The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (1937), posthumously published, may not hit the heights of The Man Who Was Thursday or the Father Brown stories (say, the Insolence or the Incorrigibility) – but one sees great things from the valley; even lesser GKC towers over almost anyone else.
In Borges’ favourite story, “The Three Horsemen of Apocalypse”, a Prussian general fails because his soldiers obey him. Two men come to agree so completely that one of them naturally murders the other. One spy is too tall to be seen; another writes a black message with a red pencil; and a man is so desirable a government considers his deportment.
Chesterton is a magician of metaphysics; his tales all make a philosophical point. (Sometimes, too, the point of the pin is that it is pointless.) He is right even when he’s wrong (but never wrong when he’s really right).
His detectives seem to suddenly go mad in conversation, or stand on their heads to see things the right way up. Like the other great Gilbert, he is an apostle of topsiturvidom.
“Once assume the wrong beginning,” Mr. Pond remarks, “and you’ll not only give the wrong answer, but you ask the wrong question. In this case, you’ve got a mystery; but you’ve got hold of the wrong mystery.”
His style scintillates like a shining sword, dazzling and dancing with wit and wordplay, alliteration, allusion, elusion, and illusion. It is, a character remarks, “the 18th-century style: balance and antithesis and all that”.
- The only part of his conversation they could understand was the part they could not understand.
- A man always says exactly what he means; but especially when he hides it.
- He should have been exiled for being important; but he was so very important that nobody could be told of his importance.
- When a thing is obviously untrue, it is obviously not a lie.
- In nature you must go very low to find things that go so high.
- The most deceptive thing about a shadow is that it may be quite accurate.
“A reading of Chesterton,” Julian Symons observed, “reinforces the truth that the best detective stories have been written by artists and not by artisans.”
Chesterton’s tales work (as I have said elsewhere) on three levels: as brilliant mysteries, in which the little Catholic priest Father Brown solves a bizarre and baffling crime; as dark fairy-tales in the tradition of Poe or Hoffmann, full of magic, wonder and terror; and as parables that make philosophical or social points. “The essence of a mystery tale is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true.” His paradoxes, his exuberant style, his worst crimes in the world and strange sins, and the little priest who explains the riddles of the universe, make him supreme among detective writers.
Chesterton invented the puzzle plot detective story, with mystification, subtle clues, and startling solutions. Read “The Sign of the Broken Sword”, “The Invisible Man”, “The Flying Stars”, “The Mirror of the Magistrate”, or “The Dagger with Wings” to see him in full flight.
Some say Chesterton is not enough like the detective story; I say the detective story is not enough like Chesterton.
When I was very much younger, I thought the detective story meant Conan Doyle, Christie, Carr and Chesterton; Innes, Crispin and Blake; Van Dine and Queen; Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, and Mitchell.
It meant fantasy, adventure, and drama, laced with wit and erudition. It meant eccentric genius sleuths, orange pips, devil’s feet, and phosphorescent hounds. It meant murders on Nile cruises, luxury trains, aeroplanes, and Iraqi archaeological digs. It meant invisible men, flying daggers, vanishing rooms, witchcraft, the Mysteries of Eleusis, chess-playing masterminds with a Mother Goose Fixation, and telepathic horses in the Amazon. It meant suspicion flying among a half-dozen interesting characters, a labyrinthine plot, and a diabolically clever surprise ending. The fog rolls away, and one beholds the beautiful light of Terewth.
Then I discovered that most detective stories were “Humdrum” (or Realist, if you prefer): “ingenious … and finely constructed,” in Symons’ words, but with “almost no literary merit”. The problem is all; they provide all the clues, they may have an ingenious idea (a novel murder method or alibi scheme) – and they’re lifeless and dull. Uninteresting crimes; flat characters; and no story. Detection and nothing but detection.
This is deliberate.
The detective story, R. Austin Freeman proclaimed, is logical and impersonal, “an argument conducted under the guise of fiction”. It appeals to “men of a subtle type of mind … theologians, scholars, lawyers, and to a less extent, perhaps, doctors and men of science”. The pleasure comes not from the story, but from following the chain of reasoning. The process of detection (“the method of proving it”) is more interesting than the mystery (“the matter to be proved”).
What isn’t detection is distraction. Characterisation and wit are unnecessary; if present, they must take a back place to the detection. Style saves the work from becoming artificial, but efforts to make the detective story more literary result in neither a detective story nor a straight novel.
Detective fiction fans don’t mind; “a true connoisseur of this fiction,” as Edmund Wilson recognized, “must be able to suspend the demands of his imagination and literary taste and take the thing as an intellectual problem”. And many still object to what they consider “excelsior“.
To write a story that the critics will enjoy, Carr wrote in The Eight of Swords:
you must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever – that’s very important – (3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction.
This, Symons observed, was bad fiction; “to abjure voluntarily the interplay of character and the force of passion was eventually to reduce this kind of detective story to the level of a crossword puzzle, which can be solved but not read, to cause satiety in the writers themselves, and to breed a rebellion which came sooner than has been acknowledged”.
But Dr. Austin Freeman’s austere doctrines dominated British detective fiction for a generation. The Detection Club, desperate for respectability, had set its face against imagination; dry mathematical and scientific problems were its wares.
Chesterton, a Catholic humanist, objected to Freeman’s materialist mania. Chesterton’s stories, like Borges’, are small enough to contain the universe; Freeman wrote long books about minutiae blown out of proportion: drops of water the size of oceans, dust as big as prison-houses, forests of pond weed, and molehills the height of mountains. Father Brown doesn’t solve mysteries by peering at blood samples through a microscope; he understands human nature. Chesterton parodied Freeman’s scientific approach in “The Absence of Mr. Glass”. The great scientific sleuth misreads physical evidence, and invents blackmailers and murderers ex nihilo; Father Brown looks at a man’s eyes, and realises he’s laughing. But few laughed with Chesterton; he was “unfair”, “intuitive”.
Their idea of a good detective story writer was Freeman Wills Crofts, most highly esteemed of the followers of Freeman. His books are well constructed – and turgid: mathematics for masochists. His detective, Inspector French, has the small, shriveled soul of an accountant or an anorak. He reads bank statements; compares counterfoils; shows photographs to railway porters and cloakroom attendants; sings Evangelical hymns praising the miracle of the steam engine and the echo sounder; and eats British Railway sandwiches with relish, as he methodically dismantles unbreakable alibis.
He began to study the trains. The first northwards was the 4 pm dining express from King’s Cross to Newcastle. It left Doncaster at 7.56 and reached Selby at 8.21. Would Archer travel by it? And if he did, what would be his next move? (The Pit-Prop Syndicate)
The first question was: How had Mount made the journey? Mount had a car, but most persons of moderate income went by train, rail being so much cheaper for the long distance. Mount had been at the Vicarage at one o’clock, and he had rung up Rudge from the Charing Cross Hotel at nine. There were two, and only two, trains he could have used, the 2.5 from Whynmouth, which reached Waterloo at 5.45, and the 4.25 from Whynmouth, arriving at 8.35…
He had gone by the 1.30 which connected at Passfield Junction with the 11.0 a.m. express from Waterloo to the west. (Crofts’s contribution to The Floating Admiral)
In one of Inspector French’s most exciting cases, he investigates a corpse in a crate:
First he added the weights of the crate, the body, and the steel bars: they came to 35 stone or 490 lb. Then he found that the volume of the crate was just a trifle over 15 cubic feet. This latter multiplied by the weight of a cubic feet of sea water – 64 lb. – gave a total of 985 lb. as the weight of water the crate would displace if completely submerged. But if the weight of the crate was 490 lb. and the weight of the water it displaced was 985 lb., it followed that not only would it float, but it would float within a very considerable buoyancy, represented by the difference between these two, or 495 lb. The first part of his history was therefore tenable.
But the moment the crate was thrown into the sea, water would begin to run in through the lower holes. French wondered if he could calculate how long it would take to sink.
He was himself rather out of his depth among the unfamiliar figures and formulæ given on the subject. The problem was, How long would it take 495 lb. of water to run through seven one-sixth inch holes? (The Sea Mystery)
Faced with this sort of thing, one can only applaud John Dickson Carr’s hatred of mathematicians. The most surprising thing in any of Crofts’ books may well be his interest in Berlioz, of all people.
Then there are the purely intellectual stories of Ronald Knox or Dermot Morrah. Knox’s detectives are fascinated by logic and abstract reasoning. They sit and theorise. They build elaborate castles in the air. They conjecture, debate, discuss, and pontificate. The poor reader has to sit quietly and wait for these insufferable bores to shut up. To people of a highly rational, subtle type of mind, following the involutions and convolutions of logic in these bloodless, abstract works is no doubt fascinating; I am not one of them.
Even a writer like E.R. Punshon, whom Sayers praised for his “distinction”, starts well, then collapses into a stodgy mess. His Bobby Owen doggedly questions all and sundry; there are gangsters and black marketeers, lorries full of stolen cigarettes, and bank tellers’ love affairs, but no murder, and no sign of a corpse or intriguing mystery.
The heyday of the Humdrums was the 1920s and 1930s. It is 2019, and the crime genre outgrew ingenuity decades ago, the late P.D. James declared; to prove it, she produced 500-page doorstoppers of nigh-suicidal Anglicans, pedantically correct English, and home décor, rewriting her masterpiece A Taste for Death with ever-decreasing power.
At least the Realists’ best detective stories were ingenious, on rare occasions even surprising. Austin Freeman may have been misguided, but his books have a fusty period charm; he even shows a sense of humour in The Eye of Osiris, and of humanity in As a Thief in the Night. Crofts’ Cask is an intricate, absorbing work; so, too, is The Starvel Tragedy.
Most British crime novels now dwell on the miseries of the middle classes, and sneer at their linoleum and groceries.
And American crime comes in two varieties, both factory-made: the cozy, solved by cats (pussies galore, read by old pussies); and the serial killer novel, starring hard-bitten-but-oh-so-vulnerable woman pathologists, PIs, and spooks.
Scandi-Noir is all the rage: depressive Icelanders down aquavits or drown themselves, unable to cope with their failed marriages, promiscuous daughters, onanistic junkie sons, and that worrying ulcer (is it cancer?).
They are realistic, worthy, and unappetizing. The detective story, though, can do more than realism. Naturalism is a false god; like all false gods, it must be destroyed. Only a dullard makes a virtue of his lack of imagination.
The detective story should be funnier, cleverer, and downright weirder. The ideal detective story might, in fact, be a cross between the Goon Show and Jorge Luis Borges.