by B.K. Stevens
Poor Aristotle. According
to Dorothy L. Sayers, he was born at the wrong time, forced to make do
with the likes of Sophocles and Euripides while truly craving, as she
puts it, "a Good Detective Story." In "Aristotle on Detective Fiction," a
1935 Oxford lecture, Sayers takes a look at the philosopher's
definition of tragedy in the Poetics and decides it fits the modern detective story nicely. If Aristotle had been able to get a copy of Trent's Last Case, maybe he would have skipped all those performances of Oedipus Tyrannus and The Trojan Women.
doesn't do, of course, to challenge Dorothy Sayers on the nature of the
detective story. But her lecture seems more than a little tongue in
cheek, and her attempt to equate the detective story with tragedy falls
short. At its heart, the detective story is more comic than tragic. And
I'm willing to bet Sayers knew it.
She begins her
lecture by identifying similarities between detective stories and
tragedies. Aristotle says action is primary in tragedies, and that's
true of detective stories, too. Keeping a straight face, not
acknowledging she's made a tiny change in the original, Sayers quotes
the Poetics: "The first essential, the life and soul, so to
speak, of the detective story, is the Plot." Aristotle says tragic plots
must center on "serious" actions. That's another easy matchup, for
"murder," as Sayers observes, "is an action of a tolerably serious
nature." According to Aristotle, the action of a tragedy must be
"complete in itself," it must avoid the improbable and the coincidental,
and its "necessary parts" consist of Reversal of Fortune, Discovery,
and Suffering. Sayers has no trouble proving good detective stories
adhere to all these principles.
enough. The problem is that when Aristotle calls for a character
brought low not by "vice or depravity" but by "some error or frailty,"
he's not describing the villain. To use phrases most of us probably
learned in high school, he's describing the "tragic hero" who has a
"tragic flaw." So the hero of a tragedy is like the villain of a
mystery--hardly proof that tragedy and mystery are essentially the same.
discrepancy points to the central problem with Sayers's argument, a
problem of which she was undoubtedly aware. The principal Reversal of
Fortune in a tragedy is from prosperity to adversity--but that's just
the first half of a detective story. To find a complete model for the
plot of the detective story, we must look not to tragedy but to comedy.
(Please note, by the way, that Sayers was talking specifically about
detective stories, not about mysteries in general. So am I. Thrillers,
noir stories, and other varieties of mysteries may not be comic in the
least--including some literary mysteries that borrow a few elements of
the detective story but really focus on proving life is wretched and
pointless, not on solving a crime.)
Aristotle doesn't provide a full definition of comedy. Scholars say he
did write a treatise on comedy, but it was lost over the centuries. The
everyday definition of comedy as "something funny" won't cut it. The Divine Comedy
isn't a lot of laughs, but who would dare to say Dante mistitled his
masterpiece? Turning again to high-school formulas, we can say the
essential characteristic of comedy is the happy ending. As the standard
shorthand definition has it, tragedies end with funerals, comedies with
How well does the
detective story fit this comic pattern? Pretty darn well. (Frye himself
mentions "the amateur detective of modern fiction" as one variation of a
classic comic character.) The detective story usually starts with
order, or apparent order--the deceptively harmonious English village,
the superficially happy family, the workplace where everyone seems to
get along. Then a crime--usually murder--plunges everything into
disorder. Complications ensue, conflicts escalate, the wrong people get
suspected, dangers threaten to engulf the innocent, the guilty evade
punishment, and illusion eclipses reality. But the detective starts to
set things right during "scenes of discovery and reconciliation." Often
after surviving a "point of ritual death" (which he or she may shrug off
as a "close call"), the detective identifies the guilty and clears the
innocent. The villain is rendered powerless through a "ritual of
expulsion"--arrest, violent death, suicide, or, sometimes, escape. Order
is restored, and a happy ending is achieved "by a twist in the plot."
To find a specific example, we can turn to Sayers's own detective stories. Gaudy Night
makes an especially tempting choice. In the opening chapters, order
prevails at quiet Shrewsbury College, and also in the lives of Lord
Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. He proposes at set intervals, and she
finds tactful ways to say no. The serenity on campus, however, is more
apparent than real. Beneath the surface, tensions and secrets churn.
a series of mysterious events shatters the tranquility, and Harriet and
Lord Peter get drawn into the chaos. Incidents become increasingly
frightening, tensions soar as suspicion shifts from don to don and from
student to student, and truth seems hopelessly elusive. Harriet
undergoes a "point of ritual death" when she encounters the malefactor
in a dark passageway. But "scenes of discovery and reconciliation"
follow as Lord Peter unveils the truth, as relationships strained by
suspicion heal. Illusions are dispelled, realities recognized. A "ritual
of expulsion"--a gentle one this time--removes the person who caused
the disorder. And, in the true, full spirit of comedy, the detective
story ends with order restored at a higher level, with the promise of a
Humor, too, is
compatible with an optimistic spirit, and it's nearly as common in
detective stories as in comedies, from Sherlock Holmes's droll asides
straight through to Stephanie Plum's one-liners. To some, it may seem
tasteless to crack jokes while there's a corpse in the room. On the
whole, though, humor seems consistent with the tough-minded attitude of
both comedies and detective stories. Neither hides from life's
problems--there could be no story without them--but neither responds
with weeping or wringing hands. In both genres, protagonists respond to
problems by looking for solutions, sustained by their conviction that
problems can in fact be solved. The humor reminds both protagonists and
readers that, even in the wake of deaths and other disasters, life isn't
utterly bleak. Things can still turn out well.
might say the comparison with comedy works only if we stick to what is
sometimes called the traditional detective story. Yes, Dupin restores
order and preserves the reputation of an exalted personage by finding
the purloined letter, and Holmes saves an innocent bride-to-be by
solving the mystery of the speckled band. But what of darker detective
stories? If we stray too far from the English countryside and venture
down the mean streets of the hard-boiled P.I. or big-city cop, what
traces of comedy will we find? We'll find wisecracks, sure--but they'll
be bitter wisecracks, reflecting the world-weary attitudes of the
protagonists. In these stories, little order seems to exist in the first
place. So how can it be restored? How can an optimistic view of life be
The Maltese Falcon looks like a
detective story that could hardly be less comic. The mysterious black
figurine turns out to be a fake, Sam Spade hands the woman he might love
over to the police, and he doesn't even get to keep the lousy thousand
bucks he's extracted as his fee. It's not a jolly way to end.
ultimately, that's the defining characteristic of comedy, and of the
detective story. Protagonists do something, and endings are happier as a
result--maybe not blissfully happy, but more just, more truthful,
better. In detective stories, and in comedies, protagonists don't feel
so overwhelmed by the unfairness of the universe that they sink into
passivity and despair.
Maybe that's the real thesis of
"Aristotle on Detective Fiction." In some ways, Sayers's playful
comparison of tragedies and detective stories seems unconvincing.
Probably, though, her real purpose isn't to argue that the detective
story is tragedy rather than comedy. Probably, her purpose is to enlist
Aristotle as an ally against what she describes as "that school of
thought for which the best kind of play or story is that in which
nothing particular happens from beginning to end." That school of
thought remains powerful today, praising literary fiction in which
helpless, hopeless characters meander morosely through a miserable,
meaningless morass, unable to act decisively. Sayers takes a stand for
action, for saying the things human beings do make a difference, for
saying we are not just victims. Both comedy and the detective story
could not agree more.
09 July 2016
29 December 2013
My favorite fiction in the crime genre is detective stories. Before I retired I didn’t read the introductions to anthologies because I felt the summaries of the stories would interfere with my enjoyment. Once I retired and began close reading, I discovered the introductions can be very informative, especially in putting the stories in historical context.
I bought the anthology The Dead Witness because of the description above the title: “A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories.” I wondered if the connoisseur had included any surprises, if, in fact, he met his aim “to represent the vigor and charm of the Victorian detective story at its best.” Based on the three stories I read for this post, he has done a good job. I chose the stories because the connoisseur claims they were firsts.
"The Secret Cell" by William E. Burton (1804-1860) "has never been reprinted prior to its first appearance in 1837." It predates Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," but doesn’t replace Poe as the father of the detective story because it “doesn't challenge Poe's preeminence."
When her daughter Mary disappears, Mrs. Lobenstein, the unnamed narrator’s former laundress, asks him to find her. He hires a policeman friend, who later in life became “the head of the private police in London,” to find Mary. Their investigation reveals she has been kidnapped. Their search leads them to a “secret cell” on the grounds of a Franciscan Monastery. With the help of more policemen, they storm the fortress to rescue her.
No way could this story be considered as the template for the detective story. It was published only once probably because it is so badly written. Reading the the first person narrator felt like listening to a garrulous old man.
An example of the prose style: Mrs. Lobenstein’s husband “had scarcely embraced his family ere he was driven off, post-haste, to the other world....” He died.
The detective story would have been stillborn if Burton had been its father.
"The Dead Witness; or, The Bush Waterhole" by W. W. (Mary Fortune 1833-1910), published in 1866 in the Australian Journal is "the first known detective story written by a woman." She published poems and stories using male pen names. When she began writing a series "The Detective's Album" an editor changed Waif Wander to the “genderless W. W.”
Australian police detective Brooke is sent to a small town to find a young artist named Edward Willis who has gone missing for several days. Two clues, a faulty photographic plate and a missing sheep dog, lead him to a waterhole where blood was found on the ground. While he and the shepherd Dick watch the sheep drink, a corpse rises to the surface--the dead witness. A good story, though the long, well done descriptions of the scenery seem, at times, to be padding. I downloaded three of Fortune’s novels that are in the public domain from University of Adelaide Library.
“An Intangible Clue" by American Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) features her female detective Violet Strange. Green was the first woman to write “a full-fledged detective novel”, (The Leavenworth Case published in 1878) and supposedly influenced Agatha Christie.
The editor disagrees with some critics that The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester (pen name of Metta Victoria Fuller Victor) was the first “book-length detective story by a woman.” He argues that it is not a true detective story because the detective uses the psychic visions of his daughter to solve cases, and Regester was "an inferior writer who depended upon coincidence, exhibited little wit, and had a poor sense of pacing."
Violet Strange, a socialite good at solving crimes, works part time for a private detective firm but doesn't want to get her hands dirty solving "low-down crime." To persuade her to help the police with the case of an old woman who was brutally murdered in her home, her boss claims that a box with her name on it was found in the house. She realizes that he in fact wrote her name on the box. At the crime scene, pretending to be a curious, dainty woman as a policeman leads her about the house, she immediately identifies the clues that lead to the apprehension of the murderer.
I downloaded some of the Violate Strange stories from the Gutenberg Project and included them in my to-read file.
Women have come a long way. Today, no editor or publisher would dare suggest a woman use a male or genderless pen name to get published, would he?
I hope you all had a