THE question of who committed murder in any given detective story is enormously simplified if one remembers that in each instance the culprit is the author. He conceived the crime, executed it, and subsequently, by solving it, exposed himself and will face the consequences when the reviews come in. Therefore learned discussion concerning who is more important, the detective or the criminal, is pointless. And even more futile is the insistence of certain distinguished mystery ‘fans,’ including Somerset Maugham, that detectivestory writers should not write too well. Excepting very rare occasions, a writer cannot write better than he is able. If he writes worse than he can, the reader has just cause for complaint. The author will be himself, since it is himself he is tracking down. Let the reader, in choosing an author, beware.
Many exponents of the art of detective-story writing (and it has become an art) have analyzed their own stories and set up rules for others to follow. Among them was the late S. S. Van Dine. He, for instance, held rightly that it was bad cricket for a writer to delegate his murder to a minor or transient character. That trick, to Mr. Van Dine’s keen mind, stands on a par with shooting a grouse standing or forgiving a chap for having cheated at cards. Mr. Somerset Maugham, in his recent much-discussed article in the Saturday Evening Post, after employing a couple of columns chiding Mrs. Wharton for her impeccable taste, sets his cold seal of disapproval on ‘whodunits’ containing more than one murder, and asserts that a single murder must be done in an ordinary, not an exotic, way. There must be no ‘purple passages’ and nothing must interfere with the ‘action.’ The reading time should be three hours for a fast reader, and six for a dolt.
Is it not already evident that the writer who tries to amuse himself and his readers by means of a ‘whodunit’ is obliged, if he is to be rewarded either with praise or with gain, to please everybody? Æsop’s famous traveler, who, when rebuked by an animal lover for riding a donkey smaller than himself, took the donkey on his shoulders, was ridiculed as a soft-headed fool and wound up by throwing the unfortunate animal over a bridge. My advice to the writers of ‘whodunits’ is to keep their donkey — that is, the interesting and popular story form they have developed — and let the critics go hang. In fact, that is sound advice for the writers of any kind of stories whatsoever.
Aristotle was one of the first who started making rules for stories. He declared that a tale should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. But he didn’t stipulate in what order they should appear, or whether they should be laid out side by side or scrambled like Duranty’s famous eggs. Now, suppose a mystery-story writer decided to proceed according to Aristotle, Van Dine, and Maugham. His story would have a beginning (Aristotle), only one murder (Maugham), and the murderer would be one of the principal characters (Van Dine). It is well known among writers and professors that a reader’s sympathy goes out more readily to the characters first introduced. If the reader likes the murderer too well and sympathizes with him, he will resent the writer’s choice of culprit and ask his librarian to recommend another writer. If the writer singles out one of the characters revealed in the early pages and makes him unpopular on sight, he gives the show away and offends those exacting customers who follow the plot page by page and try to solve the crime before the author does. Should the harassed writer, aware of the above-mentioned possibilities of disaster, make all the characters unpleasant, he will be pilloried by the large group of respectable readers who do not wish to read about characters they would not welcome to their home.
Therefore, let us boil down all rules into one. The ‘whodunit’ must be entertaining. It must reflect the quality, or at least an interesting facet, of an author’s mind. That lets in, regardless of method and limitations, such divergent types as Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Phœbe Taylor, Simenon and Poe, Earl Derr Biggers and S. S. Van Dine. Of the field, I prefer Simenon for his Chekhovian directness and simplicity, and Rex Stout for his Epicurean lust for life.
Since I have warned readers to beware, in choosing ‘whodunit’ writers and their output, perhaps it is only fair that I should lay my own cards upon the table. My first experience with the genre occurred when I was only a reader and had never seen my name in print on a title page or in a gossip column. I spent a lone evening with The Hound of the Baskervilles, and that thrilling adventure ranks high in my list of vivid memories.
Gertrude Stein said once, and truly, that I have no mentality at all. I only feel. So, reader, if you are after patterns and diagrams pass up the works of Paul, or read the engineering articles of my distinguished brother, who dotes on hydraulics.
I know it is indelicate to mention it today, but once upon a time there was a brave naïf Spanish army, whether you liked it or not, and it was up against fearful odds, as others have been since who have been treated more respectfully. And when that band of men and women were shoved across a border, concerning which I knew much more than they, and found themselves in concentration camps, herded by the low, and destined to slow and shameful ends, your author turned his head away. He was ten days in an alcohol tomb in a legendary city called Rouen, and when born again with something or other missing he started tapping self-defcnsively a tale called The Mysterious Mickey Finn.
He had read few detective stories, except the very good ones with atmosphere and chunks of author served on large generous platters. He didn’t know, when he began, just where he would end, and that is true today. I shall never cheat my readers by cribbing last chapters and then working backwards, with selfimposed limitations. On page 16, or 47, or 103, the reader may rest assured that he knows just as much as I do about the climax and elucidation. But he will see some queer places, stranger than fiction, if you want it that way. He will see some fellow members of the human race perform in an unrestrained way. That is all.
And if the reader or incipient writer wants a rule, the Golden Rule is still the best of the lot, even for authors.
And so, to homicide.
What is the pure ‘whodunit,’ as distinct from the crime or adventure story and the ‘novel’ proper?
The first murder story, and one which has had a profound effect on modern thinking, was the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel. For a clear understanding of this yarn, the important features of which have long been overlooked, it is best to retell it in a modern rural sett ing. Cain is a hard-working introspective farmer boy. The heavy work falls on him because his father is exacting and Cain is husky enough to stand it Abel, the flightier and less sturdy of the brothers, tends the sheep, and even this he neglects because he talks with the stars. For years Cain has shouldered his burden without fretting, but Abel’s easy lot and carefree attitude, and particularly his popularity with the farm maidens, eventually get under Cain’s skin.
The big scene takes place in the State Fair, which is the modern equivalent of the sacrificial altar. Cain has been having bad luck with his crops. The sun has scorched his wheat. Intermittent rains have caused weeds to choke his truck garden. But the same conditions that made farming difficult have favored the sheep. Abel’s exhibit is in prime condition, in spite of his casual way of tending flocks.
The judges look askance at Cain’s mangy show of garden truck and his blighted grain. So Abel walks away with the blue ribbon, accompanied by Brenda, the chairman’s lovely daughter. She likes Abel’s star talk and is bored by Cain’s rustic sallies. As Abel says ‘Pip-pip’ to Cain, who is fingering a blister-rusted carrot in a surly way, he cannot repress a chuckle. It is not meant unkindly, but it unleashes years of pent-up smouldering resentment in the hairy chest of Cain and seals Abel’s doom.
The Great Detective in the case was Jehovah, and he soon broke down the thick-headed, bewildered Cain. Jehovah also was the judge. Instead of exacting the corporal penalty, the judge commuted Cain’s sentence to what is aptly known in the trade as a ‘hearse rap.’
Had there been added to the cast a half-dozen suspects, cattle men who had suffered because Abel’s sheep cropped off the grass too close to the roots, and a brace of rival suitors for Brenda’s lovely hand, the old story would have been a ‘whodunit.’ As it was, the identity of the ‘ heavy,’ as the villain is now called, was established in the beginning, as in the case of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The Russian master had never heard of Van Dine or Maugham, so he contented himself with the mental processes of Raskolnikov and the details of the duel of wits between the mad student and his Nemesis, the police Inspector Porfiry Petrovitch.
As far as ‘whodunits’ are concerned, Dostoevsky is out. But a modern French writer has done wonders in reconciling profound humanity with the mysterystory form. I refer to Simenon. What his stories lack in mechanical complications, they gain in simplicity. His stories exude the atmosphere of post-war (II) France and the temper of French people. The American writer who can perform a similar service for the people of These States has yet to appear. But I am convinced that the future of the ‘whodunit’ lies in that direction. The deceitful group of suspects will dwindle in importance. The detective will shed his burp and discard his needle. The clown police inspectors will merge with the omniscient amateurs. The pecksniffing crossword puzzlers will go back to their anagrams. And the ‘whodunit’ will enter its adult phase, free at last from the pointless discipline of its self-appointed taskmasters.
Thus far the ‘whodunit’ has had a spotted career. Intended for hoi polloi, it was taken up by the snobs, only to be rediscovered in the movies by the mob for whom it was originally concocted. Hollywood has perverted it almost beyond recognition, but also has improved some of the original material, owing largely to the patience of Producer Hunt Stromberg, who gave to the world Nick and Nora Charles. Of course I know that Dashiell Hammett wrote The Thin Man and that the Hacketts did a good job of dramatizing the Nick Charles stories for the screen; but it was Stromberg who ironed the thing out, who kept Nick and Nora in character, who held everyone’s nose to the grindstone until After the Thin Man became the model for ‘whodunit’ films. Of course there was Hitchcock, with his 39 Steps. Hitchcock has long been receiving the ‘oh’s’ and ‘ah’s’ of the æsthetes for his atmosphere, but his disdain for ‘story’ (at its worst in Foreign Correspondent) offsets his gift for high visual art.
Generally speaking, and this is important to all writers aspiring to success in the ‘whodunit’ field, a detective story should be written either to be read or to be seen on the screen. The same story can seldom be used in both forms without incalculable loss.
A ‘whodunit’ is a murder story, with suspects who are innocent and a wolf in sheep’s clothing who did the deed and is caught in the end. It must be interesting and well written. The detective must be the only character who turns out exactly as he seems. The story, the crime, the solution, and all the participants are simply the author, on whose talent the creation stands or falls.
All writers about mystery stories agree that murder is the only crime that has a sure-fire appeal to the public imagination. The reason for this is not far to seek, and has been pointed out by both Maugham and Professor Harrison R. Steeves. Murder cannot be undone. Stolen goods may be restored. Kidnapped beauties may be shipped back to their loved ones, unharmed. The fate known as ‘worse than death’ does not seem to be held in awe by the general run of readers.
No. Our crime must be murder, preferably in the first degree. But Mr. Maugham in wishing to limit the number of murders to one, or two at the most, excludes what is for me the most fascinating form. In a story like Van Dine’s Bishop Murder Case, the initial murder is symptomatic of a series of dastardly killings, all of which are explained (but none of them forestalled) by the great detective, Philo Vance. Many of us like to consider the initial, or Aristotelian, murder a harbinger of a menacing condition which will produce subsequent demises of a violent and thrilling nature.
And that brings us to an important consideration — namely, the purgatorial and salutary influence of the ‘whodunit’ in society today. Up to the turn of our stormy century, it was justly feared by parents and grandparents that bloodand-thunder stories might incite to imitative violence the young or shallow mind. Those happy days are gone, perhaps forever.
In 1941, when the order of the day is wholesale slaughter and mass injustices, the focusing of a reader’s attention on one or two homicides, of a somewhat personal nature, is wholesome indeed. It may, if it spreads, do much to save what is loosely known as civilization. Furthermore, if from the bosom of the people arises, whenever police machinery bogs down, a popular hero who protects his fellows where official agencies have failed, the public’s faith in democracy is bolstered and reënforced, at the expense of insidious totalitarian theories of government von oben.
The ‘whodunit,’ literary refuge of the common mind, keeps alive the feeling that there are still individual problems, that each of us is one of God’s creatures, a member of the universal brotherhood of potential murderees. As the downtrodden and helpless turned in the days of chivalry to Lancelot and Galahad, so turn the humble heads of white-collar workers, instructors, librarians, shopgirls and floorwalkers, housewives and gigolos, in twentieth-century America, to Nick Carter, Lord Peter Wimsey, and other successors of the great Sherlock Holmes. Without important exception, these lionhearted champions do not look askance at a client, poor or rich. They draw no class distinctions. They hobnob with gangsters and statesmen. They are sans peur et sans reproche.
Besides, the ‘whodunit’ offers a safety valve to the violent instincts of the reader, permits him to knock off a few undesirables in the person of the authorcriminal and to reassert his better self and revenge his awful deed in the person of the author-detective. It enables him to laugh heartily at the police, without being pinched the next Sunday for watering the pansies on his front lawn or leaving his car five minutes on an empty street where parking is forbidden.
Do not scoff at the ‘whodunit,’ and by no means let it fall into disfavor or popular disdain. The social consequences of such short-sightedness might well be far-reaching and disastrous.
According to the leading apologists who praise the ‘whodunit’ with faint damnation, the detective story is almost exclusively for men. My own experience and observation do not bear this out. Of course my fan mail does not compare in bulk with that of Don Ameche or Joan Crawford, but, if it indicates anything, it seems to point to the fact that women are more numerous and discriminating among detective-story fans than are men.
This question could be settled by the census taker, or by means of a Gallup poll. I challenge Dr. Gallup to determine the sex percentages among mysterystory addicts. And I offer to place small bets that the women readers will outnumber the men.
If not, something should be done about it. Women practically monopolize other branches of United States culture. Without them writers, artists, producers, and publishers would never be required to file income-tax statements. Should it prove to be true that women are not doing their bit with ‘whodunits,’ in spite of the fact that Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Leslie Ford, and Phœbe Taylor write excellent ones, the first duty of detective-story writers is to cultivate ‘ the beautiful and damned.’
As to love interest, and its place in the murder mystery — again, that depends on the author. If he is a susceptible, moth-and-flame, adventurous chap, he will give himself away. If he is a more solid citizen, the readers must make the best of his low vitality The writer must give his customers a run for their money — enough of himself or herself to entice them to come back for more.