2/3/14

The Problem of the Ivory Tower


"Pfui. Are you a dunce, or do you take me for one?"
 - Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang, 1965)
A noticeable gap in my reading are the tomes of essays, biographies and papers on detective fiction, which has a valid reason and the foremost one is their penchant for spoiling the endings of the stories being dissected. I prefer to discover them for myself with such works as Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) and The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary, 1942-1947 (2009) as a compass, but the insightful comments on P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) and Books to Die For (2012) were also everything but appetizing.

The focus of secondary literary discussing crime fiction seems to be mainly on nurturing pet theories and enforcing a straight narrative, which I can understand to some extent. History has always traveled along two different lines. The first is the one of popular history with the silhouette of the deerstalker and under slung pipe, the murderous countryside villages from Agatha Christie's crafty whodunits and the mean streets of America as the hunting ground for the streetwise, hardboiled private eyes. The second one is basically an enormously sized cable braided from countless, individual threads and too complex to explain in even a multi-voluminous overview of the genre – and you only have to glance at the list of authors on the GADWiki to realize how impossible such a job would be.

However, I assume you would still make an effort to do the research in order to (at the very least) get your basic facts straight, but Curt Evans, a Mystery Scholar worthy of the name, shattered that illusion in his review of The Eames-Erskine Case (1924) by A. Fielding. If you haven't read Curt's post here is what was said: "I recall one academic writer stating that Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn, who debuted in 1934, was the first English Golden Age police detective protagonist, which is not even close" and when I commented with disbelief, "it illustrates the problem when a critic's mental world of Golden Age English detection consists only of the Crime Queens and maybe Innes and Blake."

I don't consider myself to be a genuine scholar or student of the genre, more of a knowledgeable enthusiast of the game, but there was a day I had yet to pick up a mystery novel and start from scratch. In the beginning I had only references to other writers from A.C. Baantjer and Agatha Christie, until the internet made collecting vintage mysteries look almost too easy. I didn't inundate myself in this subject to earn stripes in academia, but for the simple and vulgar fact that I enjoy reading them.

Gotta Solve 'Em All!
Now, let's assume for the sake of argument that search engines are pipe dreams of a far-flung future and research is something you mainly do inside your head, you're still left with the works of the Crime Queens, Michael Innes and Nicholas Blake – which gave me food for thought. Did these dummies think Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr were fictional mystery writers, because Hercule Poirot discussed them alongside Ariadne Oliver in The Clocks (1963)? Who did they think Tommy and Tuppence were imitating in Partners in Crime (1929)? How do they explain The Detection Club and the round-robin novels the Crime Queens participated on? Perusing the work of the various club members would've given a pretty good start to get a more complete picture of the (British) detective story.

You cannot not be aware of these mystery writers, once you start skimming the surface of the genre, even if you limit your reading to a handful of writers. I understand the need to condense huge chunks of information, however, should someone like me appear to have a better grasp and understanding of the genre's history than an actual academic writer – as the Roderick Alleyn comment seems to point out? What kind of academic standard is that?

The only solace we can take from this is that murmurings coming from the various Ivory Towers now has to share the stage with a plethora of diverse views and opinions on detective fiction, which, from my point of view, shows how incredible superficial those murmurings can be at times. And how sad, how very, very sad, that a bunch of blogs by mere readers have more credibility as a source of reference than whatever made that luminous observation about Alleyn and on (one of) its chosen subjects in general. How embarrasing.

Well, there really wasn't a point to this post except to point out an annoying piece of idiocy, which has been bugging me since I read it and, hopefully, it'll bug you enough, next time one of these specimens opens their trap in your presence, you'll tell them what would've happened if you carried a squirt gun and flu-spit. Or just point out their mistakes, if you want to be nice about it.    

I hope to be back with a regular review before the end of this week.

20 comments:

  1. Very interesting. I read a book by a British academic about crime fiction the other day which described Ronald Knox as American. Now we all make mistakes, but that was a very bad one. The key issue is wide reading and careful thought. A fan, or student of the genre, who reads widely and thinks carefully is likely to have opinions that command attention. The same is true of a professional academic who does likewise. A professional academic who doesn't read widely or think carefully when researching or writing might perhaps be in the wrong job.

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    1. Martin couldn't have said it more eloquently. That last sentence is perfect.

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    2. Dybbuk Press' 2007 reprint of The Big Bow Mystery has an introduction littered with exactly such, easily avoidable mistakes and it was obvious the writer knew more of Zangwill than of the classic detective story. It covers most of the mistakes, from misspelling Poe's middle name to referring to Poirot as a police inspector, in just a few short pages.

      I agree with John. You pretty much summed up my entire post in that last comment.

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    3. What Martin says. And John, for that matter. I'd put myself in TomCat's group: an enthusiastic reader of classic mystery fiction, most certainly not a scholar. Too many academics come up with the sort of nonsense quoted here - it is, or should be, an embarrassment.

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    4. Les, they are writing to different audiences. Academics largely write for other academics and for graduate students training to replace them someday. Fans tend not to be so interested in theories about race, class and gender in popular literature, while many academics seem to be interested in little else! It would be nice to bridge the two groups.

      It would be fascinating to know how may academics actually have read a book by, for example, John Dickson Carr. I bet that it's a very small percentage (though some reference the locked room lecture). So many monographs seem to be produced by women who seem familiar only with the Crime Queens and men only with some hard-boiled authors, when it comes to the Golden Age.

      The truth is informed mystery fans often do know a lot more about the genre than the academic specialists. But I hate for this to sound too negative about academics. It's a widespread problem. If you recall my review of Books to Die For, I highlighted how much of that book, consisting of pieces by modern mystery writers, was less informed about the Golden Age than a lot of the works by academics.

      There are some academic surveys that have good points and there are good studies on specific subjects. Academics are, for example, far more likely to praise Agatha Christie than a lot of modern crime writers and newspaper reviewers. So I don't want to be negative. But, yes, when a person thinks that Roderick Alleyn was the first police detective protagonist in the Golden Age, that person needs to get out in the genre more. Put down the Christie occasionally and pick up a Crofts!

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    5. @Curt:

      You can accuse me of being born in the wrong era, but I think, if you write almost exclusively for academia, it should be a prerequisite to be (you know) historically accurate and I think their audience can handle if you go deeper into the material. Of course, we shouldn't gang up every academia who ever had something to say about Christie and Sayers, but this one was fair game. That and I find it difficult to grasp someone who does this professionally knows less than me and misses the natural curiosity to enquire further.

      If they only knew they could crank out a book or two just by comparing the differences in depiction of pre-WWII society in Berkeley's The Silk Stocking Murders and Christie's The ABC Murders, with Christie's inside joke on Anthony Berkeley Cox as the over arching theme.

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    6. Oh, yes, it's air game. Anyone who reads Masters and my other stuff knows I take on academic is quite a bit. In fact, here's the latest, a popular history by an author with a history doctorate.

      http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2014/02/worsleying-around-with-golden-age-of.html

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  2. I think the problem is many academics writing about the mystery genre concern themselves much more with literary theory than basic facts. I feel the theory needs to be more informed by the facts. But my academic background is in history, where you do have to do a lot of research in primary sources. A lot of English lit people seem comfortable concentrating on a select number of primary books (or "texts") and a great many secondary sources dealing with theory.

    I find it odd that the academic study of mystery fiction has come about in the last forty years through academics tearing down the high culture hierarchy, yet they have now established their own hierarchy within mystery fiction studies, so that many of them feel comfortable treating Golden Age detective fiction as if it were practiced only by Christie, the "literary" Crime Queens and Detections Dons in England and by Chandler and Hammett and the hard-boiled boys in the U. S.

    If that's one's approach one is going to be making a lot of incorrect statements about the Golden Age of detective fiction.

    Of course one can't read everything in a hugely popular genre like detective fiction, but, there's no justification to ignore historically important writers like Crofts and Carr. Or, heck, Chesterton.

    Lucy Worsley has an academic background (history too) though she writes popular stuff and in her book on crime fiction published last year she asks, "Why did [the Crime Queens] come to the fore, and why are they still read today more often than their brilliantly talented male counterparts like Nicholas Blake and G. K. Chesterton?" then she goes on to ignore the male Golden Age writers, unless they wrote hard-boiled.

    Is Ngaio Marsh "still read today more often than" Chesterton? Was she read then more than Chesterton? I tend to doubt it. Why is Father Brown less important, or worthy of study, than Roderick Alleyn? Heck, throughout most of the Golden Age Crofts' Inspector French likely was more popular and better-known than Roderick Alleyn.

    But Worsley relies on a limited group of secondary sources: James' Talking About Detective Fiction, Crime Queen bios, Julian Symons's Bloody Murder, Colin Watson's Snobbery with Violence, T. J. Binyon's Murder will Out. The three latter books are 25 to 40+ years old, while James' book, though charmingly written, adds little new to the earlier books. So the same errors come to the fore every time (though to be fair to Symons, whatever his books his flaws--and in my work I have noted them--he has much more comprehensive coverage than James and Worsley).

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    1. So, what you're saying is, academic writing about detective fiction has regressed to parrots in a cage regurgitating opinions on a small, over examined strip of the genre without doing much actual fieldwork... Sounds like how book reports of the classics are written in high school. You pick a book, thumb through it, look what others have said before and use as many words too say as little as possible and still receive full marks for showing you understood words in a book. What a great gig.

      Carr, Chesterton and Crofts aren't the only historically important ones being overlooked. Brand and Mitchell are also ignored, as Crime Queens, when they were arguably more talented than Allingham and Marsh.

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    2. I think there's some good work being done, it just tends to cover the same authors who have been canonized. But it's much too limited a list for really understanding the Golden Age of detective fiction. I agree with you that women who didn't write exactly like Sayers, Allingham and Marsh get ignored as well. Brand, Mitchell, Gilbert were all accomplished and interesting writers, but they are very rarely included in any meaningful way in genre studies (Mitchell has made a few books).

      I wish more academics would read the introduction and first chapter of my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery--they make, I think, a strong pitch for greater inclusion in detective fiction studies. Instead a lot of writers (popular as well as academic--see Books to Die For, for example) seem happy to work with the stereotypes of the Golden Age.

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    3. That's why I stick, for now, with a few reference guides and just find my own way. I have no interest in stereotypes or spoilers.

      I wish they also acknowledged there were American, puzzle-oriented mystery writers who weren't named S.S. van Dine or Ellery Queen, because even the hardboiled detectives occasionally resorted to think work.

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    4. Heck, TomCat, nowadays we're lucky if they even mention Ellery Queen!

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  3. I think that what you are discussing is a symptom of a wider failure in our society to perform proper basic research in any area. The same sort of shoddy research can be found in relation to science fiction criticism as well. The distinction is between a culture in which the Encyclopedia Britannica was freely available and the coming of Wikipedia. The articles of the Encyclopedia Britannica were written by noted scholars in their respective fields. Wikipedia articles are written by groups of amateurs. There is no guarantee concerning either their expertise or their freedom from bias. Indeed, I have been informed that Wikipedia seeks to write its articles from a "global perspective," indicating there is already an established bias. Recently it was reported that the Encyclopedia Britannica company has ceased publishing the bound volumes of the encyclopedia because there was no market for them. Gresham's law essentially states that bad money drives out good money. Likewise, in the manner I have stated, bad information tends to drive out good information. What you are looking at is not just a failure in detective literary criticism but a failure of the intellectual process in our civilization as a whole. The failure of detective fiction criticism is just a particular example of a much larger problem.

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    1. Gresham's Law essentially states we were hopelessly naïve to think instant access to an unlimited amount of information would make us smarter as a species.

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  4. A little research shows that the point I made about Gresham's Law was made at least as early as the book Internet Weather by James Moore.

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  5. Aah, I missed this discussion when it was still live..

    There's such a thing as peer review, but I guess most readers would focus more on the story of the thesis itself, rather than details. Not that it's good to base oneself on mistaken facts and the writer should of course try his/her best to correct these, but I can imagine most academics being more informed/knowledgeable about something like Derrida or Foucault then... the locked room lecture.

    I wrote my MA thesis on the new orthodox school of JP detective fiction, but I had quite a lot of trouble finding relevant literature, because most of the texts that specifically handle detective fiction are 1) literary histories or 2) use detective fiction to discuss topics like gender/minorities/etc. You'd think there would be more about... detective fiction as fiction itself, but no such luck.

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    1. It's actually somewhat surprising Japan does as bad on this as the Western world. You'd indeed think there was more about detective fiction considering the popularity (neo) orthodox detective stories enjoy over there.

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    2. Actually I was talking more in general about English (academic) literature. TBH, I've found more interesting secondary literature on tropes etc. in Japanese than in English. Sure, there's the usual batch of literary histories, but I've also got some books that go specifically into the logic of for example Queen novels (or the way logic is built in the Ace Attorney games) or Tokyo as a common setting. One of the more interesting essays I've read, is by Van Madoy on his "Marutamachi Revoir" and his use of of a certain trope in the novel. I wouldn't say that that there's an abudance of such material in Japanese, but for the purposes of my thesis, I found my Japanese sources much more useful than English-language sources.

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    3. My bad. I remember now you once posted a portion from a book or essay listing all types of different solutions, but only glanced at the list.

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    4. Peer review isn't going to correct the problem, of course, if the "peers" they get to look at your work don't know the lit any better themselves. The study of Golden Age detective fiction must be one of the few areas of literary study where an academic is considered well-read if she's personally familiar with about a half-dozen authors from the period.

      In Masters of the Humdrum Mystery I tried to address the handling of /class/race/gender and other issues like the attitudes to business and capitalism in the books, but this is the stuff fans tend not to be so interested in!

      I also talk a lot about the detective fiction aesthetics and the move away from the pure puzzle to the crime novel. I try to make the point too that we need a broader base of research if we are to really understand the Golden Age. What is too often done right now is strictly comparing the British Crime Queens with American hard-boiled authors. It's much too restricted a universe and it's misleading.

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