SINCE THEIR INCEPTION TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, DETECTIVE STORIES HAVE PROVIDED VISCERALLY SATISFYING PAEANS TO THE ENDURING STRUCTURES OF LAW AND ORDER. AND THEY’RE VERY DIFFICULT TO PUT DOWN.
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.
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