Join Date: Mar 2011
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I have recently been indulging myself in the mystery genre of the last century, and have read John Dickson Carr's excellent essay "The Grandest Game in the World", where Carr writes about the detective fiction in genereal and its development from ca. 1900 to 1946, and of his sympathies in the detective fiction. Carr writes very humorously about the mystery genre in the 1920s and 1930s, and while this essay isn't really a joke (Carr writes explicitly that the following is not
written in ridicule) I personally got a good laugh from it since Carr's descriptions are spot on, and wanted to quote some parts of the essay here. The essay itself is copyrighted, but since this is merely a small extract, I think fair use covers this.
First, let's hear what Carr has to say about the typical mysteries from the 1920 "British" school of mysteries:
But the pattern of the average detective story ran thus: The victim, on the eve of making a new will, was found murdered in his library. He had been stabbed with an Oriental dagger, customarily used as a paper knife on his desk. The whole room was strewn with cuff links, bus tickets, lace handkerchiefs and cigarette ends, in the fine artistry of a paper chase.
Inspector Brace, summoned hastily to the scene of the crime, found only the beginning of his troubles. The baronet or industrial magnate – in addition to his ne’er-do-well son, his rebellious daughter and his invalid wife – was afflicted with such a household as nobody, even in the days of the servant shortage, would tolerate for five minutes. The butler was a blackmailer, the chauffeur an ex-convict, the housekeeper a religious maniac. If this were not enough, investigation discloses that no less than eight other suspects, at the time of the murder, were skulking in one long procession past the library windows.
“This situation”, says Inspector Brace, “is hopeless!”
And it is difficult not to agree with him, since the various cuff links and sigarette ends are proved to have been dropped innocently by one or the other of the suspects, popping at intervals in and out of the windows like Box and Cox. Inspector Brace, desperate, is about to arrest the ne’er-do-well son when the latter’s fiancée calls in that gifted gentleman, the private detective Reginald Du Kink.
Then we get real business. It is Du Kink who discovers that the established time of the murder is all wrong, due to an effect of ventriloquism or a phonograph record of a voice, and at a dramatic gathering of suspects he fastens the guilt on the dead man’s secretary. The secretary, haggard and foaming, waits only to scream out a confession before he drinks off the contents of a small vial and instantly falls dead.
And that was that.
Now the above, so help me, is not written in ridicule. It is not meant as burlesque. You and I, who have been improving our minds with sensational fiction for so many years, are much too fond of detective stories. We are aware that all the above plot tricks were used long before 1920, have been used since, and are still in use today – often by the very best practitioners in the business.
Seldom are they lumped together in one story, as was formerly the case, nor is the clue so naïve as a broken cuff link. And the ghost of Dr. Freud haunts everything today. But the old elements remain. The millionaire’s home, the threatened disinheritance, the rebellious family, the enigmatic servant, the multiplicity of suspects, the wrongly accused, the wrong time of death – how many novels can you name in which not one of these elements is to be found?
Then we move on the the 1930's and the "hard boiled" "American" school of mysteries:
As we earlier discussed the saga of Brace and Du Kink, let’s take a typical American detective novel of the later 30s. Its plot runs something like this:
The hero, Chip Hardstone, is a wisecracking private detective with an attractive blond stenographer. To Chip’s office, in violent agitation, comes the lean, elderly, aristocratic J. T. Witherspoon, a millionaire with a country house in Sundown Hills.
Mr. Whitherspoon’s daughter, it appears, has got herself involved with a notorious character called Smooth Ed Spumoni. A priceless crystal flask, with goldwork by Benvenuto Cellini, has been stolen from the millionaire’s collection. Matters at home are tense, since – in addition to his ne’er-do-well son, his rebellious daughter and his neurotic young wife – Mr. Witherspoon has further grounds for suspicion in that the butler is a blackmailer, the chauffeur an ex-convict, and the housekeeper a hophead. What he wants, he says, is to recover the Cellini crystal and free his daughter from the clutches of Smooth Ed Spumoni.
“But no scandal, Mr. Hardstone!” pleads the millionaire. “Above all things, no scandal!”
Already, before going to the country house, Chip has accumulated a lot of information. Practically every character in the story calls on him and tries to retain him. These he first bluffs and then insults – all except the representative of an insurance company, whom he merely insults.
Arrived at the house in Sundown Hills, Chip finds the “mad family” of earlier fiction now so completely nuts as to require a psychiatrist rather than a detective. The daughter removes her clothes; the wife intimates that she is willing to do so; the son tries to knock Chip’s head off on sight. Other friends swing punches at the son, at Chip, or at each other; and Chip, who replies by insulting everybody he has previously missed, is interrupted with the discovery that one of the guests has been found dead – his throat mangled – in the swimming pool.
(Observe the departure of originality here. The millionaire himself is seldom murdered. He must be kept alive to pay Chip’s fee.)
But one of the guests is murdered. No less than eight persons, it appears, know some vital secret about the murder. All of them have disappeared. It being Chip’s job to find them, in a roulette-ball spin round the city, he concentrates first on a mysterious red-haired girl who has been traced to an apartment house at the corner of Pineapple and Banana.
Racing to the apartment house, Chip finds the girl gone but a corpse on the floor. He flies to a second apartment house, only to find the girl gone again and another corpse on the floor. By the time he has reached the third apartment house and the fourth corpse, he is in a spot. The police are after him, the reporters are after him, Smooth Ed Spumoni is after him, even the millionaire is after him to call him off. Chip won’t be called off. He intimates, with something very like blackmail, that the old s.o.b can’t get out of it after bringing him in.
“All the same”, says Chip, “this setup is hopeless!”
And again we agree, since the vital secrets turn out to be innocent side games in which everybody is chiseling everybody else, and have nothing to do with the murders. Chip, on the point of being arrested by Captain Hooligan of the Homicide Bureau, suddenly gets an inspiration – it is never very clear how – that the murderer is J. T. Witherspoon’s wife. He confronts her; there is a gun fight all over the house; and the wife, waiting only long enough to scream out a confession, falls dead at his feet.
This is the end of the story, leaving the reader in some doubt as to just what did happen after all.
Now why, at the outset, are the adventures of Chip Hardstone so vaguely familiar? What strikes a reminiscent note? Despite the original kind of hero, despite the spit-in-your-eye style of writing, despite the chases and sluggings and kidnappings, we seem to have met this motiveless and clueless method somewhere before.
Don’t we see that it’s Inspector Brace and Reginald Du Kink all over again?
Instead of cuff links, bus tickets and lace handkerchiefs which bear no relation to the problem, we have “secrets” which bear no relation to the problem, either. Instead of the suspects doing their ring-around-the-rosebush outside the library, they now rush away from capture in cars and aircraft; but they still act either for no reasons at all, or for no reasons that are ever explained.
Was it only me who thought of Sam Spade when reading the description of Chip Hardstone?