The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (G.K. Chesterton)

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 NightCrofts’ 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.

 

9 thoughts on “The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (G.K. Chesterton)

  1. A wonderful tribute to Chesterton’s puzzles and artistry, and a smart analysis of the differing approaches to the detective story. There is clearly an appreciative readership (and a vocal, antipathetic opposite number) out there for every genre type: someone will enjoy the book and someone else will find faults and declare it void of merit. GKC has come to mind in the last 24 hours because I was thinking how rarely I enjoy a locked-room/impossible crime mystery. (Fault finder I.) I should enjoy this genre; there is an imaginative element in the tableaux that should tap into the romance found in images of a hound-like Nemesis roaming the moor or dangerous near-drownings in the River Itchen, where naiads are said to dwell. But the Carrian locked-room solution often hinges on illusionist trappings, like fine wires and elastic bands and overlooked holes and Guy Fawkes mannequins and stilts and bodies stuffed into decorative urns. When the solution comes, for me it’s equal parts heavy lifting and anticlimax.

    Contrast that with what Chesterton manages in his great short stories: he makes the demystification not the dissection of a magic trick — and who’s ever satisfied to find that the table has a false bottom or the woman’s legs are only wooden props? — but a perception shift that gets delivered with the clarity and logic of a subjective spiritual revelation. And it’s amazing and incredibly satisfying to behold. It’s not trickery, it’s viewing a set of baffling details in a way that brings the picture into focus. “The Miracle of Moon Crescent” is a perfect example: how does a man in a top floor apartment (whose door is guarded on the outside) disappear when a gunshot is heard, to have his body found hanging a distance away from the building? It’s a locked-ish room mystery, but the clues demonstrate a rationality once you know how to interpret them (why the gun? Why the hanging?). That, I believe, is the best use of the GAD detective, but it’s the hardest to do: allow the explanation to afford the reader a taste of revelatory ecstasy. Far easier to have your detective consult railway timetables or theorize on a fantastical locked-room method of death-by-statue-spear-stabbed-and-righted-by-complicated-sequence-of-weights-and-pulleys. Or something.

    You write, “Some say Chesterton is not enough like the detective story; I say the detective story is not enough like Chesterton.” Hear, hear.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jason! A great name, for soon we will set forth on our Mitchellian Argosy!

      Detective fiction is about a perception shift. Yes! It’s rarely achieved, but wonderful when a writer can pull it off. Chesterton said that it wasn’t about mystification, but illumination – a brilliant lightning flash that suddenly makes sense of everything. (In my younger, degernerate days, I termed it the Diivine Thunderbolt of Revelation, as if cast by the hand of Zeus himself.) Chesterton did it almost every time; so did Christie. It doesn’t rely on Kirby wires, priests’ holes, or other dull things, but on how you see the world – or how you think the writer sees the world. GKC’s stories are at once moral fables AND intellectual arguments; they make you question just the mystery, but your assumptions. That’s whatI meant about GKC being right even when is wrong; he identifies the problem, even if his solution (Roman Catholicism!) is wrong. Most people can’t even see the problem. Chesterton has far more in common with Eco or Calvino or Borges than with the likes of Crofts or John Rhode. (There’s an intersting post by Lance Parkin about the Grey Tradition; check it out.)

      (This will lead to a discussion about Myers-Briggs and other fascinating, but dubious, things.)

      As for Carr – I agree that explanations can be less interesting than the miracle (solutions based on Kirby wires, elastic bands, and priests’ holes are dully mehanical) – but Carr was a disciple of Chesterton. In his best books, the solution is as startling as the miracle. (Mike Grost once said that Carr was as creative a figure in the detective story as Mozart was in opera.) A single sentence turns the narrative upside down, there’s that shock of epiphany, and a furious burst of applause. (I read most of JDC’s books when I was 14/15, though. Who was it said that was the golden age of science fiction? The same thing applies to mysteries.)

      Although, to be fair, how often does Gladys Mitchell do this? GM, as you’ve said, is more about the journey than the destination. Mitchell, as we both agree, is a novelist who decided to write mysteries, rather than vice versa – which is why so many purists hate her (or can’t undertand her).

      I’m really looking forward to discussing Come Away, Death, the book that convinced me Mitchell was great. I haven’t read it for 18 years, so it’ll be interesting to revisit. Expect lots of allusions to Greek mythology and drama. At the very least, I’ll be a glossary!

      In unrelated news: I’m rereading I, Clavdivs (for the third time), and watching an opera about Julius Caesar and Cato (by one Leonardo Vinci – no relation).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a bit surprised but as you Brits say (are you a Brit?), chuffed. I myself am a big Symons fan and think he got it pretty right overall in Bloody Murder. But on mystery blogs Symons is hated. ( Hated I will add by those who admit they never read his book.) Humdrums are the rage. We seem to think much alike on mysteries, although I draw the line at the Goon Show! A model for my ideal mystery is possibly Death of my Aunt by Kitchin: a deft comedy of manners with more than just the puzzle to make it worth reading. There are better books, but it’s the right kind of book.

    You also seem to have some taste in music … I belong to an online discussion group for classical music, which you might like (there are numerous threads for opera buffs). http://www.good-music-guide.com/community/index.php

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not British; I just think that way.

      (Born Australian, late childhood and teenage years in Belgium, while reading British books and watching the BBC – and a historian to boot. A citizen of the world, calling no place or time home – or the idiot who praises in enthusiastic tone every century but this, and every country but his on! “I tolerate this century, but I don’t enjoy it,” as William Hartnell once remarked.)

      The enthusiasm for the Humdrums leaves me puzzled. I agree that their best works deserve reprinting, and that many detective fiction writers beyond the Crime Queens should be better known – but to hold Crofts or Freeman or Rhode up as the epitome of the genre is bizarre.

      Symons is brilliant but erratic; I agree that that he’s right about the problem (the humdrum detective story), but not about the detective story (more psychology). Same with Chandler (more realism). Ifirst read Bloody Murder when I was 15; I was appalled to read his judgement of the detetive story. It took a long while to realise he was right.

      I haven’t (I don’t think) read Death of his Aunt; I read Death of his Uncle (if that’s the second book) about 17 years ago.

      I’ll register on the GMG Forum.

      Like

  3. Excellent essay, Nick. Your descriptions of the modern mystery/crime story are spot-on and funny. I agree that Symons is correct as far as you say, but he is unfortunately an arrogant ass and a silly elitist, as is evident in pretty much every word in Bloody Murder, though he’s less annoying than Colin Watson in his snobbery toward the genre expressed in his Snobbery with Violence.

    An observation: the more imaginative writers you justly praise above wrote works that appeal to bourgeois values by showing the great adventures and hidden truths behind the quotidian. The writers who appeal less to you (also rightly, in my view), write for self-styled elites—the people of sweetness and light as described by Matthew Arnold—those superior individuals who “dwell on the miseries of the middle classes, and sneer at their linoleum and groceries,” preferring instead to create insufferably dull procedurals (suffused by a huge stench of authoritarianism) with conflicted protagonists (who, like themselves, are emotionally divorced from the people around them) and mad villains whose evil is explained away as the result of a variety of causative elements unearthed from their pasts as the investigation proceeds.

    The mystery is a form of romance. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and the Father Brown stories have far more in common with “Around the World in 80 Days” and The Baroque Trilogy than with the “crime novel.” The mystery can be done well as a comedy of manners, yes, but the latter is a form of romance when done properly (cf Northrop Frye).

    The “crime story” sifts through the details of life and finds that an intricate set of circumstances led someone to murder somebody else. The mystery story illuminates the truth behind that “intricate set of circumstances”: the mysteries of the human heart.

    The crime story ultimately deals with motivations and circumstances, but the mystery story reveals what Aristotle defined as the essence of drama: choice. The latter is also the essence of human life. The web of circumstances is merely the environment in which choices are made. Your allusion to “minutiae blown out of proportion” characterizes this contrast beautifully.

    The best mysteries are great adventures in both real-world terms and in the world of the intellect, which reveal to us truths we never saw coming.They seek greater truths behind the facts of life—and they find them. Those that at least strive toward that end are worthy of praise, in my view. Those that seek merely to describe the web of circumstances are a waste of my time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Sam!

      A slightly disjointed, belated reply; I’m off work with a virus.

      Where does the future of the mystery story lie? Originally, it was a form of romance, as you say; a form of the adventure story, a branch of imaginative literature – Baghdad-on-Thames, and all that. Certainly, Carr had more in common with George Macdonald Fraser – both rollicking, conservative historical novelists inspired by Doyle, Dumas, Stevenson, and Wodehouse – than with, say, Crofts. Since the 1960s, though, imagination, ingenuity, and clever plotting have moved to fantasy or science fiction – but fantasy these days is too often generic Tolkien imitations, while science fiction is dystopian. The detective story lost a lot by wanting to become respectable and realistic, and concentrating on the murderer’s mind or social ills – as Xavier observed, it’s gone back to 19th century values.

      I’m slightly puzzled by your remark that the crime story deals with motivation and circumstances, but the mystery story looks at the mysteries of the human heart. How does motivation differ from the mysteries of the human heart? Could you elaborate on how the mystery story reveals choice, while the crime story doesn’t? Is it that the crime novel treats its murderers as acted upon by external forces (society, circumstance, what have you), while the detective story assumes they are rational agents, with free will, capable of choice?
      (While Austin Freeman’s detective story is materialistic to the exclusion of character or inner life altogether. He certainly thought that race and heredity determined behaviour.)

      Your point that the choice is more important than the circumstances is classical, almost Racinean!

      Did Rendell and James write for elites? It’s an interesting point. Both, I think, certainly saw themselves as members of the elite – but had mass-market appeal (partly due to the TV adaptations). Reginald Hill is more intellectual and literate than either – but not elitist. I think his background’s Northern English working class, so he depicts them as people, rather than sociological studies. [Brian Blessed’s from a similar background; according to his memoirs, a lot of miners could quote Shakespeare by heart, or enjoyed classical music. Social class and artistic tastes don’t necessarily correlate!] His best books – the astonishing works of the ’90s, from Recalled to Life through Dialogues of the Dead – are modern, fair play, high concept detective stories, audaciously clued, that also have heart.

      And a great last paragraph!

      Like

      1. Thanks for your insightful reply, Nick.

        Your mention of Fraser, Doyle, Dumas, Stevenson, and Wodehouse is spot-on, They are all writers whose works I enjoy immensely, and they share with the best true mystery writers a belief in plot and story. Not content to accumulate an accounting of (fictional) facts and circumstances, they all work hard to draw meaning from the events that they depict–yes, even Wodehouse, in his subtle and light-hearted way. Crime writers of the humdrum and contemporary types, on the other hand, pile up a mountain of facts (that are actually not true, of course) and posit them as explaining the actions of their characters. Critics and fans, in turn, call this great characterization and praise the writers’ insights into psychology and contemporary issues. If, however, romance-style mystery fiction is deficient in being unrealistic, as its detractors claim, the crime story is merely superficially convincing as a result of its accumulation of facts and circumstances. It can allow strong identification with some of the characters–especially if you share the author’s point of view–but this inhibits the reader’s ability to question fundamentally the characters’ perceptions of events, because the author’s goal is precisely to let the accumulated facts serve as the explanation of the characters’ actions.

        In a romance-style mystery, by contrast, the events are presented in service of the plot and story line, which ultimately gives the events meaning by connecting them in a logical way. The ability to turn a story on a dime and show the reader that everything he or she thought she knew is in fact wrong is made possible by the continual linking of events to one another in a story line driven by human choice, which is the essence of drama and indeed of human life.

        I think that Hill, like Lovesey, belongs more with the romance-style writers even though they both wrote relatively long, contemporary style books as the years went by. Their earlier books were more concise and quite in the story-driven tradition. I think that Christopher Fowler also belongs in this group even though his books can be very long.

        You answer your major question yourself, and quite well:

        “Is it that the crime novel treats its murderers as acted upon by external forces (society, circumstance, what have you), while the detective story assumes they are rational agents, with free will, capable of choice?”

        Exactly! Motivation posits external events and internal desires as dispositive in people’s actions. Story posits personal choice as dispositive, and external events and internal desires as the arena in which those choices are made. Comparing those two descriptions (which I believe to be true and fair characterizations of the two points of view), one can see that the crime story is essentially materialistic in its worldview (as you note), whereas the mystery story seeks meaning behind human actions–and finds it.

        Like

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