Homage to Wilkie Collins: An omnibus review of nine mystery novels
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[ 13 Homage to Wilkie Collins1 An omnibus review of nine mystery novels The D’Arblay Mystery, by R. Austin Freeman London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1926. Pp. 312. The Footsteps that Stopped, by A. Fielding London: Collins, 1926. Pp. 309. The House of Sin, by Allen Upward London: Faber & Gwyer, 1926. Pp. 282. The Diamond in the Hoof, by Traill Stevenson London: Cassell, 1926. Pp. ix + 307. The Dangerfield Talisman, by J. J. Connington London: Benn, 1926. Pp. 272. The Mysterious Disappearances, by G. McLeod Winsor London: Faber & Gwyer, 1926. Pp. 315. Footsteps in the Night, by C. Fraser-Simson London: Methuen, 1926. Pp. iv + 238. The Bishops Park Mystery, by Donald Dike London: Cassell, 1926. Pp. vi + 311. The Massingham Butterfly, by J. S. Fletcher London: Jenkins, 1926. Pp. v + 292. The New Criterion: A Quarterly Review, 5 (Jan 1927) 139-43 1927 14 ] During the last year or two the output of detective fiction has increased rapidly. I presume that detective fiction is successful, with a rising demand; otherwise one or two such thrillers would not appear on nearly every publisher ’s list. It might be interesting to speculate on the reasons for this increased demand, but our conclusions would be undemonstrable. What can be shown, and is of interest in itself, is that the increased demand and competition is producing a different, and as I think a superior type of detective story; that some general rules of detective technique may be laid down; and that, as detective fiction observes the rules of the game, so it tends to return and approximate to the practice of Wilkie Collins.2 For the great book which contains the whole of English detective fiction in embryo is The Moonstone; every detective story, so far as it is a good detective story, observesthedetectivelawstobedrawnfromthisbook.ThetypicalEnglish detective story is free from the influence of Poe; Sherlock Holmes himself, and in spite of his numerous progeny, is in some important respects a sport.3 I say the “typical” English detective story, because I believe that the crime fiction of every country has its own national character: it would be interesting, in this connexion, to show how French crime stories – notably Arsène Lupin and Jacques Rouletabille – may be derived from The Count of Monte-Cristo in the same way that English fiction is derived from The Moonstone;4 but that would lead us too far. A detective story cannot be analysed like other fiction: the reviewer must notrevealtheplot,orthereaderwillberobbedofhispleasure.Ihavetherefore arranged the fiction here “reviewed” – a small, but I dare say representative selection from the season’s product – as nearly as possible in what I think the order of merit. The Massingham Butterfly must be considered hors de concours ,5 asitprovedtobemerelyacollectionofunrelatedshortstoriesofdetectivetype ;theyaretooslighttodeservereprinting,butsuggestthatMr.Fletcher’s longer detective stories are probably very good.6 The two preceding (Footsteps in the Night and The Bishops Park Mystery) are not properly detective stories either, because they have no detectives; therefore they are technically of little interest. All of the rest have some merit: all of them violate, as Wilkie Collins never violates, some obvious rule of detective conduct. I do not know how many of these rules can be formulated; the following are drawn up from my study of the stories above, and other recent stories, and the list “does not pretend to completeness.” Every one of these stories commits one of these faults; they are, between one story and another, more or less heinous or excusable: [ 15 Homage to Wilkie Collins (1) The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises. We accepted them from so engaging a character as Holmes, as we accept them from the more farcical Lupin: but we consider them to be trick work. Disguises must be only occasional and incidental: here Wilkie Collins is impeccable. Elaborate double lives, in disguise, are an exaggeration of this vice: Arsène Lupin disguised for four years as the head of the Paris police, and actually being the head of the police, is admirable fooling. But in general it is reprehensible. But for a device of this sort, The Footsteps that Stopped would be the best of our list.7 (2) The character and motives of the criminal should be normal. In the ideal detective story we should feel that we have a sporting chance to solve the mystery ourselves; if the criminal is highly abnormal an irrational element is introduced which offends us. If the crime is not to have a natural motive, or is without motive...