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The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

This year is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the detective story. No academic convocations are likely to be held to celebrate it, nor will any large body of commemorative literature be written for the occasion. Yet the detective story is a much discussed field of writing; it is of great importance to our publishing and printing industries; and the circumstances of its birth were respectable enough to warrant academic attention.

Edgar Allan Poe was its originator; the first of his stories to show how a killing could be solved by pure ratiocination— “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—appeared just a century ago in the April, 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine, a Philadelphia periodical of some literary standing in its day. Poe, of course, was not the first to write about murder. He had been preceded by hundreds of authors from the recorder of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to Thomas De Quincey, who published the second part of his essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” only two years before “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was printed. Nor was Poe the first to make use of deduction as literary material. Ancient writers in a dozen different lands had done that. But Poe was the first to write the detective story as we know it today. He added the puzzle element to the tale of murder; he gave us our first real detective—the brilliant and eccentric Dupin; and he was the originator of the Dr. Watson method of presenting a story through an observer who tells how the sleuth went about solving the case. Poe’s rigidly logical structure has continued almost unchanged; his philosophical asides are imitated to this day; his atmospheric effects have defied successful imitation. Like printing, the detective story has been improved upon only in a mechanical way since it was first invented; as artistic products, Gutenberg’s Bible and Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” have never been surpassed.

In fact, it may be said that whatever artistic possibilities the detective story had were realized at its birth. Certainly its modern descendants are a poor lot. Nearly three hundred book-length mysteries—using the word “mystery” as a generic term for all crime fiction to include the detective story, the murder story sans detection, and the horror story —were published in 1940, but most of them were as artless

as radio soap-opera and quite as tiresome. Their writers forgot that murder implies the existence of a murderer; they ignored the fact that killing is still a serious business, accompanied in real life by very real emotions and fraught with genuine danger and fear. Our mystery stories are long on gore and short on good red blood; they are bedside stories for tired adults, intended to put their readers to sleep from sheer boredom.

The fact that so many of them are written, published, bought, and eagerly read simply proves that the genre has astounding vitality, for it survives a flood of bad writing, a drought of ideas, and the deadly attrition caused by endless imitation and counter-imitation.

There are critics, of course, who maintain that the detective story has nothing to do with literature, that it is simply an intellectual puzzle intended to amuse the reader by enabling him to dwell for a few hours on solving an imaginary murder and so escape a real world in which actual death daily becomes more imminent. But this is to take the shallowest possible view of what is necessarily a literary form; were the detective story only a puzzle there would be no need to make it into a book complete with characters, background, and some attempt at good writing. The purely puzzle element could be covered in a few hundred words. What is wrong with the detective story of today is that it lacks literary value. It must go beyond simple arithmetic to a higher field of aesthetic endeavor or it is worth nothing at all.

There is nothing inherent in the mystery story that limits” it as literature. Its central core is almost always premeditated murder (stories dealing with lesser crimes are never completely successful), and premeditated murder is one of the greatest themes in all literature: witness such works as “Electra,” “Hamlet,” and “Crime and Punishment.” If it, is true that the average mystery story makes little attempt to deal with the great drama of life and death, that is because it is an average mystery story, written by a hack. There is no reason why a tale concerning itself with the most soul-racking deed a human being can undertake should be a silly, mechanically contrived affair. The writer of murder mys-teries holds high cards in his hand; if he does not know how to play them, that does not lessen their value.

Murder is a subject of universal interest; the study of it offers most people their only experience with the emotion of terror; and it carries with it the suspense and excitement of gambling for high stakes, for the man who kills sets himself against all society and risks his own life on being clever enough to outwit even his cleverest fellow men. The reader, at will, can put himself either in the place of the murderer or his pursuers and take part in the most thrilling of all sports —the man hunt—as quarry or hunter.

It must be noted at this point that murder per se is likely to be a more interesting and potentially richer subject than the mere detection of it. A writer can be more eloquent’ about death than he can about details of evidence or alibis. The reader instinctively senses this, and as a result, the circulation of detective stories is confined to a much smaller circle than is the reading of tales of murder. No detective story published in this century has come near achieving the wide popularity of a straightforward murder novel like Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” And very few tales of detection have the perennial vitality of Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes’s superb horror story, “The Lodger.”

There is a timelessness, too, about the pure tale of murder or horror that is lacking in nearly all detective stories, even the best of them. To the modern reader who is honest with himself and not overawed by reputation, the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, great as they are, are beginning to take on a slightly antiquated flavor. Poe’s tales of ratiocination are period pieces in many respects, but their artistry saves them from seeming dated. They also have the advantage of using only the simplest of means. Nothing makes a detective story appear outmoded so much as the employment of elaborate scientific methods which the progress of science soon renders obsolete. Fingerprinting and chemical analysis have sent hundreds of our older detective stories into the discard.

Simplicity of means, valid characters, and distinguished writing are the qualities that best enable crime fiction to defy the ravages of time. In that respect it will be seen that the mystery story does not differ from other forms of literature.


Some element, not too well understood, seems to be at work to damage both the sales and literary value of the mystery story. It has been charged that book-trade customs and reviewing methods which confine mysteries in a classification that is too rigid are responsible for their not reaching a wider audience. This, however, is not enough of an explanation, for other kinds of books sometimes reach the bestseller lists despite all the obstacles placed in their way by their own publishers. No detective story has become enormously popular in our time—the sales even of such record-breakers as the S. S. Van Dine books and Dashiell Ham-mett’s “The Thin Man” are insignificant compared with the sales of non-detective best sellers, or with Miss du Maurier’s tremendously successful story of murder.

The common belief that detective stories are enormously popular is simply not true; they are popular as a type, but no one of them is read widely. A brief investigation into the methods of book distribution will shed some light on this curious circumstance.

First of all, mysteries are not sold in any great quantity directly to the public; probably as much as eighty-five per cent of all copies circulated reach their readers through rental libraries which buy the books and lease them out for a few pennies a day. Consequently, relatively few copies of any one title will serve a great many readers. This practice is at once the blessing and the curse of writing or publishing mysteries. The rental library system insures a minimum sale of about fifteen hundred copies for almost any mystery; it also places a top limit of about thirty-five hundred copies for even the best ones. Thus there can be little chance of loss— but also little chance of great gain. Only a few well established authors can expect to see their books sell beyond the thirty-five hundred figure—and even then not far beyond that figure. So if you have ever wondered why publishers charge two dollars for a short, cheaply made mystery story, you will now understand that you are not supposed to buy the book. The publisher is simply trying to get some return from the rental libraries. Under our present system of distribution two dollars is actually a very low price for a mystery story; the publisher knows he is not selling a book but is indirectly leasing out reading privileges.

But one must go beyond book-trade customs to find out why mystery stories rank so low in public esteem and as literature. Not even the unprofitable rental system will explain the stalemate, although it must be admitted that the prospect of earning only a few hundred dollars by writing a full-length book discourages many good authors from entering the field, especially since they cannot even hope for serious critical attention as a result.

Investigation of the whole situation surrounding the writing, publishing, selling, and reviewing of mysteries reveals one little-noticed fact: the mystery story is at a standstill because it is being written for a purely professional audience.

Around each one of the many rental libraries scattered across the country is a small but determined group of readers—most of them men—who devour almost every mystery story published. They take their daily dose of murder with the frenzied enthusiasm of a drug addict. They know all the tricks; they have followed all the detectives, erudite, dumb, exotically Oriental, depressingly homespun; they are familiar with all the ways a human being can be put to death; they are better acquainted with the homicide laws than a Leibowitz or a Darrow; there is nothing new to them under the sun, and they complain continually that mysteries get worse and worse. Yet Heaven help the writer who tries to give them anything but the old familiar brand I

There is no use wasting time deploring the miserable lot of these devotees who spend their lives so vicariously and so futilely. The root of their devotion can probably be traced to an unhappy childhood, business worries, or a maladjusted sex life, rather than to a genuine interest in any kind of literature. Unfortunately, these regular patrons of the rental libraries are the determining factor in bringing success or failure to any mystery writer’s work. They are the ones who first read a new author’s work; their approval induces the rental library clerks to recommend the story to those who are not mystery fans; their disapproval causes the new book to be shelved quietly.

Since this small group holds so much power it is obvious that publishers cater to its tastes. Writers are encouraged to repeat old formulas, since there is nothing which is more of an anathema to a drug addict than a change of narcotics. The mystery story goes round and round but it never goes forward. Originality is stifled and orthodoxy reigns supreme.

All kinds of extraneous novelties have been injected into the basic pattern of the mystery story to lend it some freshness: cooking recipes, learned dissertations on campanology, and much second-rate humor have been utilized to give the reader what is known in merchandising as “plus value.” But these subsidiary devices are simply evidence of a decadence that is now far advanced. No such trivial means can rescue the mystery story from the sterility that comes from long inbreeding.


The great need of the mystery story today is not novelty of apparatus but novelty of approach. The whole genre needs overhauling, a return to first principles, a realization that murder has to do with human emotion and deserves serious treatment. Mystery story writers need to know more about life and less about death—more about the way people think and feel and act, and less about how they die.

The mystery story is concerned with murder and its detection and nothing else. Yet the reactions of its characters count most. The mind of the murderer, the intellect of the detective, the quirks of behavior of the minor characters give it interest. It must always treat its main subject with respect; Keystone cops and wisecracking detectives are out of place in the presence of a corpse, and it cannot be pleaded that police handling of an actual killing often has its low-comedy aspects. An artist cannot take his material from life and reproduce it stenographically—he must select and heighten. When he makes murder the central theme of his story he needs to utilize those aspects of murder which make their greatest appeal to the reader. Humor or erudition are only adventitiously connected with his theme; his major-concern is with death and horror and the unknown, with fear and uncertainty, and finally with solution, consummation, catharsis.

There is a simple test which can be used to judge a mystery story. Put yourself in the place of the murderer. Then ask whether you would go about killing a man in the way indicated in the story under consideration. Would you put bacteria-infected cheese mites in the Stilton the butler is about to serve to the gentleman you want to slay? Would you transmit your instructions tattooed in ideographs on the posterior of a Chinese orphan? Of course you would not, and thus you immediately know the story is trash. Would you, as a potential murderer, undertake the exceedingly dangerous business of killing with a lighthearted whimsical attitude when you know a slip so slight as leaving a fingerprint can send you to your own death? The shadow of the noose is already falling on you when you contemplate an act of murder; the hideous whine of high-voltage current beats on your eardrums when you begin your plotting I

In real life, if you are determined to put some one out of the way, you will go about your work with a deadly earnestness that transcends every other interest. You will want to use straightforward methods, not devious ones. Even if you possess only animal cunning you will soon realize that the best way to kill is to kill simply and quickly. The man who uses a stout club on a dark street has ten thousand chances of escape compared with the too-clever slayer who employs a rare poison distilled from the stings of Tibetan honey bees, if for no better reason than that there are at least ten thousand people who have ready access to a stick of wood compared to one who can obtain an exotic poison. Too much intelligence is a limiting factor that may lead to identification. When you are risking your own life the anonymity that comes from imitating mankind’s widespread stupidity can be remarkably useful.

When you put yourself in the murderer’s place you will see, too, that you do not want to involve yourself in any elaborate alibi, especially in one that necessitates the use of undepend-able mechanisms. Phonograph records that reproduce your voice while you are away somewhere busily engaged in murder; string-and-pin devices that enable you to lock the door to the room containing a dead man who appears to have committed suicide; spring-discharged pistols, automatic poisoned needles, and deadly tropical insects—all have an awkward way of refusing to function smoothly at the critical moment. You will not want to trust your own life to such unsure instruments, for you will be acutely aware of the fact that the arm of the law is long and its grip deadly. The stout stick in the dark street is as good a way of killing as any and not likely to fail. Nor will it be suspected that you were out lurking for your victim if you use plain horse sense in arranging your murder. It will be noted, also, that real murderers seldom depend on unusual means or elaborate alibis. But then real murderers have real lives to risk, so they naturally tend to be careful of them.

Mystery story writers have much to learn from life. They can learn that their characters are most convincing when they act like human beings and not like clever automatons; they can learn that men have all sorts of odd motives for murder, and that they kill more often for obscure and sometimes apparently trivial reasons—which are nevertheless deeply rooted in sound psychology—than they do for the possession of a trio of valuable postage stamps or the right to inherit a lordly title. Mystery story authors may even discover the one elementary fact underlying the writing of all fiction—that unless the reader is made to care about the characters in a book he is utterly indifferent to their fates. As a corollary to this they may find out that when fifty people are all equally suspected of having committed a murder, the reader is bored at the prospect of having to see forty-nine of them eliminated before he can close the book with a sigh of relief. They should be made to realize, too, that when the culprit turns out to be a character so obscure that his own unimportance in the story has concealed him from view, the reader has a right to feel angry. The murderer cannot be so meanly subordinated. He is, after all, the prime mover of the story. Without him there can be no plot, no action, no suspense. He needs to be a major figure, clever, desperate, and strong, for the man hunt is interesting only when the quarry is worthy of the chase.

In addition to emphasis on character the mystery story has need of that quality with which Poe endowed it at birth—atmosphere. Murder is a child of darkness, a friend of night and storm, a dweller in ancient habitations where the rook and the raven keep watch. It seems oddly out of place in our neon-lighted streets; it is reduced to journalistic triviality by gang warfare; it surfers from the tempo of modern life. Only by making use of its natural terrors and restoring it to its pristine dignity can we hope to see murder again made worthy of being considered one of the fine arts. Let us hope that the second century of the mystery story’s development will witness its coming of age, for in its present condition the one quality it lacks above all others is maturity. It is surely strange that an age so deeply concerned with death as our own has not yet made its mark upon an art that deals only with killing.


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