Wednesday, June 9, 2010

JDM on the English Mystery Novel

"I have always felt an impatience with the novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and have been mildly puzzled at their lasting popularity... I cannot fault the quality of the prose -- Sayers' especially. Nor the professionalism.... There was a bloodlessness, a papery quality about this work which put me off. Even the screams were mannerly. Weekends in the British countryside seemed an impossibly placid ritual...

"These are, of course, puzzle stories, some of them of the had-I-but-known pattern... But they are, too many of them, unfair puzzle stories. They mystify, and one may even pick out the culprit through using the least-likely-suspect theory, but the mechanics of solution are beyond us because they depend upon some field of knowledge so esoteric that in many cases we have never even heard of it. Lord Peter Wimsey in The Nine Tailors is a case in point. I learned something about bell-ringing, but not enough, soon enough, to help Wimsey nail the guilty person... Poirot, Wimsey, Marple and company may add new bits to my dust bin of knowledge, but they never give it to me in time for me to use it in independent solution.

"When I read a puzzle story, I want a measurable chance, no matter how small, of beating the author to the punch line. Sherlock Holmes is an offender equally guilty, and I do not care for him either, heresy though this may be. It is like attempting to solve a cross word puzzle where one of the key words can be found only in a Sanskrit dictionary.

"So the vast readership achieved by these people would seem to indicate that people do not want to solve the puzzle. They want to be mystified, confused, and then amazed at the startling resolution. And terribly impressed by the absolute genius of the detective, his dazzling brilliance."

-- from Clues: A Journal of Detection

Vol 1, Issue 1 (1980)

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