In the October 14, 1944, issue of The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson published a book review that “brought me letters of protest in a volume and of a passionate earnestness which has hardly been elicited and even by my occasional criticisms of the Soviet Union.” What had set these readers gnashing their teeth, seizing their pens, and excoriating dear Bunny? Wilson had dared to ask, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”
Confessing himself rather ignorant of the genre that mesmerized everyone “from Woodrow Wilson to W. B. Yeats,” Wilson took up volumes by Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, and Dashiell Hammett. Stout emerged relatively unscathed; Wilson even confessed a fondness for the gluttonous, green-thumbed Nero Wolfe. But Christie and Hammett fared far worse. Of the former’s Death Comes as the End, Wilson concluded, “You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters because they can never be allowed an existence of their own.” Of the latter’s Maltese Falcon, Wilson crowed, “Mr. Hammett… recharged the old formula of Sherlock Holmes with a certain cold underworld brutality… but he lacked the ability to bring the story to imaginative life.” In a follow-up entitled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Wilson lavishes similar invective on Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, and John Dickson Carr. Raymond Chandler earns a reprieve only because Wilson judges Farewell My Lovely not at all a detective story but “a novel of adventure.” Ah, semantics.
Yet, despite such an eminent detractor, sixty years on detective fiction continues to be published, read, and evidently delighted in—if still somewhat shamefacedly. Though we can count the likes of W. H. Auden, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Stalin, prelates, professors, and assorted ministers of state among our fellow enthusiasts, many devotees—myself included—still feel compelled to rationalize or defend our enjoyment. “Why do you bother reading that?” is still a frequent query. A college boyfriend, a philosophy major, excused the habit upon finding Wittgenstein had had similar tastes. (He later learned it was Westerns, and not in fact crime stories, that Wittgenstein had preferred.) A grad school beau only pardoned it once he had already given me up as incorrigibly frivolous and taken to calling me “my little hedonist” as a term of relative endearment. With esprit de l’escalier—aided, no doubt, by the consumption of a score of prose works on the history and criticism of the genre—I would like to reply that I read detective fiction for two seemingly opposite, if wholly apposite, reasons: the thrill and the reassurance they provide.
G.K. Chesterton, creator of the behatted Father Brown, credits crime writers with restoring mystery to the modern condition. In the 1902 “A Defence of Detective Stories,” he argues that whodunits have remade even a casual stroll into grand adventure. “No one can have failed to notice,” states Chesterton, “that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship.” This has a vitalizing effect on the reader who begins to notice the potential for the astonishing in the mundane. When Sherlock Holmes proves that a murder can be solved from the length of cigarette ash or the depth of a footprint, suddenly even the trivial takes on weight and substance. Chesterton applauds that “the average man should fall into the habit of looking imaginatively at ten men in the street even if it is only on the chance that the eleventh might be a notorious thief.”
If this were not excitement enough, detective fiction also provides the added frisson of placing the reader in the presence, nay even in the mind, of the direst criminals. Charles Dickens described “the criminal intellect” as “a horrible wonder apart,” a different creature altogether from “the average intellect of average men.” And what mimetic fun to mix with such creatures!
To ensure that this thrill was indeed a vicarious one—and not the pleasure derived from accidental biography—I first had to determine that I was not in fact myself a criminal. Though I have never been convicted nor even accused of a crime (save a completely groundless accusation of plagiarism in a third grade paper on Amerigo Vespucci), I have indeed committed several. I made a list of all my illegalities, and though it’s a wicked one, I decided that as neither murder, kidnapping, nor other capital crimes adorned it, I was in the clear.1
But if detective fiction allows us to wallow with the criminal, it also permits us to rise with the investigator. If the villain provides the id-appealing thrill of seeing the social order upended, the detective affords the superego-gratifying reassurance of seeing it righted again. In his terrifyingly moral 1949 essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” W. H. Auden remarks, “The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law.” Auden admires the detective story’s ability to prove the innocent blameless and the guilty culpable, to restore a world disarrayed by crime to a state of prelapsarian equanimity. As novelist Ann Arensberg, in a recent issue of The Paris Review centered on crime, confesses, “For me and many others the reading of murder mystery is an addiction; but the addiction is to closure and resolution, to the restoration of an ordered, changeless, and tranquil society.” This suggests a supremely knowable vision of the world in which each question has an answer, each mystery a solution. And this world’s supreme being is more likable and adept than most: The detective is a deus ex deerstalker who can penetrate the shadows, who can see through his glass not darkly, but with awesome clarity.
Yet for the reader, detective fiction offers the means of shutting out the external world entirely. Immersed in a good murder mystery—or even a fair one—all real-life cares seem to fall away. Only certain opiates do the job more thoroughly. (Indeed, when Auden describes “the intensity of the craving—if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it,” he sounds suspiciously like an N.A. attendee recounting a binge.) Even policymakers have noted this comforting effect. “At the height of the Nazi blitz in London in 1940,” recounts historian Howard Haycraft, “special ‘raid libraries’ were set up at the reeking entrances to underground shelters to supply, by popular demand, detective stories and nothing else.” In fact, the illustration decorating Wilson’s “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” features two women settled in armchairs, one remarking, “I told Womrath’s I don’t want to read anything instructive until the war ends.”
World War II has long wrapped, but there’s plenty worth avoiding—monkeypox, global warming, Liberia, the young man whose calls I can’t decide whether to return. Happily, two abiding—and thrilling—examples of distraction have recently seen republication: The Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime (Nabat Books, originally published 1828-1829) by Francois Eugène Vidocq and The Trail of the Serpent (Modern Library, originally published 1869) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
The origins of detective fiction can be construed two ways. One camp—whose standard Dorothy Sayers bears—cites chapters of the Jewish apocrypha, bits of Herodotus, and tales from the Arabian Nights as early exemplars of the genre. The other maintains that detective fiction could not exist until the emergence of the professional detectives. By most accounts Eugène François Vidocq numbers the first of this select breed. Born on a thunderous summer night in 1775 in the French town of Arras (and brawny enough that “one might have taken me for a child of two,” he writes with characteristic humility), Vidocq enjoyed a varied career which saw his transformation from rapscallion to convict to informant to head of France’s newly formed Sûreté in 1812. Upon his retirement in 1827, he composed his autobiography. Aided by several ghostwriters, a liberal attitude toward the factual, and occasional interpolation of wholly fictive incidents, the four-volume memoirs became an immediate success. Translated into English within weeks of publication, it quickly inspired a host of melodramas. Indeed, two triumphs of the 1829 season bore the title Vidocq: The French Police Spy! Balzac, Hugo, Poe, Conan Doyle, and Braddon herself all cited Vidocq as an influence.
In the twentieth century, the book has led to two French television series and four cinematic treatments, including a 1946 romantic comedy by Douglas Sirk starring George Sanders and titled (shades of Conan Doyle) A Scandal in Paris. The most recent version, 2001’s DV entry Vidocq, became, for me, a must-see once the affable clerk at the video store informed me that it starred Gérard Depardieu and featured Hong Kong–style wirework in the fight scenes. Imagine my distress when, upon renting, I discovered that only Depardieu’s assailant makes use of wires and that the portly Frenchman stays as earthbound as Antaeus on a good day. (Apparently, as much as F/X technology has advanced, they have yet to invent wires that can hold Gérard Depardieu.)
Full of incident, intrigue, and humor amid the self-promotion, the autobiography lends itself easily to adaptation. The first half provides a picaresque tale of Vidocq’s success as a miscreant; the second narrates his rebirth as a detective. Ever precocious, Vidocq began to suckle at the breast of iniquity pretty directly he’d stopped suckling at his mother’s. He begins by robbing his baker father, extracting money with a tar-soaked feather, then stealing the bread itself, and then graduating to the family silver. When Arras becomes too hot to hold his adolescent self, he runs away, apprenticing himself to a clown and training briefly as an acrobat, geek, and animal wrangler. This last occupation affords Vidocq his first pangs of homesickness and conjures the immortal sentence, “This state reanimated my bitter regrets for the paternal home, where I had been well fed, well dressed, and where I had a good bed and did not have to take care of monkeys.”
While Vidocq does make the occasional return home, typically to obtain money from his long-suffering mother (“tough love” not being an eighteenth-century phenomenon), he never settles anywhere for long. His youth includes stints as a mountebank, puppeteer, cattle driver, fencing tutor, cavalry officer, smuggler, sailor, pirate, cardsharp, groom, hussar, gypsy, and gigolo. He enlists with the French army and deserts. Then he enlists with the enemy Austrians and deserts them, too. In order to re-enroll with the French, he passes himself off as a Belgian. When the mood takes him, he also assumes Swiss and Dutch citizenship.
He spends considerable time inside prisons, but always escapes quickly—sometimes by bribery, sometimes by cleverness, sometimes by athleticism, and sometimes by disguising himself as a nun. With a physical description featuring “blond hair, eyebrows, and beard… grey eyes, nose prominent, average mouth, round chin, full face, complexion dark, rather corpulent,” he can’t have made a very attractive sister.
Vidocq’s talent for disguise continues to serve him when, upon betrayal by brigands, he decides to turn police spy and then detective. So that criminals won’t recognize him, he becomes skilled at appearing foreign or lame and “had the strange faculty of lessening my height four or five inches in case of necessity.” This mysterious diminution is never explained. Not all detectives are so capable of camouflage. In a series of koans on his years as a Pinkerton agent, Dashiell Hammett recounts, “I know a detective who once attempted to disguise himself thoroughly. The first policeman he met took him into custody.”2
Vidocq would have made a swell trenchcoated Pinkerton. He was a shoe-leather detective, not a creature of intuition or hunch. He preferred to ingratiate himself among criminals, learn of their plans, and thwart them. Though he occasionally follows clues, as when he must track down a thief who lives with a hunchback in a house with yellow curtains, he relies more on a network of informants and his own charisma. If Vidocq is to be believed, these strengths serve him well. In 1817 alone he claims to have arrested 772 felons, a healthy average of two per day. While he captures counterfeiters, forgers, and fencers, he reserves the bulk of his displeasure for thieves. Perhaps regretting his own youthful adventures or perhaps a staunch champion of early capitalism, Vidocq displays a regard for private property so solicitous it borders on the fanatical. He takes particular pleasure in arresting a thief and murderer named Pons Gerard. While they drink, Pons tells the disguised detective:
“Vidocq’d better not fall in with me. If he were here, I’d give him a bad quarter of an hour.”
“Oh, you’re like the rest. If he were here you’d be quiet and the first to offer him a drink.” (As I said this I extended my glass and he poured.)
“I? I’d offer him something else.”
“You’d offer him a drink I tell you.”
“Go on. I’d rather die.”
“In that case, you can die when you want to. I’m he and I arrest you!”
Infectious stuff. The vivacity of the tales makes for lively reading, as does the self-satisfaction with which Vidocq relates them. If the translation occasionally proves awkward (“This collation could not have come more apropos.” “This was a contretemps which deranged my plans.”) or the narrative painfully episodic, one still wishes Vidocq had filled a few further volumes with his subsequent adventures. These included service as a private detective, a factory magnate, a touring lecturer, a pioneer of ballistic science, and an ignominious end in penury. Perhaps those pages would have included more observations such as “his wife’s brother was one of those rebellious brutes whose soul is insensible to glory and thrills only at peace” or declarations such as “At Bicêtre I had been initiated into the ways to raise ulcers and sores with which beggars excite the pity of the public.… I adopted the one which consists in making the head swell like a bushel, because it is not painful and one can get rid of the marks between one day and the next. Suddenly my head became a prodigious size.”
At the risk of further swelling Vidocq’s head, his memoirs provide more than anecdote or epigram or even extraordinary influence. His narrative asks difficult questions of culture, morality, and selfhood. It examines what motives determine the criminality of an action and what forces shape the criminal—biological or social. Sometimes he argues for vice as a predetermined trait, at other times he allows environment (especially an impoverished one) a remarkable influence. After all, but for chance occurrences Vidocq might have remained a miscreant. This equivalence between the offender and the officer, between order and unrest, has a disquieting resonance. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle often suggests the triumph Holmes would have enjoyed had he turned criminal. But, as Vidocq proves, Moriarty might have had equal success as a detective.
While the anti-hero maintains his appeal, many readers prefer their detective less morally ambiguous. Raymond Chandler certainly did. In “The Simple Art of Murder,” written partially in response to Wilson’s screed, Chandler outlines his prescription for the ideal investigator. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.… He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” That last factor—“without saying it”—is especially fortunate for the hero of Mary Elizabeth’s Braddon’s The Trail of the Serpent, as its policeman hero, Peters, remains, to my knowledge, the only mute detective in literature. Following a peculiar childhood illness, which left his hearing intact but vocal chords devastated, the Slopperton detective must communicate by signs. (And who knew you could sign in Cockney?) He uses this “dirty alphabet” (a plain man, Peters is no great advocate of hand washing) to clear the maligned Richard Marwood, and lay the murder of Richard’s uncle at the feet of its proper perpetrator, the sinister orphan Jabez North. (As Braddon offers a “howdunnit” rather than a whodunnit I’m not giving a thing away.)
Originally published serially as Three Times Dead, Trail of the Serpent stands as Braddon’s first novel and the first full-length English detective novel, preceding Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone by a year. (This presumes, of course, the exception of Bleak House, wherein dear Inspector Bucket only makes himself known to the subplot.) Though only aged twenty-five at its writing, Braddon had already led a venturesome life. When her mother abandoned her adulterous solicitor husband, Braddon stuck close to the maternal bosom and at seventeen went on the stage to support her mother, sister, and self. She led an itinerant existence, touring in burlesques and melodramas and contributing poems, songs, and sketches to magazines. In 1860, a few weeks after retiring from the theater, she met married magazine publisher John Maxwell and soon set up housekeeping with him, his wife being conveniently absent, perhaps detained in a lunatic asylum. (Braddon and Maxwell eventually married in 1874, upon his wife’s death.) Her mother lived with them as well and made herself useful by writing an advice column and editing the letters section of one of Maxwell’s halfpenny magazines. When not rearing the six children she had by Maxwell or the five from his earlier marriage, she produced more than ninety novels, stories, and plays including The Black Band, Aurora Floyd, and Lady Audley’s Secret. The last of these—a rousing tale of bigamy—became one of the most successful plays of the Victorian age.
Indeed, a sense of theatricality never strays far from Braddon’s work. Allusions to contemporary drama are plentiful and an ingenious scene features an onstage poisoning during a production of Lucretia Borgia. Convinced of her tenor husband’s infidelity, the malleable Valerie has doctored his pre-performance wine. As she watches from her uncle’s box, the singer falters and falls. Ignorant of his niece’s crime, her uncle observes the stage Lucretia and drawls, “That abominable poisoning woman! When will the Parisians be tired of horrors?” The Parisians haven’t tired of them yet, nor have the Londoners or New Yorkers for that matter. The power of the sensational incident should not be underestimated, as Braddon well knew.
In an 1862 letter to fellow writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, she reported, “The amount of crime, treachery, murder, slow poisoning, & general infamy required by the Halfpenny reader is something terrible. I am just going to do a little paracide [sic] for this week’s supply.” Yet, Braddon could realize more than a catalogue of horrors—oh, if only the catalogues I receive in the mail were of that ilk. She reports her tale in a sly narrative voice, capable of a jolly morbidity bordering on the Dickensian. She describes Slopperton’s vasty waterway, the sludgy Sloshy, as “inimical to children, and has been known to suck into its muddy bosom the hopes of divers families, and has afterwards gone out to the distant sea, flaunting on its breast Billy’s straw hat of Johnny’s pinafore, as a flag of triumph for having done a little amateur business for the gentleman on the pale horse.”
Like Vidocq, Braddon understands the abiding interest in this gentleman, but her concerns transcend murder and its retribution. Quite a bit of the book explores the limits of spoken language, the sham power of rhetoric, the dangers of misinterpretation. Throughout, Braddon privileges reading and writing over speech. At Richard’s trial, the deaf judge misinterprets the words of the accused. Jabez North sways the townspeople with his humble manner of talk. Even nature participates in mistranslation, “The wind this night seems to howl with a peculiar significance, but nobody has the key to its strange language; and if, in every shrill and dissonant shriek, it tries to tell a ghastly secret or to give a timely warning, it tries in vain for no one heeds or understands.”
Small wonder that Peters, deprived of speech, is best at making himself understood. And another of his strengths as a detective is his ability to ignore people’s speech and read their faces. (Braddon places a terrifying faith in the science of physiognomy, a creed that would no doubt have blackballed her from London’s Detective Club. That illustrious club of mystery writers demands its members take an oath rejecting “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, and Jiggery-Pokery.”) Indeed, Braddon announces her happy ending with the caveat, “there are some joys which, from their very intensity, are too painful and too sacred for many words.”
Braddon also offers a nascent critique of the relation of class to criminality. In detailing Slopperton’s redoubtable slum, Blind Peter, as “a refuge for crime and destitution—since destitution cannot pick its company, but must be content, for the sake of shelter, to jog cheek by jowl with crime.” Braddon acknowledges that much of the world will equate corruption and poverty, but she resists this parallel. Jabez, who grows in infamy the more he rises in society, heartily defends it. When the noble Valerie shows remorse for her husband’s murder, Jabez sneers, “Mademoiselle, I give you credit for more philosophy. Why use ugly words? Crime—poison—murder! There are no such words as those for beauty and high rank.” Yet, suspicious as she was of language, Braddon found words for them all.
In her essay, “My First Novel,” Braddon recounts that in The Trail of the Serpent, “I gave loose to all my feelings of the violent in melodrama. Death stalked in ghastliest form across my pages; and villainy reigned triumphant until the Nemesis of the last chapter. I wrote with all freedom.” That delight translates to the page, with Braddon’s cheery bloody-mindedness proving as contagious as Vidocq’s brash exploits. (Indeed, Braddon admired the detective; she describes one of her favorite characters, the scallywag doctor Darley, as “an amateur Vidocque [sic].”) Both books take joy in the power of narrativity, the intoxication of incident.
The modern novel is well and good—and sometimes even better than that—but oh for books where things happen. I am, after all, a grown-up version of the five-year-old girl who, when her parents returned from the movies would summon them into her room and demand, “Tell me the plot!” Not to mention the college student who disdained television but would coyly ask her friends what had happened on Buffy. Perhaps more than thrill and more than reassurance, it’s this thrall to unqualified narrative that the detective story fulfills. Take that, Bunny.