Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Murder will out!

"When I told my agent a few years ago that I was going to write a detective story, he recovered as quickly as could be expected, but made it clear to me (as a succession of editors and publishers made it clear, later, to him) that what the country wanted form 'a well-known Punch humorist' was a 'humorous story.' However, I was resolved upon a life of crime; and the result was such that when, two years afterwards, I announced I was writing a book of nursery rhymes, my agent and publisher were equally convinced that what the English-speaking nations most desired was a new detective story. Another two years have gone by; the public appetite has changed once morel and it is obvious now that a new detective story, written in the face of this steady terrestrial demand for children's books, would be in the worst of taste…."
So wrote Alan Alexander Milne in the introduction to a new edition of his popular work of detective fiction, The Red House Mystery. Originally published in 1922, it amply supplies the hallmarks of genre classics: a locked-room murder, a facetious but frightfully clever amateur sleuth and sidekick, secret passages, a motley assortment of guests assembled in the English countryside for a house party, and so on. But I'll let Milne pick up the thread:
On the great Love question opinions may be divided, but for myself I will have none of it. A reader, all agog to know whether the white substance on the muffins was arsenic or face-powder, cannot be held up while Roland clasps Angela’s hand “a moment longer than the customary usages of society dictate.” Much might have happened in that moment, properly spent; foot-prints made or discovered; cigarette-ends picked up and put in envelopes. By all means let Roland have a book to himself in which to clasp anything he likes, but in a detective story he must attend strictly to business….
The detective must have no more special knowledge than the average reader. The reader must be made to feel that, if he too had used the light of cool inductive reasoning and the logic of stern remorseless facts (as, Heaven bless us, we are quite capable of doing) then he too would have fixed the guilt. ...
And now, what about a Watson? Are we to have a Watson? We are. Death to the the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but a prologue to a five-minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonize or soliloquize; the one is merely a dialogue form of the other, and, by that, more readable. A Watson, then, but not of necessity a fool of a Watson. 
Bruce Montgomery, aka Edmund Crispin
I discovered The Red House through Daedalus, but my gratified acquaintance with Edmund Crispin (pictured at right) and his Oxford detective Gervaise Fen preceded our acquisition of several quite spiffy reprints. Pick up The Moving Toyshop and The Case of the Gilded Fly along with the Milne and you'll qualify for the 15% discount being offered in our special mystery promotion. And in terms of touchstone sleuths on film, one surely can't go wrong with Great Detectives Anthology: Hercule Poirot; Jane Marple; Sherlock Holmes


  1. A.A. Milne (of Winnie-the-Pooh fame?) was right--as every bright light needs a reflector, every detective needs a Watson, someone of average sensibility trusted to come to the wrong conclusions.
    The dynamic may go back to the Socratic dialogues. No matter how poor Criton or Glaucon argued, you knew they would be made to look like turnipheads by the superior reasoning power of Socrates. And the fulfilled expectation gave the reader satisfaction, like a good mystery.

    1. Thanks for the gloss ... especially enhanced by the use of the word "turniphead"!!

    2. Whew! You can't imagine the trouble I've had since you changed the requirements for comments. I had to create a new profile so I could answer. I added an epithet because Google was stubborn about my username. I've been answering through Salamanderheart's blog...Merci!

    3. I wondered what happened to you ... I was getting sad! The site was majorly hacked by spammers, so I had to do that while IT looks into the best solution. However, as I completely agree how obnoxious the "capca"/profiling thing is, what would you think if I turned on the "approve comments" option? That way they might be delayed a bit in being posted, but you wouldn't have to go through the obnoxious hoops.

    4. Is gioconda furiosa a relative of Orlando Furioso?

    5. Only when we're really really mad. The blurry street sign stuff is a minor nuisance compared to getting another username. Felixity is beside himself.

  2. I had no idea A.A. Milne of Winnie-The-Pooh fame was a mystery writer prior to his epic career as a children's author. COOL!!!