WHY DO PEOPLE READ DETECTIVE STORIES?
by Gladys Mitchell
The following essay by Gladys Mitchell, "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?" was published in the detective anthology Murder Ink, first published by Workman Publishing Company, 1977.
I suppose one answer to this question is that people read them because other people write them. Why do other people write them? Well, according to Dr. Samuel Johnson, no man ever wrote who did not write for money.
There are those among us who claim that the detective story is a form of escapist literature. Lovers of the genre will deny this, and they are right to do so, for the detective story addict is not content to sit back and enjoy what is called "a cosy read." For full enjoyment of the story, the reader needs to use his brains. A problem has been set before him, and the true addict obtains pleasure from doing his best to solve it.
When the Detection Club was formed in London, England, very strict rules were laid down for the members to follow. The first and greatest commandment was that every clue to the identity of the criminal must be placed fairly before the reader. This provided for a true and just battle of wits between reader and author, and this, I think, is one of the main reasons people prefer those detective stories that keep to the rules.
Here perhaps, it may be a good thing to repeat an observation that others have stressed. To the uninitiated, all classes of mystery fiction are apt to be classed as "thrillers," but to the intelligentsia the rough-and-ready story of breakneck adventure, car chase, mysterious master criminal, sex, blood-thirstiness and highly colored heroics is but the bastard brother of the classic whodunit and is not to the taste of the true detective aficionado.
The thriller poses no problem, makes no tax upon the reader except perhaps to find out how much blood and guts he can stomach, so that its chief merit is to take the reader from his own safe, fireside existence into what P. G. Wodehouse would call "another and a dreadful world." This makes a strong appeal to some minds but is not for the reader of detective stories, except as an occasional relaxation.
Of course, the detective story has changed over the years. Not for nothing did Dorothy L. Sayers call her last full-length Wimsey tale "a love story with detective interruptions." Of old, the purists laid down the axiom that love had no place in a detective story and was nothing but an unnecessary and most undesirable effluent when introduced into those otherwise unpolluted waters. It confused the narrative and dammed the flow of pure reason, for love's detractors (so far as the detective story is concerned) can rightly claim that there is nothing so unreasonable, so utterly illogical, as love. The unreasonable and the illogical have no place in a mystery.
Times change, however, and so do the fictional detectives themselves--among whom, I suppose, every one of us has a favorite. The painstaking detective measuring footprints, treasuring cigarette ends, taking fingerprints, is a genuine character in real life and often "gets his man," but in fiction his worthy, molelike activities are apt to give a somewhat dull read. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe described (and, by implication, despised) the fictional use of the method:
"You include the grounds about the house?"
"They gave us comparatively little trouble. We examined the moss between the bricks and found it undisturbed."
"You looked among D_____'s papers, of course, and into the books of the library?"
"Certainly; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume. We also measured the thickness of every book-cover."
"You explored the floors beneath the carpets?...and the paper on the walls?...You looked into the cellars?"
This is far removed from the Chestertonian girth and intellect of Dr. Gideon Fell and farther still from the "little grey cells" of Hercule Poirot. Nowadays the gentlemanly detectives, Alleyn, Campion, Wimsey, the don-detective Gervase Fen, the delightful Inspector Ghote, Hillary Waugh's indefatigable policemen baying like hounds on the trail and the quirky legalities in the plots of Cyril Hare have taken over, to some extent, from the older, more plodding sleuths of earlier years.
I am far from believing that people read detective stories in order to learn new methods of committing murder, but it is a fact that, greatly to the author's distress, after Anthony Berkeley had published perhaps his best-known book, a real-life murderer successfully employed the method described in that book and strangled his victim with a silk stocking--the first time, it appears, that such an object had been used in real life for an act of thuggery.
Conversely, the police learned a thing or two when they attempted a reconstruction of the method they thought might have been used by the hymn-playing George Joseph Smith when he drowned three successive wives in the bath. The police reconstruction was almost too conclusive, for they nearly drowned their volunteer victim and had difficulty in bringing her back to consciousness. The method, which I shall not describe, has been used subsequently in at least one detective story.
So why do people read detective stories? I think one of the main reasons is that such books must, above all things, have a definite plot. Modern literature is full of plays and films that end nowhere; novels and short stories that leave the playgoer or the reader suspended in mid-air, forced either to impotent irritation or else to having to invent their own outcome.
Detective stories, by their very nature, cannot cheat in this way. Their writers must tidy up the loose ends; must supply a logical solution to the problem they have posed; must also, to hold the reader's attention, combine the primitive lust and energy of the hunter with the cold logic of the scholarly mind.
Above all, they must concentrate upon murder, although they may also say, with Robert Herrick's bellman:
From noise of scare-fires rest ye free,
From murders Benedicite.