursors to this anonymous type. Inspector Maigret is its highest development up to date.
At first sight Maigret, the most formidable embodiment in crime fiction of the "stern, unhurrying chase" of Justice, might seem also the best model for the ambitious writer today. But his influence may well be disruptive of the detective novel as we know it. It is not simply that Simenon breaks the rules, by allowing Maigret to keep so much of his detection-processes under his hat. The real trouble is Simenon's deep and unerring sense of evil, which in practice runs counter to the basic principle of the detective story— that evil must, both for myth-making and entertainment, be volatilised by a certain measure of fantasy. In the Maigret stories, evil hangs over everything, as heavy, as concentrated, as real as a black fog. It is a raw wine, which must burst the old bottles. You may remember that remarkable story in which the criminal is so fascinated by Maigret that he cannot keep away from him : he is like a moth dashing itself again and again into the passive flame. Now this exemplifies a proved psychological truth. As the Greek tragedians knew, crime carries within itself the seed of retribution ; some fatal flaw (or saving grace) in human nature impels a wrong-doer to betray himself: that is why even the most painstaking and cold-blooded murderer is apt to leave a glaring clue behind, or talk too much one evening in the public bar.
This is all very right and proper in real life. But the traditional pattern of the detective novel would be disintegrated if writers emphasised the fact that the criminal does, unconsciously, hunt himself down. The fictional detective's occupation would indeed be gone. Perhaps this is the direction we are to move in. Perhaps the detective story, as we know it, will be supplanted by the crime novel. If so, future generations will look back on Simenon and lies as the fathers of the new genre. It should be some time, though, in any event, before we cease to read murder for pleasure.

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


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