Murder for Pleasure: The [Contentious] Life and Times of the Detective Story (1951) by Howard Haycraft

As you may have noticed I have made a slight amendment to the title I am reviewing today. Given the wide range of material this book covers and the depths that it reaches, I decided to focus my review predominantly on those ideas of Haycraft which could be construed as most contentious. That is not to say they are all completely wrong or outrageous, though some definitely are in my opinion, but I feel that Haycraft provides quite a lot of provocative ideas which may (or may not) elicit strong views back. Though it might not be a good idea to read on if you are a French female mystery writer, trying to write your first locked room detective novel, involving a female sleuth who loves using disguises…

Today’s read was originally published in 1941, but was updated and expanded upon in 1951 and it is this edition that Dover Publications have reprinted a short while ago. Regardless of the later date of this edition, the text still retains its WW2 context, which can be found from the foreword which heralds detective fiction as a symbol of freedom and democracy, (more on that later), to the mentioning that underground shelters in the Blitz apparently stocked solely detective stories. Clearly in a time of crisis, a body in the library is what you need.

Haycraft is using the term ‘detective story’ fairly strictly in this book and refers to John Carter maxim that: ‘If we decide, as surely we must, that a detective story within the meaning of the act must be mainly occupied with detection and must contain a proper detective (whether amateur or professional), it is clear that mystery stories, crime stories, spy stories, even Secret Service stories, will have to be excluded unless any particular example can show some authentic detective strain.’ Following on from this Haycraft emphasises that due to space restrictions the book will be focusing on texts and authors who ‘most significantly influenced the progress’ of the genre. This of course is our first point of contention, as to who he includes and does not include and more importantly how he assesses the merits and weaknesses of those he did admit into the publication. But more anon.

In terms of the span of the book, chronologically it goes from 1841 to the writer’s present day, focusing predominantly on the UK and the USA. The continental detective story gets a brief look in, but suffice to say Haycraft does not prize it much. After the chronologically focused chapters, run a series of thematic ones including factors in publishing and marketing detective novels, the rules for writing such works, critics on detective fiction, a quiz and ‘dictators, democrats and detectives.’

Contentious point No. 1 – You cannot have a detective story without a policeman

One bone Haycraft has to pick with the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, is her suggestion that detective fiction has roots earlier than Poe. Haycraft goes onto write that:

‘Puzzle stories, mystery stories, crime stories and stories of deduction and analysis have existed since the earliest of times – and the detective story is closely related to them all. Yet the detective story itself is purely a development of the modern age. Chronologically, it could not have been otherwise. For the essential theme of the detective story is professional detection of crime. This is its raison d’être, the distinguishing element that makes it a detective story and sets it apart from its cousins in the puzzle family. Clearly, there could be no detective stories (and there were none) until there were detectives. This did not occur until the nineteenth century.’

Then follows this up with a quote from George Bates: ‘The cause of Chaucer’s silence on the subject of airplanes was because he had never seen one. You cannot write about policemen before policemen exist to be written of.’

Now I take the specific point about policemen, but I am left wondering if you can have a detective story without police, as I feel there are exceptions which would break this rule. For example, there is Christie’s Death comes as the End and I am sure there are other historical mysteries which could follow suit. Perhaps though this is only possible to do retrospectively, i.e. create a detective story into an era which had no detectives, because of living in a detective filled era. Does that make sense? I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter.

Contentious Point No. 2 – Poe says it all

Following on point 1, Haycraft is keen to assert Poe as the creator general of the detective story, commenting that ‘it is not too much to say – except, possibly, for the influence of latter-day science – that nothing really primary has been added either to the framework of the detective story or to its internals since Poe completed his trilogy. Manners, styles, specific devices may change – but the great principles remain where Poe laid them down and left them.’ He then quotes from Philip Van Doren Stern concerning the notion that ‘Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” ha[s] never been surpassed.’ Now I don’t particularly wish to dispute what Poe did for the genre as such, but can it be really said there is no greater detective story than ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’? Fairly sure I can think of quite a few short stories that I have enjoyed more than that one. But perhaps I am in the minority on this matter.

Contentious Point No. 3 – Detectives need a Democracy

I think this is one of the points that I found more interesting than incorrect, though the jingoistic tone could get a little grating. Though given the 1940s context it is probably understandable that he would want to make a point out of Italy and Germany banning detective stories, especially those which are English written. Haycraft makes the point that:

‘the detective story definitely thrive[s] in proportion to the strength of the democratic tradition and the essential decency of nations; while the closer governments approach legalised gangsterism and rule by force, the less likely we are to find conscientious criminal investigation or any body of competent detective literature.’

In some ways this comment does have face validity, as political factors and governmental policies have affected where and what mystery writers have been able to publish in some countries. Equally I have read of authors who have felt they could not write a police detective novel in their country, as they felt readers would not be able to get behind such a protagonist, due to the behaviour of the police in their country.

Perhaps we get to a more debatable matter when Haycraft adds in the element of quality, musing that: ‘it is a curious fact, deserving of attention by historians, that virtually all the detective stories worth the name have been produced by those (doubly fortune!) nations that have longest enjoyed the privileges of democracy.’ Though to be fair to Haycraft his limited access to non-English works may have hampered his judgement. I don’t feel it is comment that could be said today. However, one idea of his that piqued my interest was this one:

 ‘the amateur who reaches the solution ahead of the official police is an unconscious rationalised survival, a last, vestigial, inverted remnant of the Robin Hood instinct.’

I quite like that as an idea to be honest, though feel free to heartily disagree with it.

Contentious Point No. 4 – The French really can’t write good detective novels

Ah so now we get to the mostly French bashing section of Haycraft’s work. Here are a few opening remarks to fan the flames…

‘The marked inferiority of the Continental detective story – even that of France, with a few exceptions – when measured against the English and American product must be largely ascribed to origin and tradition.’

‘Continental contributions to the detective story, aside from the French, have been so few, so indirect, and so unimportant that there would be no sensible object in discussing them here: the result would be only a list of authors obscure at best and for the great part untranslated and unavailable in England or America.’

But what about Emile Gaboriau you ask? Well…

‘…Gaboriau’s chief failure according to the standards of modern detective fiction’ is that ‘in his attempt to mix incompatible elements – the lurid unreality of the yellow-back and the cool logic of detection – he violates one of the prime requirements of the form: the semblance, at least, of plausibility […] The mésalliance he thus unwittingly and unfortunately began has persisted in the French detective story virtually to this day, to its undeniable detriment… By a paradox that would have appealed to his French mind, his reputation today rests largely on the fact that he is so seldom read! For Gaboriau is one of those authors whom everybody talks about but whose works… are virtually unknown.’

Or Gaston Leroux?

Well in fairness Haycraft does say The Mystery of the Yellow Room in its puzzle aspect, ‘remains, after a generation of imitation, the most brilliant of all “locked room” novels.’ But things turn sour once he begins to write that: ‘No, for all his excellence as a contriver of adroit puzzles, Leroux is simply not the modern reader’s dish. He was an influence and an important one, but his position is chiefly historical and technical.’ Oh well never mind Leroux…

In short for Haycraft, a French mystery writer is synonymous to the term, ‘hack-writer.’ He probably gets at his nicest when he talks about George Simenon, (whose work I ironically don’t gel with). Things start a little roughly when he writes of Simenon that ‘he is now as greatly over praised in America as he was unfairly ignored previously,’ but matters pick up when he goes onto say that, ‘he is a young writer of great zest and resourcefulness, with a flair for quick characterisation and atmosphere-painting, whose unfailingly diverting short novels must be pronounced a little better as straight fiction than as detection.’

However, my main point of bringing this contentious point up is to hear what defence may be volleyed at Haycraft in return? What are the good points of French mystery fiction? What did it add to the genre?

In the main I think the area of non-UK/USA vintage mysteries is still a largely a case of untravelled waters. Publishers such as Pushkin Press, the British Library, Verse Chorus Press and Kazabo Publishing have begun to turn the tide on this matter bringing some such stories back into print, but I still feel there is more to be uncovered.

Contentious Point No. 5 – Aussie Bestseller Receives a Big Thumbs Down

Fergus Humes’ The Mystery of the Hansom Cab may have garnered great sales figures at the time but for Haycraft this tale is a ‘shoddy pot boiler,’ which inexplicably ‘received vastly more contemporary attention than Doyle’s Study in Scarlet.’ He goes onto decry it as a ‘scarcely readable’ book, which ‘belongs among the famous “freak books”.’ He only of course brings it up as matter of ‘historical interest.’

Contentious Point No. 6 – Up Close and Personal with Living Author Biographies

When commencing a section on a specific author, which warrants a space of their own, Haycraft indulges in a biographical passage or two, with sometimes greater emphasis on this when it comes to female authors than male ones. Nothing wrong with this approach per say, but there were times when I couldn’t quite believe how brazen and personal some of Haycraft’s comments were, given they were about living authors who would presumably read the book. Agatha Christie’s marital issues and disappearance get a decent page of comment, with the latter being implied as a publicity stunt by Haycraft. There is then Margery Allingham who is described as ‘plump,’ which seemed a bit unfair for a woman who had a thyroid problem, whilst poor old John Dickson Carr is said in ‘photographs [to] disclose a dark, moustached pipe-smoker, whose thinning hair gives him the appearance of a somewhat older man than he presumably is.’ Nice! Although one author intro I did find amusing was for Elliot Paul, who ‘is, of course, the versatile, lusty, bearded ex-Montparnassian, war correspondent, boogie-woogie artist, would be lighthouse keeper…’ Boogie-woogie artist? Really want to know what one of those is now…

Contentious Point No. 7 – Anna Katharine Green and the early American Detective Novel

A bit like the continental detective story, Haycraft has little to say in favour for early American detective fiction: ‘unless the reader is prepared to admit Nick Carter and his confreres and the semi-fictional Pinkerton reminiscences and their ilk to the dignity of detective novels, it must be said that the American field lay fallow from Poe’s “Purloined Letter” (1844) to Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878)… it cannot be pretended that the American detective revealed anything like the quantity or the level of quality of its English counterparts in the years up to the first world conflagration.’ However, he does have something nice to say about Melville Davisson Post’s Uncle Abner, who he describes as ‘the outstanding contribution of the US to detective fiction between Auguste Dupin and Philo Vance.’

Returning to Green’s novel, I was disappointed by Haycraft’s assessment of her. He acknowledges her prominence in the field, yet is so dismissive of her work that it makes you wonder what he felt the book gave to the genre, such as in this cool appraisal: ‘For there are sufficient aspects of uniqueness about The Leavenworth Case to make it, despite some incredibly bad writing, one of the true historical milestones of the genre.’ Green’s character, Violet Strange, is said to be ‘best forgotten’ and poor Amelia Butterworth gets no mention at all, despite her importance in the development of the spinster sleuth. His preoccupation with giving biographical details in this case, means no serious convincing case is given for Green’s value as a writer. Bear this in mind when you read of the reason Eden Phillpotts was included in the book:

‘Though he made no startling innovations, his fame and solid technical competence contributed substantially to the prestige of the detective novel in the decade after the Armistice.’

Seriously fame and prestige?

Contentious Point No. 8 – Writing Off or Underwriting Female Writers and Characters

So yes this is another area that Haycraft goes to town on, invariably dishing out back handed compliments to female writers – i.e. declaring they are important good writers, but then proceeding to maximise and prioritise the numeration of any weaknesses. This hugely contrasts to the way he deals with male writers, whose faults he often defends. Francis Iles, Philip Macdonald and Dorothy L. Sayers, are for example, all writers demarcated as writers who experimented with the form. However, the only writer who cops any criticism, let alone significant criticism is Sayers. Macdonald and Berkeley/Iles who were far more the experimenters and dropped a number of poorer novels, received no criticism whatsoever.

Marys Roberts Rinehart is another hard-hit female author, though he does describe her as a guilty pleasure. Given Rinehart’s choice of mystery writing style she is open to a lot of criticism from those who dislike HIBK novels, but I think Haycraft well and truly puts his foot in it when he writes that ‘she is the unquestioned dean of crime writing by and for women.’ Considering the high volume of criticism Haycraft flings towards his guilty pleasure, this really is not a compliment either to female writers or to female readers for that matter…

At last we get to the female protagonist who ‘in all fairness, women […] do not make satisfactory principal detectives. Some examples […] may be produced to counter this argument, but by and large to assign either to full-fledged criminal pursuit is a violation of the probabilities if not the strict possibilities. They may, and often do, figure as important and attractive assistants. The beginner, at least, will do well to confine them to such roles.’ In short, I find this comment so annoying that I feel I will need to devote a separate post, at a later date, to provide a refutation that does female sleuths justice. Though don’t let me stop you getting started in the comments section below…

Contentious Point No. 9 – The Greats of the English Golden Age

One of the points I was quite interested in, especially given the theme of the last contentious point, is that out of the “Big Five” of ‘living English detective story writers’ that Haycraft comes up with, (Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts and H. C. Bailey,) only the women have maintained their popularity into current times.

At least JJ will be pleased that someone else enjoys Freeman Wills Crofts too, with Haycraft writing of the The Cask that is ‘in its quietly documented thoroughness, it is one of those timeless stories that improve rather than lose by the test of re-reading.’ Not sure that is enough to convince me to give Crofts another try though…

One comment which did surprise me was the idea that Georgette Heyer ‘added a new and harder veneer to the English humorous detective story as largely conceived by A. A. Milne a decade earlier.’ New? Hard? Whilst in Penhallow I admit Heyer produces one heck of a punch at the ending, I wouldn’t really say that she was a particularly innovative writer and I definitely am struggling to see the ‘hard’ aspect. For me I think there were many other writers who did more with the Milne outline than Heyer.

Contentious Point No. 10 – On How to Write and not Write a Good Detective Story

Given the last two episodes by the podcasters JJ and Dan, on their show The Men Who Explain Miracles, I thought it would be interesting to share what Haycraft made of mystery writing rules. In the first place he condenses the rules made by Van Dine and Know ‘into two main requirements:

(1) The detective story must play fair.

(2) The detective story must be readable.’

He also thinks that beginner mystery writers should ‘avoid the locked room puzzle,’ asserting that ‘only a genius can invest it with novelty or interest today.’ He equally has a downer on a lot of physical clues: ‘Eschew footprints, tobacco ash, and ballistics. Don’t expect your reader to be excited by fingerprints either!’ Oh, and don’t forget that ‘disguise, of course, went out with the bustle.’

Final Thoughts

Although a long post, this is really only the tip of the iceberg on the information and opinions Haycraft offers. I would say this is a useful text to see how the genre, writers and texts were perceived back then and considering how attitudes have changed since. It is a product of its time, with the limitations this imposes. A book like Martin Edwards’ The Story of Crime in 100 Books, may be a more accessible book, especially if you are new to vintage crime fiction, which is how we would know see it. Though Haycraft’s book is the kind to give you new titles to look up and the quiz section, though difficult at times, was rather fun.

In an odd way the subjectivity of the book is one of the features which makes it an interesting and good read. It is a book which gets your mind thinking and wondering, especially as to whether you agree or disagree with the thoughts put forward. Given the time difference some of Haycraft’s thoughts now have a double-edged irony to them. In particular, he contrasts how golden age detective fiction, as the ‘new style,’ is a marked improvement on earlier works, describing it as ‘more natural, more plausible, more closely related to real life than the old style.’ I felt this was an ironic point given how some modern detective fiction writers and commentators now view the golden age. So all in all a thought provoking read, which proves that the mystery genre is never one for standing still.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Dover Publications)

10 comments

  1. Haycraft’s treatment of the French school – well, what little he seems to know of it – is abysmal but was widely shared by English-speaking critics at the time (I remember Todd Downing expressing similar skepticism) and can be ascribed to ethnocentrism – it seems never to occur to him that the Golden Age model was not universal and that the French may have deliberately chosen to aim at something different. Also it’s ironic as the hostility was and remains reciprocated by French critics who routinely dismiss GAD-type whodunits as boring, mechanical and what-have-you (and finding alternative ancestors to Poe is kind of a national industry)

    His treatment of women is not particularly original either. Most male crime fiction critics at the time were open in their contempt for “feminine” crime fiction – i.e., female writers who didn’t write like men. Christie, Sayers and the ilk were okay because they played by the rules and had male protagonists, but those that didn’t were HIBK, thus bad. Anthony Boucher was very much the exception when it comes to the subject (but even him dismissed Rinehart and her successors)

    It’s worth noting though that Haycraft didn’t remain a GAD enthusiast all his life. His views “evolved” in the years after the war and he became an enthusiastic proponent of the new ways, calling for greater realism and deeper characterization – and becoming in the process one of Jacques Barzun’s biggest foes.

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    • I knew you would bring up a good defence Xavier! When it comes to the HIBK issue he does also include data from a survey which was done, in which the 3rd or 2nd top pet hate was that very genre, nor did any HIBK writer or book make it into any top 10. Mixture of gender in the sample but wasn’t a very big one by the looks of things. I think HIBK is a tricky genre to do well – it is too easily poorly imitated.

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  2. I’ve never really read through Haycraft’s book from start to finish. I’ve only used my copy as a reference on certain authors. And it was a great source for author photographs for years. I have the original. I had no idea it had been revised (just like Barzun & Taylor’s Catalog of Crime). He sounds a lot like Barzun when it comes to describing both writers and the genre. It’s an odd chauvinistic and elitist worldview that thankfully is disappearing, slowly but surely. I’d have shut it many times and never made it all the way through. I’ll stick with it as a paging reference book rather than a legitimate cover-to-cover read the way I use Catalog of Crime, an even more frustrating book when it comes to women writers and the dismissive, nasty treatment they receive in his assessments.

    There are hundreds of detective novels without a policeman! Thousands at this point. The more I read crime fiction the more I despise the so-called rules that writers and critics set up for the genre. It’s all so limiting and reduces the possibility for growth and invention. But I guess some of these early fans needed to feel comfortable with formulae. And some STILL do!

    Maybe Eliot Paul played the piano. Maybe I’m being too literal. The Paul books are fluffy comic crime novels. Is Hayward poking fun at Paul’s style?

    “Harder veneer” is a strange phrase, isn’t it? I see the word veneer and think “thin surface”. Veneer is fragile to my mind. A harder veneer is a paradox. He’s probably being ironic. Heyer’s sense of humor is cruel and nasty, IMO. I can’t stand most of her “witty” characters in her detective fiction Never read any of her Regency adventure novels. I see the “harder” part of of the phrase, but it still sounds strange to me.

    Have you read any Philpotts? I don’t recall coming across any reviews on your site. He was, in fact, very well know and highly regarded as a writer during the time Hayward mentions. Those weren’t exaggerations. Plus, he did after all encourage Agatha to continue writing. I’ll give him props for that.

    I’ll agree with Hayward on one point: Fergus Hume is truly a negligible writer. Whether it’s detective, adventure, thriller or what have you, nothing I’ve read of his is remotely worth reading and instantly forgettable.

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    • Well in fairness I did read Haycraft’s book over a number of days. Fitted my patchy concentration, but I don’t blame you for wanting to read it in bits as and when you need to. Definitely seems like Catalog of Crime is one of the non-fiction books I need to get next.
      Glad I wasn’t being mad when it came to detective novels without policemen, as I was sitting there thinking surely you can have such a book, but then worried I could be in some hitherto unknown way wrong.
      Not sure about Paul, I’d need to re-read the passage. I say passage, it is a couple of sentences. I think Haycraft was in the middle with him, as I don’t remember any biting criticism.
      I like your take on Heyer, as I hadn’t considered the connotations of ‘veneer’ – perhaps it is another of his back handed compliments.
      I think I have come across Philpotts in short story format, but the plots to his books have never drawn me in enough to give them a go. They seemed a bit too adventure/thriller with conventional romance thrown in, for my liking. I appreciate he was a famous author, but I felt like being famous in and of itself shouldn’t qualify you for entry. Are there any Philpotts you’d recommend?

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      • Now I see what you were getting at about that Philpotts remark. I think I need a double dose of my vitamins. My brain is having lag time like with our work computers when sentences don’t show up on the screen until five seconds after I’ve completed typing.

        I liked two of Phillpotts’ crime novels. THE RED REDMAYNES (a multiple murderer knocking off members of a family) and THE GREY ROOM (which has supernatural content). But I’ve read only four, one under his pseudonym of Harrington Hext. Not a writer I’m interested in unless I come across some old review pointing out some reason why a book “can’t be missed.” Barzun praised a handful of his books, so that ought to tell you that they’re traditional in technique, literary in style, logical and fairly humorless. I read the Hext book based on Barzun’s review in COC. The book turned out to have minor innovation but in the end was hardly as startling as intended since the innovation is now a timeworn cliched convention in crime fiction.

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