A.E.W. Mason

Mason - photo 2.jpgAt the same time that R. Austin Freeman introduced science to the detective story, A.E.W. Mason designed the character-driven detective novel.

His great novels featuring Gabriel Hanaud of the Sûreté – At the Villa Rose (1910), The House of the Arrow (1924), and The Prisoner in the Opal (1928) – strike blows for psychology, atmosphere, and drama.

As Mason himself remarked, detective fiction was no longer

judged…by the ingenuity of its plots, but by the higher standard of its characterization.  Do the people who conduct the story live?  Are they elucidated by and do they, being what they are, assist inevitably in the development of the events?  Or are they mere dolls jerked by the author into unnatural movements and poses so that somehow they may be squeezed into the pattern of thrills and surprises which he has designed?

(Introduction to The A.E.W. Mason Omnibus: Inspector Hanaud’s Investigations, 1931)

Mason - At the Villa Rose.jpgMason’s first detective story, At the Villa Rose (1910), focuses on the characters and the emotional situation leading up to the crime, rather than simply the crime and its detection.

“I was haunted by a desire to make the story of what actually happened more intriguing and dramatic than the unravelling of the mystery and the detection of the criminal.  I wanted, in a word, that the surprise which is the natural end of a detective story should come in the middle and that the victims and criminals should between them, when brought into the witness-box, tell a story which, while explaining, should transcend in interest all the doubts and even the alarms which a good mystery is able to provoke.  I wanted, in a word, to use Miss Tennyson Jesse’s division, to combine the crime story which produces a shiver with the detective story which aims at a surprise.”

The culprits are revealed halfway through the novel.  The first half is detection; the second half is the “inside story” of the crime, as told by two of the characters.  There is a genuine frisson of horror as the story builds up to the murder.  In the Sherlock Holmes novels, Doyle had written flashbacks to Utah, Pennsylvania, or India, but these were essentially separate stories involving a couple of characters present in the first half.

Mason’s technique explores the motivation of characters the reader already knows, deepening his understanding of their behavior.  This was a significant breakthrough, moving away from his contemporaries’ purely physical approach.

Howard Haycraft (Art of the Mystery Story, 1941) and Barrie Hayne (“A.E.W. Mason”, in Earl F. Bargainnier, ed., 12 Englishmen of Mystery, 1984) both argue that Mason was the first writer since Wilkie Collins some 50 years before to emphasize psychology and atmosphere.  Hayne writes that Mason’s works bring “realism, characterization, an emphasis on the psychology of the criminal, and, above all, the central importance of the detective” to the genre.  Anthony Berkeley (in The Second Shot, 1930) cited the book as an example of what the detective story should be: a work that held its interest through characterization even after the problem had been solved.  Dorothy L. Sayers (Great Short Stories of Mystery, Detection and Horror, 1928) also believed the detective story should become a novel of character, and argued that Mason had succeeded in unifying mystery and characterization.

Mason - The Prisoner in the Opal.jpgNevertheless, as is the case with experimental works, it is imperfect.  The book is a work of two halves, and neither half is, perhaps, sufficiently developed.

Certainly, Mason would better integrate plot and character in The House of the Arrow, which is almost a template for John Dickson Carr’s masterworks, and The Prisoner in the Opal.

The atmosphere is intense; characters are driven by strong passions – jealousy, lust, hatred – and there is a sense of wickedness at work, as though all Hell were about to break loose.

Mason - The Prisoner in the Opal.jpgThe plots almost invariably involve two women, one beautiful and virtuous but wrongly accused, and the other sexy but evil, who tries to destroy the heroine; a young hero who is in love with both women (a device Carr often used); and a gang of professional criminals.  The tension mounts as the criminals commit more crimes, often culminating in a last-minute rescue of the heroine from the villains’ lair.

This is in marked contrast to the sober detection of R. Austin Freeman or Freeman Wills Crofts, whose criminals seem to have no emotion other than greed, and whose detectives and villains alike conduct their affairs in the most businesslike and impersonal manner, more interested in nautical miles or metallurgy than in love or revenge.

As They Wouldn’t Be Chessmen (1935) makes clear, human passions will disrupt the most carefully laid plans; Crofts’ intricate alibis, with their time-tables and mathematical precision, would never survive the wilfulness of Mason’s characters.

Although Mason uses physical clues – footprints, tears in the sofa cushions, ominous stains – of the sort found in Doyle and Freeman, he focuses on psychological clues: the characters’ relationships and behavior.

Carr admired the way in which “the criminal – though you may never notice this until afterwards – is always alert, always tense, responding on every page to some stimulus of suggested guilt”.  (See “The Grandest Game in the World”, in Douglas G. Greene, ed., The Door to Doom, International Polygonics, 1991.)  Mason had made clues of character – “a purely psychological quality in … a turn of an eye, a gripping of a window-ledge” – equal in weight to Holmes and Thorndyke’s footmarks and fingerprints – a new sort of evidence that Agatha Christie and Carr himself would raise to the level of genius.

Mason - Hanaud.jpgThe story advances through character-based scenes, as in a stage-play, rather than through serial interviewing or examination of clues.  The action is not seen from the investigator’s perspective, but through the eyes of his friend Mr. Ricardo, or, in The House of the Arrow, a young solicitor.  Carr used this approach himself, and admired the way Mason constructed his novels around the interplay of characters, rather than trying to fit sketchily-drawn suspects into a mechanical plot.

Although Mason plays fair with the reader, often he does not show the discovery of clues; rather, the detectives use evidence to make telling points against suspects, a technique Carr also used.  The clues are often hidden in descriptions, as in Carr or Christie.  In The House of the Arrow, one thinks of the pen-holder, the smoke in the chimneys, and the clock seen in the mirror.

The tone is cosmopolitan and urbane; the characters are sophisticated, at home in the Riviera or the vineyards of the Gironde, discussing grand opéra and witchcraft, or the fascination of antiques and history.  This is a milieu in which Hercule Poirot – a Belgian ex-policeman inspired by Hanaud – or Dr. Gideon Fell would be comfortable.  Tellingly, Hanaud was the model for Carr’s first detective, the Sûreté chief Henri Bencolin.

Whereas Crofts and Freeman thought up a plot idea – either a novel means of detecting villainy, or an ingenious alibi – and then constructed the story backwards, Mason’s plots are caused by the interaction of characters and the emotional situation.  Mason’s novels were, arguably, the first in which the story could be read for itself, rather than for the problem.  For the first time, character, storytelling, and plot form an integral whole, as they will in the best works of the 1930s.

If Freeman developed the pure detective story, Mason developed the detective novel.

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