“Detectives and Detective Fictions”


Illustrated London News – November 4, 1905

I wonder what real detectives are like. It may be that my life has been abnormally placid but I have never wanted to be a detective. Neither (I anticipate your thunderbolt of repartee) neither has a detective ever wanted me. If he did, that is, it was a private yearning, an ungovernable individual affection, distinct from his business, and he let concealment feed on his damask cheek. And apart from these two positions, that of the patron and that of the material or subject matter (I mean the burglar), it is hard to get into spiritual relations with detectives. Other important people are much more accessible. Anybody can see an editor, so long as he comes with a list of the urgent reforms that ought to be effected in some other country. It seems to be an axiom of our admirable and mysterious trade that if you want to make things better in Norway you begin an agitation in Vienna, and if you are dissatisfied with the management of Portugal you ask the inhabitants of Glasgow how long they are going to submit. Again, anyone can see statesman –  when there are any statesman to see. As for the crowned heads and great Dukes and the Pope and people of that sort, we know from a hundred kindly journalistic anecdotes that they are to be seen by any small child who has broken toy or a wounded kitten. So that you are I have only to procure a hurt kitten (I do not countenance hurting the kitten on purpose), a hurt kitten and a damaged doll and present ourselves with one in each hand at the gates of the Vatican or the steps of the White House at Washington, to be immediately ushered into the presence by bowing flunkies and reverently saluting guards. You can even know servants, by far the most remote, awful, and exclusive class in our community. I once knew a wild fellow who knew a butler. He saw the other side of that splendid moon; “silver lights and darks undreamed of,” as Browning says. But you can not well know I detected, except by all the troubling of committing a crime; and when you have got as low as that you may as well go the whole hog and be a detective yourself: then you will know him intimately. The only detective I ever saw gave evidence in a court where I was a juryman, and he was a hearty, happy, silly sort of man. He had blank blue eyes and a light, horsey clothes, and he seemed, by his own account, to be on terms of boisterous affection with the whole criminal class, as all his reported conversations with his victims began, “Well, Jim,” and “Now then, Joe.” Was he the typical detective of real life, I wonder? He was certainly very different from the typical detective of fiction, which some think a safe guide. But, of course, it is not difficult to see why the detective is harder to know than these other persons of importance: of course it is his business to be hard to know. Editors do not wish to the night that they are editors – except (as I am informed) when poets are hovering around. Statesmen do not wish to convey that they are not statesmen; the impression, if conveyed, is conveyed with beautiful unconsciousness. But to be a detective is not to look a detective: and if our force is really efficient (which, I admit, is enormously improbable) there must be quite a number of people in private and public stations whom we see and hear of every day who are really policeman because they seem so very unlike it. Perhaps you are a policeman. Perhaps I am. For my part, I have always had my doubts of Mr Hall Caine.*

But while my acquaintance with a real detective is disgraceful a slight, my acquaintance with the detective a popular fiction is full and accurate. At least, it would be if I could remember all the cart loads of sixpenny stories I have read. There is no kind of book so easy to read again, except the great classic. We read a Dickens story six times because we know it already; these things are a mystery. But if we can read a popular detective tale six times it is only because we can forget it six times. A stupid sixpenny story (no half-hearted or dubious stupidity, but a full, strong, rich, human stupidity), a stupid sixpenny story I say, is thus of the nature of an immortal, inexhaustible possession. Its conclusion is so entirely fatuous and unreasonable that, however often we have heard it, it always comes abruptly, like an explosion, like a gun going off by accident. The thing is so carelessly written that it is not even consistent with itself: there is no unity to recall. The reader cannot be expected to remember the book when the author cannot remember the last chapter. We cannot guess the end when the writer does not seem to know it. Such a story slips easily on and off the mind; it has no projecting sticks or straws of intelligence to catch anywhere on the memory. Hence, as I see, it becomes a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It gains an everlasting youth. It becomes something like the bottomless purse Fortunatus or the jug that could never be emptied which belongs (I think) to Baucis and Philemon. Pack it in your trunk when you travel across the desert. Strap it in your knapsack when you climb Mount Everest, this precious, the supernatural a stupid work. Would that the sun and its splendor good be thus forgotten, and the mountains that meet the morning, and the very weeds at our feet, that we might see them anew; then we might leap back from the weeds as from live green fingers, that we might stare at the sun as a strange and gigantic star!

It is beautiful and comforting to think what a vast army of amazingly brilliant detectives I have forgotten all about. For a moment they filled the mind; they proved that it was not the captain, they took out all the stair-rods, they showed who ate the last sardine, they confronted the bishop (or him who we must call the bishop), they examined the button hook we had better call it a button-hook, they found the secret of the revolving conservatory, they found the box of matches (of matches!), they did all these sumptuous and bewildering things – and I cannot remember one of their names, nor the names of the books, nor the names of their authors. It this some ethereal, evanescent quality in detection as such? Or is it, perhaps, easier to remember a real detective when he has taken you up once or twice? Perhaps this psychological truth of ours may offer some sort of explanation of the phenomenon of the old offender, the man who was always being put in the dock for the same crime. Perhaps crimes fade from of the mind, like a criminal novels. Perhaps the hoary and hardened footpad when brought into court is firmly under the impression that he is the first offender. Or perhaps the mind acts as it does in the case of the detective incidents in fiction. I have often read the same melodramatic story time after time, and always remembered at the same point that I had to read it before. Perhaps it is the same with the coarser and more material embodiments of crime. Perhaps an old convict will feel quite shy and boyish when about to cut up a banker with an axe. But just as he is cutting off the bankers left leg, he will stop suddenly, the exposed in the air, his finger to his forehead, his eyes brilliant with a new-born thought. He will experience that strange and sudden conviction of having done this thing before which so much perplexes our psychologists. He will slowly realize that the day before at the very same hour, he was also cutting off the left leg of a banker. It may be that every time a man is convicted of a crime it comes as a poetic surprise to him: the jury is engaged, so to speak, and telling him a refreshing romance. It may be so, I say. On the other hand, I confess, it may not.

When I begin this article I intended to write with a most earnest and urgent moral purpose. But I seem somehow to have lost the thread of it. It was going to be all about the true spirit in which to approach criminal mysteries, and how much we had been misled in the matter by the popular atmosphere of criminal fiction. I was going to point out the following marble and colossal truths. That everybody’s mind in dealing with a fact, like the Merstham fact, for instance, is probably really influenced, mad as it may seem, by contemporary detective fiction. That this is so, because in every age men are always more influenced by romance than by reality. That this is so because real details are so varied and broken, while a widely distributed book is the same for everybody. The Balham Tragedy (or what not) has happened to somebody; but we may say that the tragedy of “The Study in Scarlet” has happened to everybody. It has happened everybody has an idea; and ideas are things that are practical.

Nor is the next truth less important. It is this: that the peculiar evil of the impression produced by detective stories lies in this: That detective stories, being fictitious, are much more purely rational than detective events in actual life. Sherlock Holmes could only exist in fiction; he is too logical for real life. In real life he would have guessed half his facts a long time before he had deduced them. Instead of deducing from the weak t’s and the Greek e’s of the letter of the Reigate Squires that their story was inconsistent, he would simply have seen from their faces that they were a couple of scamps. Instead of discovering that Straker, the horse-trainer, was a bad man, by cross-examining milliners in London and asking questions about lame sheep, he would probably have learnt the fact from Mrs. Straker. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, I forget which, the detective expresses his scorn of the mental operation known as “guessing,” and says that it d”estroys the logical faculty.” It may destroy the logical faculty, but it makes the practical world. It cannot be to constantly or too emphatically stated that the whole of practical human life, the whole of business, in its most sharp and severe sense, is run on spiritual atmospheres and nameless, impalpable emotions. Practical men always act on imagination, they have no time to act on worldly wisdom. When a man receives a clerk who comes for employment, what does he do? Does he measure his skull? Does he look up his heredity? No; he guesses.

*Thomas Henry Hall Caine, a British novelist who was also a trained architect.


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