Have you been to see the new movie Mr. Holmes yet? I plan to see it tomorrow. I’ve heard it’s a sweet, somewhat cheesy, look at the aging detective. But it stars Ian McKellen, and it’s a Sherlock story, so there’s no way I’m going to miss it! In honor of my favorite detective, here is a timely book summary of CW’s stint as a reviewer of Detective Fiction.
In the comments below, please tell me: Who is your favorite literary detective? Which is your favorite work of detective fiction or murder mystery? What do you think is the best newer such work, say, written in the last 20 years?
Charles Williams Book Summary #29: The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams 1930-1935, edited by Jared Lobdell
This is a really valuable book, not only for the lively content by Charles Williams that it contains, but also for all the other useful materials Jared Lobdell has compiled. There are four kinds of good things in here:
- Five years’ worth of book reviews by Charles Williams, in which he discusses two-hundred and ninety books. Yes, that’s right: 290 books in five years!
- An introductory chapter by Jared Lobdell called “Charles Williams as Detective Fiction Reviewer.” He expounds upon many valuable themes, among them whether detective fiction is a kind of mythopoeia; the absolutely importance of “style” in writing this (or any) fiction, and the emphasis Williams put on “style” in evaluating these books; rhetoric and vision; whether detective fiction books are “fantasy” and whether CW—like his Inklings friends—was writing “fantasy” (Lobdell says not); and a final, historical point: that there was not a gap in literary history between Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: rather, Victorian “thrillers” or “shockers” were the genre that took detection/crime fiction from the 19th century into the 20th.
- An essay, presented as Chapter VI, by Jared Lobdell, entitled “The Ways of the Golden Age and the Ways Out.” This is partly an extended analysis of the thesis Lobdell put forward lightly in his introductory chapter: that the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (in the 1930s) was a direct heir of the Victorian “shilling shockers.” And it is partly a discussion of what happened then; how did detective fiction move on? How did writers get out of “the golden trap” into which they had written themselves? I must admit to only skimming Lobdell’s thoughtful piece, as my goal is to read everything by CW (about him too, yes, but not necessarily now—and I had to get the book back to the library. This whole thing of limited access to books, interlibrary loan, etc, is really getting to me), but anyone who is studying detective fiction ought to read it thoroughly. As I’m writing a murder mystery right now myself, I ought to read it thoroughly! Perhaps if I can make an afternoon at the library next week or so….
- A vast wealth of riches in an Appendix: books and authors CW reviewed. This is pretty much a survey of the writers of the Golden Era of Detective Fiction, so it is an extremely valuable resource.
Now, about the book reviews themselves. For five years, CW worked as a book-review-machine for The Westminster Chronicle and other papers. This meant he was sent several books a week, and generally reviewed 4 or 5 every two weeks or so for the first two years; after that his pace slowed a bit. They are very short reviews: usually the 4 or 5 books are lumped together into a somewhat thematic, loosely-constructed brief “essay” of sorts, one short paragraph per book. He often fudges this organization by giving two or three paragraphs to the best book and sometimes leaves the bad book(s) for the last sentence, thus making his evaluation clear even without words of praise or condemnation.
A few points about CW really stood out to me as I read his reviews.
1. Of all of his writings (letters to wife and friends included), it is in these book reviews that CW sounds the most human. His tone is light and lively, still intelligent, but written so that anybody at all can understand him. What an idea! It seems that in this one place, of all the pieces he ever wrote, CW felt free to drop the academic sham, the esoteric mask, the intellectual posing, and the “great poet” persona. Everywhere else, his insecurity is palpable: he needs to know that every reader knows that he is really smart, sophisticated, learned, well read, ingenious, full of depths and knowledge and secrets. Here, he just wants to tell ordinary chaps about cheap, entertaining books. Yet I don’t feel he takes on a false, blokey style, either. He just talks cheerfully about these books. He doesn’t measure (many of) them by high literary standards; he honestly compares them to each other and to the main criterion of their own genre: do they thrill? do they entertain? If so, grand. If not, he turns on his literary critical lenses to examine where and why and how they failed, but doesn’t do so in a pretentious way. Also, while he does bring himself into the discussion a lot (saying whether he stayed up to read a book, or found his attention wandering, or guessed the solution to the mystery—or even how this compares to his own writing), he does so in a humble, endearing, rather adorable way. It’s not like his usual show at all. It’s kind of cute.
2. His reading speed is madness. I suppose this must be common: the reviewer who can read 4 or 5 full-length novels and review them in a two-week period (is it a special skimming or speed-reading skill, or is it attributable to the fact that CW didn’t sleep, but stayed up working nearly all night most nights?), but it took my breath away. Add to that the fact that here, as everywhere, CW gets to the core of the book in a few words, always, without fail, with a sure touch. Here is where his confidence is well placed: he doesn’t waver in his evaluation, but this certainty comes across as factual rather than arrogant. How refreshing!
3. He has really good taste. Although he doesn’t rave on and on about them, he knows which books/authors are really good and will last. His review of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (my favorite piece of detective fiction ever, ever) is the most positive in the volume. In it, he waxes lyrical in praise of its depth and vision. He thinks very highly of Agatha Christie (that’s a relief) and of S.S. Van Dine—he got to review all three of those big names on one amazing day (January 17, 1934)! He generally ranks the authors (subtly, without aplomb) as history would go on to rank them naturally, putting those who would last at the top and so forth.
4. He sees which way the wind is blowing. On June 18, 1934, he wrote:
“It has for some time been clear that detective tales must either change or cease. A few good craftsmen may go on exquisitely reproducing the more austere and ancient plots, but murders must become greater or perish. There are signs that they are becoming greater, and that they will enter on a new career of real imagination” (112-3).
Well, he was right that they would soon change. I think that in some ways they became greater: think of P.D. James, for instance, who took the murder mystery so seriously that it hurt. There are many elements of the greatest fiction written now, at the beginning of the 21st century, that have been inherited from the Golden Age of mysteries. Much of Harry Potter was a mystery: who was the Half-Blood Prince? What was Prof. Snape’s secret? Where were the horcruxes? Where were the Deathly Hallows? How did Harry survive the killing curse as a baby? What was his connection to Voldemort? How would it all end? (and of course each of the early volumes had its own smaller mystery to solve). In fact, that might be very much the new pattern of fiction: authors tend to bury secrets (to the reader and/or to one or more of the characters), and much of the interest of the plot is their discovery. Even Game of Thrones proceeds that way much of the time. The major premise seems to be that there is necessary knowledge, and there is dangerous knowledge, and the reader is never quite sure which is which until it is revealed. And the major technical concept nowadays seems to be that tension is created either by physical action (peril, adventure, chase, etc) or by a quest for withheld information.
5. He doesn’t take violence seriously. He makes jokes about death and destruction. Yes, I know that’s part of the genre–at least until P. D. James got ahold of it and made it serious, as I mentioned above. It’s not meant to be realistic.
6. There are many moments when he is talking to himself as a writer, giving himself advice or making up stories. Here are the four best instances of this kind of free, personal imagination.
A book “reminds me of that fine (but unwritten) tale in which the detective finds all the clues and deductions leading to himself, has to arrest himself, and give evidence against himself. And probably hang himself.” (91).
“There are some few absurd books of my own which exist only because one evening, having finished one of Mr. Rohmer’s, I said suddenly to myself: ‘I also will write a novel.’ It wasn’t, when finished, much like any of his, but can one now seethe the mother in the kid’s milk?” (104).
“Red herrings have not received the attention they need and deserve. In the book which I plan there will be a chapter on them as fish, followed by one on their place as fable. The second part will be on the R. H. in experience: psychological R.H.s which distract us from the trials of our pre-destined fish, and in fiction, the R. H. voluntary and involuntary. Man a good novel has gone off after an involuntary R. H, and lost itself for ever, sometimes by the author’s fault, sometimes by the reader’s. of the last the Satan in Paradise Lost is the greatest example; we have turned the fishiness into a superb Red Herring that has led us far from the centre of the poem” (100).
The best of these inspirations is in a review of Dr. Watson by S. C. Roberts, which was a “biography” of everything that could be known or conjectured about Watson. I think CW really enjoyed, but he rather forgot to review it, being taking up with a fantasy of his own:
“Sherlock Holmes never returned; he lay just as Watson thought, at the foot of the Reichenbach Falls. But his opponent, with an extreme yet justified daring, having avoided the police by precisely the trick he recounts, did return, to gain the loyalty of Watson and the ear of the police. It was Moriarty who came back from London in the disguise of Holmes.” (56).
CW then goes on to give lots of compelling evidence to support this case. It is very entertaining!
There is lots and lots of other good material in this collection. An excellent article needs to be written about the literary theory CW sets out, casually and in bits and pieces, about detective fiction, throughout this book. I don’t think that’s been done yet beyond what Lobdell does in his introductory and concluding essays. So there’s an invitation for you.