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I. "ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR WATSON'' GRAHAM MciNNES DURING the last five years our casual reading habits have undergone a sharp change. We read more books; more detective·books; "tougher" detective books. The spectacular presence of the various twenty-five cent pocket editions, their garish"come-on"covers, in every drugstore, railway station, hotel, and cigar-store may help to explain why people read more books. It is simply a question of availability. But the fact that 62 per cent of these are detective stories, definitely calls for a further explanation. It is not a case of supply creating demand. Most of the titles of'Pocket, Dell, Avon, and White Circle Books are detective stories; but this only shows that the public taste demanded them. The publishers of the pocket books· are not in business for their health, and if they did not think that most people were interested in detective stories they would never bother publishing them. Now, detective stories appeal for somewhat the same reasons that crossword puzzles appeal: they offer an escape from .drab reality; they flatter the ego by identifying the reader with the hero; they help us to indulge vicariously the love of violence that is always just beneath the skin of the most harmless of Caspar Milquetoasts. Dorothy L. Sayers, herself no mean exponent of the art, once edited an omnibus of Detection, Mystery, and Horror. It was sub-divided into many, headings, including Disease, Madness, Blood, Cruelty, and the Borderland of the Mind. It is no longer a case of the Colonel's Lady and Judy O'Grady being sisters under the skin. The detective-story writer has hit on a truth which, after a war of unparalleled savagery) should not be hard· to believe: that all of us are savages under the skin; that love is close to lust; cruelty the obverse of kindness; violence in all its forms continually attractive. A famous pilot once observed that flying consists in long periods of huge boredom punctuated by moments of intense crisis. The art of the writer, and particularly ofthe good detective-story writer, lies in the fact that he can highlight those periods of intensity and make them real to us. The imagination , which is given little play in normal life, can, under the stimulus ·of the detective-story writer, be made to work overtime. The thugs and "clicks" can become as real to us as our own lives, and a great deal more exciting. In the detective story the elements of suspense are all un'ited, and administered in a painless dose. But those who have followed the fortunes of detective fiction have noticed a great change taking place during the last fifteen years. Whereas the chief writers on both sides of the Atlantic used to specialize in intellectual jig-saw puzzles, cloak and dagger melodrama, and conversation among the haut monde, their counterparts today work in taut sinewy prose, in dialogue 411 I ' 412 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY brief almost to the point of being laconic, and in an atmosphere of. genial amorality. _ · Authors li~e Dorothy Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, Agatha Christie, and S. S. Van Dine made the fatal mistake of concentrating too much on ' the "whodunit" aspects of their trade. They became so fascinated with the notion that they must at all costs prevent the reader from discovering the murderer's trail,' that they lost_sight of the writer's basic' task: to tell a story, and tell it well. Wills Crofts' Inspector French moves among his London ((pluguglies" with such painstaking virtue that, though the puzzle is completely solved; by the time the solution has been reached one has lost all interest. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot long ago became a first-class bore, once she had reached the pinnacle of tortuous involvement, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by having the person who tells the story commit the murder. And ~y the way, the alibi device in that book was provided by the voice of the dead man over a dictaphone; a piece of naive witchery that, even in 1927, should have been laughed out of court by all serious "whodunit" devotees. But...


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pp. 411-419
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