A Spoonful of Detective Fiction

Makes the anti-Mormon propaganda go down. Also: putting the sleuth of Baker Street in his place on completely neutral terms unrelated to century-old tribal grudges.

by

1.

A Study in Scarlet is the original Sherlock Holmes story. The first seven chapters and the last two are all Holmes and Watson. Brilliant and trenchant. Earnestly scientistic. Quaint and mannered. The five chapters sandwiched in the middle are a hackneyed, recklessly-slanderous anti-Mormon screed.

Mormons in A Study in Scarlet are rich, debased, blood-thirsty zombies. The accompanying illustration comes from an early edition. It depicts Brigham Young in the home of one John Ferrier. Our American Moses has just threatened Mr. Ferrier with murder-by-Danite if he doesn’t produce his spunky adopted daughter (ingredients: one part Little Orphan Annie; one part Annie Oakley) for immediate enslavement in an arranged polygamous marriage.

This quotation (forgive the length) is a dandy:

[Ferrier] had always determined, deep down in his resolute heart, that nothing would ever induce him to allow his daughter to wed a Mormon. Such a marriage he regarded as no marriage at all, but as a shame and a disgrace. Whatever he might think of the Mormon doctrines, upon that one point he was inflexible. He had to seal his mouth on the subject, however, for to express an unorthodox opinion was a dangerous matter in those days in the Land of the Saints.

Yes, a dangerous matter–so dangerous that even the most saintly dared only whisper their religious opinions with bated breath, lest something which fell from their lips might be misconstrued, and bring down a swift retribution upon them. The victims of persecution had now turned persecutors on their own account, and persecutors of the most terrible description. Not the Inquisition of Seville, nor the German Vehm-gericht, nor the Secret Societies of Italy, were ever able to put a more formidable machinery in motion than that which cast a cloud over the State of Utah.

Its invisibility, and the mystery which was attached to it, made this organization doubly terrible. It appeared to be omniscient and omnipotent, and yet was neither seen nor heard. The man who held out against the Church vanished away, and none knew whither he had gone or what had befallen him. His wife and his children awaited him at home, but no father ever returned to tell them how he had fared at the hands of his secret judges. A rash word or a hasty act was followed by annihilation, and yet none knew what the nature might be of this terrible power which was suspended over them. No wonder that men went about in fear and trembling, and that even in the heart of the wilderness they dared not whisper the doubts which oppressed them.

At first this vague and terrible power was exercised only upon the recalcitrants who, having embraced the Mormon faith, wished afterwards to pervert or to abandon it. Soon, however, it took a wider range. The supply of adult women was running short, and polygamy without a female population on which to draw was a barren doctrine indeed. Strange rumours began to be bandied about — rumours of murdered immigrants and rifled camps in regions where Indians had never been seen. Fresh women appeared in the harems of the Elders — women who pined and wept, and bore upon their faces the traces of an unextinguishable horror. Belated wanderers upon the mountains spoke of gangs of armed men, masked, stealthy, and noiseless, who flitted by them in the darkness. These tales and rumours took substance and shape, and were corroborated and re-corroborated, until they resolved themselves into a definite name. To this day, in the lonely ranches of the West, the name of the Danite Band, or the Avenging Angels, is a sinister and an ill-omened one.

Fuller knowledge of the organization which produced such terrible results served to increase rather than to lessen the horror which it inspired in the minds of men. None knew who belonged to this ruthless society. The names of the participators in the deeds of blood and violence done under the name of religion were kept profoundly secret. The very friend to whom you communicated your misgivings as to the Prophet and his mission, might be one of those who would come forth at night with fire and sword to exact a terrible reparation. Hence every man feared his neighbour, and none spoke of the things which were nearest his heart.

I don’t mind getting stuck at the checkout stand long enough to read the headlines on the National Enquirer. Just don’t expect me to read the articles! That is how deep Doyle apparently went in researching his Mormons. It’s not just the big things (murder and such). He also bungles small details. One Mormon character proclaims to an outsider: “We are “¦ the chosen of the Angel Moroni.” I can imagine an alternative universe in which this is an authentic Mormon expression. Yet A Study in Scarlet is set in our universe. Mormon characters also repeatedly refer to the “Holy Four.” What is the “Holy Four?” I have no idea, and neither did Doyle.

2.
How iconic is Sherlock Holmes? Insert an embarrassing superlative here. That’s all that was left after I deleted various breathless stabs at describing his icon status. Certainly Holmes belongs among a handful of archetypal characters that seem to exist outside of the stories in which they appear. Others might include: Ebenezer Scrooge, Captain Ahab, Hamlet, and Hannah Montana. Holmes got so big that Doyle came to resent his power to overshadow everything else he did. Eventually Doyle killed him off. Yet Holmes was too big to stay dead. Doyle resurrected him under the influence of protests, mountains of hate mail, earnest pleas from his own mother, and extremely lucrative enticements.

A Study in Scarlet gives us Holmes’ origins, and it is full of memorable bits. Consider, for example, Holmes and Watson on knowledge:

My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Notice the contrast in tone between the Holmes chapters (narrated by the terminally acute and adoring Watson) and the anti-Mormon chapters (voiced by a comically sanctimonious omniscient narrator).

3.
Doyle visited Utah in May 1923. He was even given access to the tabernacle where he addressed a packed house on the subject of spiritualism. Doyle was introduced by Levi Edgar Young, a descendant of Joseph Young (Brigham Young’s brother) and a member of the presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy. On the same trip, Doyle dined at the Alta Club with Young, John A Widtsoe, and other Utah highbrows. Doyle was apparently grateful for this warm reception, and he spoke kindly of Utah.

Still, when given a chance to specifically renounce his treatment of Mormons in A Study in Scarlet, Doyle responded: “all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that tho it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history. It’s best to let the matter rest.”

Much later, in a 1991 meeting with Salt Lake City Holmes-fan Michael Homer, Doyle’s daughter Dame Jean Conan Doyle claimed that: “You know father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons” and that Doyle had “relied on anti-Mormon works by former Mormons because he believed these accounts to be factual.”

Check out this Salt Lake Tribune article for more on this episode.

I am inclined to forgive Doyle for the sake of his children, literary and biological. All of us should have at least one offspring who successfully rewrites us into better human beings. Doyle had two.

4.
Dashiel Hammett wrote the following about his own iconic detective Sam Spade in an introduction to The Maltese Falcon:

Spade “¦ is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not–or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague–want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander, or client.

Likewise, Raymond Chandler offered this faint praise: “Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” This criticism is more devastating than it seems. (But don’t pity Doyle or Holmes. They were hard on their precursors too. In the second chapter of A Study in Scarlet, Doyle has Holmes call Poe’s C. August Dupin “a very inferior fellow” and Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq “a miserable bungler.”)

Chandler got it right in his essay The Simple Art of Murder when he waxed rhapsodic about the possibilities of detective fiction. Chandler gives an account of what realism in detective fiction looks like:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge. “¦ It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in[.]

Then Chandler declares:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. “¦ But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; “¦ if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Holmes was far too wooden to realize Chandler’s redemptive vision. And Sam Spade was gritty but too heartless. Phillip Marlow has them both beat.

17 thoughts on “A Spoonful of Detective Fiction”

  1. .

    I loved Holmes as a kid, but I was never a completist-style reader and Study in Scarlet never passed my eyes. I’m glad. I probably couldn’t have remained a fan in those days. And now I would rather read the short stories anyway, were I to pick Holmes back up.

    As for Doyle, we still see this style of idiocy and the clock’s ticking for the next great Danite bestseller.

    As for detective fiction, I’m curious: Do you have a vision for applying this to Mormon fiction?

  2. I’ve been saying for years that we need a biblio-mystery series starring a middle-aged geneaologist/historian (and this is before I knew of the existence of the amazing Ardis).

    Signature published a bibliomystery by an RLDS author several years ago. Here it is: The Angel Acronym by Paul M. Edwards.

  3. Sherlock Holmes scholar Jack Tracy, author of the ENCYCLOPEDIA SHERLOCKANIA and THE ULTIMATE SHERLOCK HOLMES ENCYCLOPEDIA, wrote a very thin but very fascinating 1977 book on Arthur Conan Doyle and the Mormons called CONAN DOYLE AND THE LATTER-DAY SAINTS.

    Goes into detail about how and why Doyle used the Mormon sections in A STUDY OF SCARLET. I have a copy (not readily at hand, sadly). Includes accounts of Doyle’s 1920s Utah visit.

    Oddly enough, two modern fiction genres — Mystery and Western — can both be said to have started with anti-Mormon novels: A STUDY IN SCARLET by Doyle and RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE by Zane Grey.

    — Lee Allred

  4. Mysteries, to a great degree–and I include detective stories in this–are novels that are about setting: in some cases novels of manners. And they are also stories about the particular character who is the detective. Whether you like Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade stories better typically has to do with (a) which character you like spending more time with, and (b) whether you prefer Victorian England or whatever the setting is for the Maltese Falcon (which I have to admit that I haven’t read).

    In short, the attraction of the genre (as I see it) has little to do with realism, plot, or character development in the traditional sense. Indeed, I’d say that one of the hallmarks of the genre is that the detective remains fundamentally unchanged by the human drama in which he plays a part. He is an outsider. The only exception I can think of, among the admittedly largely accidental selection of mysteries I’ve read, is some of the later Dorothy Sayers novels, where we do see Peter Whimsey (and Harriett Vane) changing during, and partly as a result of, their experiences.

    I *have* read and enjoyed all the Sherlock Holmes stories (well, all the ones by Doyle). Of them all, I think A Study in Scarlet was probably the least well-written. That may be partly because of the Mormon thing, but also I think because it was his first one.

    Doyle (like, in some ways, Agatha Christie) had a tendency to introduce elements of the grotesque and bizarre into his stories, typically linked to foreign cultures and secret societies within those cultures. Probably the closest parallel to what he did with Mormons in A Study in Scarlet was what he did with Masons in The Valley of Fear–though in that story (which was much better written), his narrator did in fact acknowledge that the Masonic criminal network he was describing was an aberration of what Masonry was like in other places.

    If there’s any body of work that begs for critique from an Orientalist perspective (a la Edward Said), it’s probably the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’m sure someone out there has done that. I wonder if anyone has looked at the Mormon element in A Study in Scarlet from that perspective? (Unfortunately, I’m not well-schooled enough in that approach to be able to do such a thing myself…)

  5. Funny. I read A Study in Scarlet at a young age, and while I recognized the anti-Mormon parts as the vilest of fabrications, I wasn’t personally offended. Maybe it was because I was also reading Robert E. Howard at the time (with lurid fabrications about African civilizations) and cheap westerns (with cliched portrayals of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages), so I knew that ignorance and storyteller convenience were more responsible for the worst imaginings than malice.

  6. Lee: Thanks for mentioning that book. Sounds interesting–I will try to track it down.

  7. “[T]he attraction of the genre … has little to do with realism, plot, or character development in the traditional sense. Indeed, I’d say that one of the hallmarks of the genre is that the detective remains fundamentally unchanged by the human drama in which he plays a part. He is an outsider.”

    I agree and disagree. There is a fundamental structure underlying all mystery stories that goes something like this: a character with some kind of special power (a cop, a shamus, a librarian) encounters evil and reverses it in some way (exacts revenge, gets a conviction, solves a puzzle, etc.) So it is generally true that what “changes” in mysteries is the evil around which the story is built. The detective can’t change too much without losing her power as the evil-taming force. (Indeed, some detective stories are about exactly that–the detective being overwhelmed by evil and failing. See Chinatown. J.J. Gittes is transformed, and it is dark.)

    However, Hammett and Chandler (and their heirs: James Elroy, et al.) are much more about realism, plot, and character development than, say, the Holmes books and the so-called golden-age detective stories (including Sayers and Christie). It is not easy to generalize about such a range of works! Indeed, I think authors like Chandler were reacting against mannered mysteries that they saw as insubstantial fluff.

    My point: I disagree (strongly!) that setting and maybe the central character’s personality are the only differences between cozy mystery X and hard-boiled noir Y. Like Chandler says, the genre is fundamentally redemptive. And things like realism and good characters mark the difference between the silly and the sublime.

  8. Jonathan and TOTAL Nathan: The absurd fabrications about foreign cultures in these stories become campy, unintentional-comedy-style cautionary tales over time, don’t they! Makes me want to follow the Southern Gothics and find my grotesque at home.

  9. S. P.,

    You wrote: “However, Hammett and Chandler (and their heirs: James Elroy, et al.) are much more about realism, plot, and character development than, say, the Holmes books and the so-called golden-age detective stories (including Sayers and Christie).”

    Obviously, I’ve read much less of Hammett et al. than I have of what you refer to as “golden-age” detective stories. But I still think that what’s being purveyed in that brand of detective novel isn’t “reality” as such, but rather (at most) the reality of a specific milieu.

    Your quote from Chandler may, I submit, represent his take on “the world you live in”–but only his take on that world. And only one particular incorporation of that world. A lot of it sounds pretty anachronistic–and very specifically American.

    Compare that, for example, with Oxford University of the 1930s, which I suspect has seldom seen a more realistic portrayal than Sayers’s Gaudy Night. Other Sayers novels often show a similar realism, whether it’s describing an ad agency or a small East Anglia village. Even Agatha Christie seems at least semi-realistic when she’s talking about villages, and not grand conspiracies. It’s not a gritty kind of realism, but it’s realistic nonetheless.

    The one detective of the hard-boiled school whose work I’ve read a fair amount of is Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner was a well-known defense attorney in southern California who actually did a lot of the sort of things that his character Perry Mason did. (The book version, by the way, is a lot more enjoyable, in my opinion, than the sanitized TV version of my youth.) The writing wasn’t particularly high-quality, but it was engaging at least in part because Gardner was good at vividly describing the world he took us into.

    And then there are all those detective stories set in the middle ages, which clearly are largely *about* taking readers to a version of the middle ages–whether more or less realistic depends on the particular author involved.

    I guess where I wind up on this is that realism can be an aspect of setting. But that’s true whether it’s a gritty setting or a less gritty one. In any event, the setting of Chandler’s novels is probably at least as far removed from the reality of my day-to-day life as Dorothy Sayers’s Oxford University. (More so, to tell the truth.) In both cases, I suspect that part of what attracts most readers to the books is being drawn into what is *for the readers* an exotic milieu. Hence my claim that whether you prefer Chandler or Doyle is largely a matter of which setting you prefer to read about.

    I’m not even sure I agree that the realism of the setting (as opposed to its grittiness) is necessarily part of what makes it good or bad. I think there can be fairly well-written books that deliberately choose not to invoke a very realistic setting. Even mysteries without a terribly “realistic” setting–like Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who books (which I wouldn’t call great literature, but which are undoubtedly quite popular)–tend to have a distinct sense of place that is also clearly part of their appeal: in this case, a romanticized and not-gritty-at-all version of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

    So maybe I’ll agree with you that realism is an important part of quality in writing mysteries; I’m not sure about that. I’m quite sure, though, that I don’t agree that realism is what sets the hard-boiled school apart from the golden-age writers. And I still think that which mysteries readers prefer on the whole has less to do with which are more realistic, and more to do with which settings and character types fit the reader’s individual taste.

  10. “I’m quite sure, though, that I don’t agree that realism is what sets the hard-boiled school apart from the golden-age writers.”

    Agreed. It seems that the difference between the two attitudes is the difference of time. Doyle’s writing was at the end of an era of romanticism and adventure. After the Great War attitudes changed generally, and the entire modern movement is evidence of hard boiled, gritty realism, leaving the romance and sensationalism of the Victorian era far behind. This is shown plainly in 1930s detective fiction.

    It may be argued that the modern viewpoint is more accurate and realistic than the older Victorian ideas; however, I think this simply a difference in paradigm shift. To the Victorians, their literature was realistic in describing their attitudes and perception of their time. Certainly Doyle was a romantic; one can have that count against his ability to convey reality. At the same time however, I am not sure the world is quite as seedy as later crime fiction depicts it.

    “And I still think that which mysteries readers prefer on the whole has less to do with which are more realistic, and more to do with which settings and character types fit the reader’s individual taste.”

    People favor one time period of literature over another. It is the difference between Rudyard Kipling and T.S. Eliot ““ and is evidenced in detective fiction as well. Christie is interesting in this respect ““ in her works she often echoes the sensibilities of the past through the inappropriate behavior found in the youth of the modern era, thereby connecting the two time periods without getting into the depth of organized modern crime (at least in her early works).

    For those who adore Doyle over his successors, it has a lot to do with returning to that romantic era.

  11. We are both throwing around the term “realism” without any kind of agreement as to what it means.

    Realism can mean verisimilitude in portraying a particular setting. I am using it that way, but not exclusively so. Realism also signifies subject matter (common, universal, “gritty”) and style (plain, direct, concrete).

    So a setting might be portrayed as “realistically” as possible and yet be so extraordinary that it is completely unsuited to capturing what the best detective stories are about ((1) the universal human tendency to violence, evil, cruelty and (2) redemption).

    And I wish Chandler’s view of the dark side of humanity was more anachronistic! I don’t do much criminal defense. But I hear truly gritty stories over lunch all the time. And this is in Cache Valley!

  12. S. P.,

    Are you saying that Doyle, Christie, Sayers, et al., lack “violence, evil, [and] cruelty”? Because it seems to me that there’s plenty of that in all three of them.

    What’s different about the universe Chandler describes isn’t that it includes evil, but that it has little of good. In particular, good in the world of the hard-boiled detective (as I understand it) is something almost wholly absent from those in power in society. The hard-boiled detective, despite his rough and battered edges, is more truly good than the wealthy and powerful among whom he moves–because they aren’t good at all.

    That’s a preference for a particular kind of setting. The distinguishing characteristic of this setting isn’t its capability to tell redemptive stories, because such stories can be told in other kinds of settings as well–including the settings describes by Doyle, Christie, and Sayers.

    I will agree that this isn’t the kind of story those writers necessarily tell (though Sayers’s Gaudy Night, again, seems to me to fit the bill). Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t fundamentally about redemption. They’re about something else–what, I don’t think we’ve really discussed here.

    I also find myself skeptical that redemption is really a defining characteristic of the hard-boiled detective novel per se. Sure, the protagonist is engaged in a quest for truth (in a limited sense). But how many of these novels really qualify as “redemptive”? I’ll defer to you on this, because you’re the one who’s read more of them; but I don’t find many stories in any genre that I’d call truly redemptive.

    So when it comes down to it, what I see as the biggest difference between hard-boiled detective stories and golden age detective stories is not one of theme but (again) one of setting. Hard-boiled detective novels happen in settings where society and social structures are seen as irredeemably corrupt, or perilously close to that. Golden-age stories happen in settings where society is seen as fundamentally sound, despite the presence of evil. Obviously, that has a major impact on the type of story that’s told in those two kinds of settings–but it’s still, as I see it, fundamentally a difference in where you (as the reader or writer) choose to spend your time, and with what kind of people.

  13. From my last post: “it’s still, as I see it, fundamentally a difference in where you (as the reader or writer) choose to spend your time, and with what kind of people.”

    Please note that this isn’t meant as a pejorative for either kind of literature or its readers. Actually, I think it’s an interesting question (that hasn’t received nearly enough study) just why different people prefer different things in literature…

  14. Violence in golden age detective fiction is usually domesticated. As Chandler said of Hammett: “[he] gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”

    The choice to portray society as “irredeemably corrupt, or perilously close to that” or “fundamentally sound, despite the presence of evil” is not merely incidental or a matter of taste. At least not in Chandler’s view of the redemptive potential of hard-boiled detective fiction. (Undoubtedly a vast majority of this particular sub genre is not redemptive, but I never intended to make that claim.)

    I think you make a valid point about many mystery fans: they read for setting because they are looking to escape. Fair enough. If you are going on a vacation, I can see choosing 1930’s Oxford over Chandler’s Los Angeles. But I am proposing a different reason for valuing this kind of story.

    Thus, I concede that “fundamentally sound, despite the presence of evil” is closer to the day-to-day experience of a majority of wealthy western people. However, it is a less apt metaphor for the state of humanity: lost, fallen, and naturally inclined to all manner of brutality.

  15. S. P.,

    You wrote: “With this in mind, I concede that “fundamentally sound, despite the presence of evil” is closer to the day-to-day experience of a majority of wealthy western people. However, it is a less apt metaphor for the state of humanity: lost, fallen, and naturally inclined to all manner brutality.”

    I’ll agree with this. Part of where I’m coming from is my uneasiness with use of the term “realistic” as a shorthand for this kind of difference. As you pointed out, “realism” can mean many different things–and at least some of them have been used as value judgments against types of literature that are seen as less realistic.

    I think the first part of what you’re saying is that many of the golden-age mystery stories made crime itself exotic. Yes?

    One of the peculiarities of the mystery genre is that for many readers and writers, the mystery must revolve around the presence of a corpse. One of the pleasant things about the Sherlock Holmes stories is that many of them aren’t about murder at all. Robbery, yes, but murder, no.

    When you say, “Violence in golden age detective fiction is usually domesticated,” do you mean “domesticated” in the sense of happening within the domestic home/family situation? In any event, it’s an interesting observation. Hard-boiled detective fiction, on the other hand, often happens in a business setting. Yes?

    Anyway (in case I haven’t said it), thanks both for writing such a thought-provoking initial post and for your patience in responding to my further thoughts.

  16. I remember reading “A study in Scarlet” in college, and being very disappointed both in the overall writing, and the ridiculously inaccurate Mormon chapters. Certainly not his best work.

    I was interested in this statement that Jonathan Langford made in # 13.

    “Hard-boiled detective novels happen in settings where society and social structures are seen as irredeemably corrupt, or perilously close to that. Golden-age stories happen in settings where society is seen as fundamentally sound, despite the presence of evil.”

    I actually would argue that there is not much difference between the two, perhaps only one of degree. Both involve a search for truth, and both involve a conflict of good vs evil, and good always seems to be on the somewhat disadvantaged side, struggling against either superior numbers, moral ambiguity, or official indifference.

    I’m currently reading a fascinating mix of the two genre, “Drood”, by Dan Gibbons (“The Terror”). It’s a detective story set in the close inner circle of Charles Dickens and his literary friends. One can hardly think of a more Golden Age author than Dickens, but in this meticulously researched novel, Dickens in his later life is shown as being a potential murderer, actual philanderer, and obsessed with some occult aspects of mass hypnotism (mesmerism, in his times).

    The protagonist is all but forgotten author Wilkie Collins, who is very hardboiled, and anything but a saint himself, addicted to laudanum, and two different mistresses. The setting of Victorian London is important, as are the gritty realism of a more modern novel, yet it’s sprinkled with truly Dickensian moments as well. The interplay of the ages/genres are what make it so interesting to me.

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