Mystery Stories

An author laments the contrived state of modern fiction

One way of enjoying mystery stories is to give them a rather shallow reading, maintaining the while a state of complete belief. This enables the reader to throw in with the various characters and to join their doings without too exacting a requirement that it must all make sense.

It does not make sense, for instance, for Miss Maud Silver to be instructing Detective Inspector Frank Abbott in the most elementary reasoning, time and again. Miss Silver is a private eye, and Abbott is the pride of Scotland Yard, yet unless he asks her a series of stupid questions, in the role of straight man, and stupidly refuses to accept her point of view, even though her successes in countless previous cases are legendary, Miss Silver will not have a chance to do her book. One hint from Miss Silver ought to be enough for Abbott, but no, he must argue, or forget, or misconstrue, and behave, for all his elegant tailoring and aristocratic connections, like a clodhopping constable instead of the C.I.D.'s top hand.

For anyone but a mystery-story reader, incongruities of this sort would damage a book's credibility, but the suspension of unbelief is a faculty that must account for more human activities than most of us would care to admit. It is certainly what keeps many a fiction writer in clover. A reader can amaze himself at how scanty the fruits become when he reads intently and keeps anything like a standard of reality in his reactions. Much of the scheme in the average mystery story is achieved by techniques of repetition and delay, and little else.

Let the story begin, then, with a leisurely view of rich, capricious, disagreeable old Desmond Doakes and his household. Rich enough to make it worth while, mean enough to deserve it, Doakes makes good on the two main credentials which every character about to be murdered must present. Eight or ten relatives and servants are enough for a useful corps of suspects, and the first seventy-five pages will account for where these people are and what they are doing at the time of the crime. A certain amount of bait is planted throughout this section, but since the experienced reader knows that there is no way of distinguishing between bait and mere descriptive detail, this can all be forgotten just as quickly as the pages are turned.

Once Desmond has been duly done in, the local police sergeant appears and spends fifty pages in taking down the statement of each member of the household. If the statements seem to be running too thin, or too simple to fill that much space, the sergeant, ostensibly in the hope of tripping up or breaking down a character, will lead the character through the story once again. At this point the sergeant—and the author—decides to call in the Yard.

Far from opening a new field of activity, the Scotland Yard man puts the same material through the same old meat grinder that the sergeant has been cranking. "What's all this about, Sergeant?" he demands briskly. "Brief me on it." The sergeant tells him all about it, and so does everyone else.

Once again we read where everyone was and what they were doing. This brings us to about page 150. Enters now the gifted amateur or the private eye. "Let me brief you on what we have so far," says the Scotland Yard man.

As if these major repetitions were not enough, some authors will repeat any small development. For almost two pages in The Fingerprint, for instance, the murdered man's lawyer and Detective Inspector Abbott engage in telephone conversation. Miss Silver is in the room with Abbott. "The line was very clear and good," the author tells us. "Miss Silver was able to hear every word."

Yet at the end of the conversation Frank Abbott hangs up the phone and repeats to Miss Silver what the lawyer said. "Yes," replies Miss Silver, "I was able to hear most. of what was said."

When one considers that the main device for carrying along all the repetition is simply the withholding of a few facts that will identify the criminal, and that everything else falls quickly into place as soon as the author releases them, a real question arises as to why these stories are ever read by anyone. And after much pondering, I suggest that the answer lies in the reader's vicarious enjoyment of the food and drink consumed by the characters.

Miss Silver's adventures have little to do with food, but they do include an occasional village pub and a fair amount of tea. There is usually a breakfast or two, also, that sounds good—a sideboard well stocked with covered dishes, Georgian silver, and that sort of thing. We have all enjoyed Nero Wolfe's exquisite menus, even at the risk of envisioning ourselves as becoming equal to Wolfe in obesity. A more recent British writer, Ian Fleming, causes his secret service agent, in other respects a kind of British Mike Hammer, to take almost all his meals at real and extremely expensive restaurants in London, New York, Florida, and on the Riviera, and sometimes the hero uses up a page or more just to make his selections from a menu. Inspector Maigret seems to be spending more and more time in cafés, drinking beer or an interesting local vine and letting the case come to him, so to speak, while the sea breezes cool and protect him from the heat of the Mediterranean outside. If this is too slow for some readers, they can always sit down again with Philip Marlowe and toss off a few shots of the hard stuff from that pint bottle in his desk drawer. Marlowe wears very well over the years, doubtless because he sticks mostly to good rye or bourbon.