Qualitative Prisms

I’ve just finished reading two quite interesting books on Detective Fiction ™. Murder for Pleasure by Howard Haycraft and Unless The Threat of Death Is Behind Them by John Irwin.

Murder for Pleasure is a survey of the genre written in 1941, and is obsessed with the so-called “fair play method”, going so far as to rule that any story in which the denouement cannot be deduced in advance is not a detective story. He develops a short-hand for the difference that a mere “mystery” is “incident based”, while a true detective story is “deduction based”.

Within this paradigm Haycraft grapples with what constitutes good or bad. The hard border on one side nothing more than a puzzle expressed in novel format. He can’t quite condemn this outright, as it fits his terms, but he clearly hopes for something more. On the other side is the murky ground of character-driven versus plot-driven narratives, and he seems to generally think that you need to have either realistic characters in a “fantastic” situation, or a realistic situation with characters who’ve become mere plot-puppets.

This rather reminds me of John’s very first post, where he introduces the idea of “plot coupons” which a character must accrue before “sending away to the author for an ending”. It seems to me that the difficulty for a detective writer is the need to have a certain number of “clue coupons”, functionally identical. Haycraft is constrained by believing these things utterly vital, but impotently wants this tool used in this specific way to also support interesting and realistic characters in writing which is compelling and polished. Yet, despite the centrality of the story-as-puzzle, he goes out of his way to avoid engaging with the mechanics of murder plots in any meaningful way, focusing only on things which he must ultimately regard as expendable.

It’s not hard to see why Raymond Chandler wrote his famous rebuttal, “The Simple Art Of Murder”; a far more penetrating work which nevertheless has its own problems.

Unless The Threat of Death Is Behind Them represents something like the other end of the spectrum of analytic writing. It is a study of 5 seminal texts which the author sees as intimately connected in material and theme. Only 2 of these are conventional detective stories, though criminals and detectives feature in all of them. Straight away you can see the problem Haycraft was tackling in his very precise definition and tight focus on a very specialist story subset. In the absence of Irwin’s very specific vision of their interconnection, I struggled to put them into the same category of writing at all (happily I was already familiar with 4/5 of the novels discussed).

The unity that Irwin substitutes for plot mechanics, is the tension between being an employee and being a boss in the context of the criminal world generally in the 1920s and 1930s. He sees the detective not primarily as a puzzle-solver, as Haycraft did, but as a character taking control of their own professional life at the expense of their personal life. Detectives, he argues, are primarily loners because that’s how they can be in charge: perhaps the only way.

While I found many of the details of his arguments interesting, I felt unconvinced by that global thesis inasmuch as it seemed to beg the question. The virtual erasure of a private existence to create a professional existence can’t simply be about a desire to control that professional existence. Ultimately, he seeks to obviate the obvious moral imperatives of all detectives with this argument, where he should seek to sublimate that into his vision of personal sacrifice.

Despite their flaws, these books provide two quite cogent and coherent prisms to apply to the works they don’t explicitly discuss. That would seem like an adequate achievement for any piece of writing.

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