Slightly unusual review today in that, aside from giving an overview of the collection’s general structure, I will then only be focusing on three chapters. A. B. Cox is one of the many names Anthony Berkeley wrote under and I first heard about this title last week when I read Elusion Aforethought: The Life and Writing of Anthony Berkeley Cox (1996). So, I am quite impressed that in less than a week I managed to not only get a copy of Jugged Journalism, but also got around to reading it, (whilst studiously avoiding looking at my pile of TBR books).
Jugged Journalism, to quote Malcolm Turnbull, is ‘a series of 20 comic “lessons” on the art of short-story writing. The sketches are revised and reprinted from Punch, The Humorist, and Passing Show.’ So why is this collection being talked about on a blog dedicated to crime, detective and mystery fiction, (and the odd picture of chickens and goats)? Well it just so happens that two of these lessons deal with the detective story and the mystery story and a later chapter on literary style contains a wonderful Holmes parody. But more on that anon…
However, before launching into Berkeley’s tongue in cheek advice on writing a detective story, I thought I would share with you some of the other lesson topics, (as these chapters are also wonderfully hysterical to read, and shouldn’t be looked down upon just because they aren’t crime fiction!) We have the soulful story, the tense story, the nature story, the simple love story and even the gruesome story! The less said about the strong man story the better… When it comes to the business story Berkeley mentions midway through the chapter that ‘there is only one more rule to be mentioned in connection with the business story. It must be written by someone who has not the least idea of business methods or procedure.’ As to the married love story, the parodied example of a neglected wife plot is laugh out loud funny in its ridiculousness. Berkeley even looks at the children’s story, giving two modern takes on the classic fairy tale, revamping traditional tropes and putting them into the world of business. The satire of the collection also extends to the wider literary world including literary agents and editors, such as in the opening remarks on the chapter explaining how to write a story with a purpose:
‘This kind of story must be very carefully handled indeed; for if the editor suspects that a story has any purpose in it beyond the amusement of his readers, he will pounce on it wrathfully and hurl it into the rejection basket without another thought. The purpose must therefore be carefully hidden.’
Furthermore, Berkeley likes to disabuse us of the idea that editors are ‘ogres’ and instead suggest that:
‘A truer picture would be that of a sad eyed and disillusioned gentleman, wading wearily through piles of unspeakable drivel in the almost hopeless task of finding something capable of titillating the jaded palates of his readers, and seizing eagerly upon anything that shows any signs at all, however minute, of something resembling promise.’
One of the reasons these chapters are all entertaining is that the satire and parodying always contains a grain or two of reality in them, i.e. we can all recollect real life examples of such a story. For example, in the opening chapter which “analyses” the short story we told:
‘how important it is to have a plot to develop. Without a plot, your story will have nothing but a beginning and an end. This makes a very poor sort of story, as a moment’s reflection will have shown.’
Yet I think it can’t just be me who can recall at least one or two books which seem to fit this particular bill…
Right, you have been patient enough, let’s see what good old Berkeley has to say on the art of writing either a detective or mystery story. It is interesting to bear in mind that Berkeley’s first detective novel only came out the same year that this anthology was published.
Berkeley starts with the basics:
‘There are two very important points to be considered in the manufacture of a detective story. Of these one is the detective and the other is the story. The criminal does not matter in the least; he rarely appears before the last paragraph or two.’ [Little did he realise what he would be writing in 1931 or did he?]
So, what should your detective be like? What makes a ‘really great detective’? Here is Berkeley’s answer:
- ‘His appearance should be like that of nobody else on earth […] no ordinary-looking man could ever have a hope of becoming a great detective.’
- They should be ‘addicted to a number of curious habits and mannerisms, especially in his way of expressing emotion.’
- ‘A few years ago the fashion in detectives was the hawk-eyed, razor faced sleuth, all brains and no body, who simply couldn’t help being a detective even in his sleep […] If you wish your story to be printed today, your detective must look like anything in the world rather than a detective.’ For instance, he should be ‘very fat and ponderous, [… have a] vacant look and […] cod-fish eyes.’ ‘Of course everyone laughs at him like anything for thinking himself a detective at all, and this gives the reader, who knows perfectly well what is going to happen in the end, a very pleasant sensation; it makes him feel superior. Readers love feeling superior.’
Given the point in time Berkeley was writing you can see him grappling with the “Holmes” type of fictional sleuth, as well as the trend to create a detective with a specific difference, which to varying degrees would seem “unusual” – i.e. the female detective, the blind detective. In other passages I think he also takes a mild jab at the likes of Poirot.
Then we come to the storyline of your detective story. Here is Berkeley’s idea in a nutshell:
‘First of all think of a murder (a sound jewel robbery, with plenty of titled names in it, will do at a pinch; but there’s nothing like a good juicy murder); then formulate a set of circumstances under which it could not possibly have been committed; surround the victim with several persons all of whom had an excellent motive for murdering him, but none of whom could possibly have done so; and go ahead.’
Berkeley then progresses through his own “worked example,” of which I’ll share the opening segment:
‘The hunted look that for the last few days had been sitting so incongruously upon the rugged features of Mr Algernon Dinwiddie, the millionaire Bradford mill-owner, was even more pronounced than usual as he locked himself into his empty library fastened the shutters carefully, stuffed his handkerchief into the keyhole and double locked the ventilator.
“Safe here, thank God,” he muttered with a sigh of relief.
The next moment he fell to the ground with a loud report.’
Berkeley then touches upon the role of the Scotland Yard policeman, who in a parodied Lestrade mould ‘must be every sort of imbecile there is concentrated in one person […] He is also extremely touchy, very conceited and utterly contemptuous of the efforts of everybody else but himself. If he were not all these things your own detective would not be able to score off him nearly so overwhelmingly in the end, which would distress the reader very much. Never distress the reader.’
Another favourite trope of classic crime is the way the amateur sleuth happens to be in the vicinity of the murder and is easily able to work their way into the case:
‘He must be introduced causally (it happens conveniently that he is fishing, or haymaking, or birds’-nesting in the neighbourhood), being prevailed upon, though always with the greatest of reluctance, to have a look at the case by a friend of the murdered man’s with whom he has some slight acquaintance.’
Inevitably in the “worked example,” amateur sleuth Dugdale Crane clashes with Inspector Piffkin on most things, politely of course, including over how the man died. Piffkin naturally arrests the wrong man…
‘But by this time Dugdale Crane is beginning to perform a number of mysterious actions which show the hardened reader that he is very hot indeed upon a trail of his own. Yet still, to every eye but his, the case remains as insoluble as ever. How is this done? Attend carefully, for I am about to reveal the guilty secret of the art of writing detective stories.
Right at the beginning of the case Dugdale Crane discovered a tremendous clue, about which the reader was never told a single word.’
I think it is fair to argue that this is Berkeley firmly writing tongue in cheek, and it would not be long before various rules by Dine and Knox would firmly take against writers springing hidden clues on their readers. Yet I imagine at the time of penning his sketch there probably were all manner of detective stories doing just that, (and many more to come I expect too!) It goes without saying that not all of Berkeley’s advice should be followed up on… not least the ending of his example, (which is wonderfully parodic).
So, what’s next? The mystery story. Now is how is that different from the detective story, I hear you ask? Well let’s see what dear old Berkeley has to say about it:
‘This is, in its essentials, very much like the detective story; only more so. That is to say, whereas your detective was just violently eccentric, your private investigator […] must be illustrated to be believed; his habits and mannerisms, and above all his method of showing emotion, fall decidedly outside the usual range of human experience. This is called “evolving a very striking character.”’
This time we do get to hear more about the villain:
‘The criminal […] must not be just an ordinary criminal; he is now a “master mind,” and his “nefarious ramifications” are usually of “international scope.” Not infrequently he is of Chinese extraction. What the Chinese have done to deserve this I do not know, but the fact remains. Also, his identity is seldom completely established by the end of the book and he is never brought to justice. This leaves useful scope for your sequel. The end to which his mysterious activities are directed is not always known, but it is a mistake to make it anything less than world dominion.’
I think when Berkeley talks about a mystery story he referring to what we would probably classify as a classic thriller. A final piece of advice from Berkeley is this:
‘To be a successful perpetrator of mystery stories, do not be afraid of employing coincidence; use it all the time, and use it broadmindedly’ and as to the love interest, remember ‘there is mystery surrounding her, and she is probably in horrible danger of some sort.’
His own “prototype” is entitled The Frozen Fang by Edgar Rohmer and Sax Wallace. Let’s just say his demonstration of the coincidence principle is hilarious and I shall say no more about it, in order to maximise your enjoyment of it. (As I am sure, despite this review being incomplete, you are all so enthused about this book that you are already sourcing a copy for yourself.)
A later lesson in the book is on literary style. Dare we ask what this is?
‘One of the most important things for the young writer to cultivate is a sense of literary style. Do not ask me what style is; because if you do, I shall look very embarrassed and begin to talk learnedly about the Pilgrim’s Progress. As a matter of fact, I don’t know; nor, I believe, does anyone else. All I can tell you is that you must have one of your own before you can amount to anything […] The best way to acquire style, we are told, is to study with diligence the work of those who have arrived. Not that you should copy their style, of course; perish the thought! But that – but – Well anyhow, I know that’s what you ought to do.’
Now why should this chapter interest the crime fiction fanatic? Well if you remember I mentioned, (many paragraphs ago), that Berkeley treats us to a Holmes pastiche. But even better than that he poses the question of how P G Wodehouse would write a Sherlock Holmes story on Doyle’s behalf if he was ill or too busy playing golf. He then proceeds to answer his conundrum and we are presented with the story ‘Holmes and The Dasher.’ Both Holmes and “Bertie” Watson sound like Wodehouse’s own Bertie Wooster. This is one of “Holmes” many examples:
‘What-ho, Watson, old fruit’ ‘What does that mass of alluvial deposit you call a brain make of this, what, what?’
The pair are presented with a letter from Cissie Crossgarter asking for help, as Freddie Devereux proposed to her last night but the next day says he was too drunk to know what he was doing and that consequently the proposal doesn’t count in the eyes of the law. She wants to prove it does and make sure she gets married to him. Here is Watson’s thoughts on his compatriot and their new client:
‘In spite of his faults I’m bound to say that Holmes certainly is the lad with the outsize brain; the fellow simply exudes intuition. The girl was a top-notcher. The way she sailed into our little sitting-room reminded me of a ray of sunshine lighting up the good old gorgonzola cheese. I mean, poetry and bright effects and what not.’
Though it is fair to say that Holmes’ sleuthing skills have also taken something of a remould:
‘But I may say that the situation appears to me dashed thick and not a little rotten. In fact, dashed rotten and pretty thick as well, if you take me. I mean to say well, if you follow what I’m driving at, altogether pretty well dashed thick and rotten, what?’
I would not of course dream of spoiling the ending, but it is very much in keeping with the fictional world Wodehouse creates in his stories, and it also shows Berkeley’s ability to mimic other writers’ styles to great effect.
All in all, I would say this is a brilliantly and wonderfully funny collection of sketches. Berkeley really gets under the skin of the different genres he discourses on and brings to the surface those aspects which were perhaps getting somewhat overused. He then, naturally, develops these elements hyperbolically – yet just sometimes he does it in such a way that makes you realise that his exaggeration is not far from how some authors were actually writing. The time these sketches were being written is also important to consider as in the early to mid-1920s golden age detective fiction as we know it was still in its infancy. Yet already we can see writers like Berkeley exploring, even in jest, what makes the genre what it is, and what makes it great, or or not so. A great read which you can binge in an evening or something you can digest in small bite sized chunks.