The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story: From Sherlock Holmes to Van der Valk – A Personal Monograph on the Excellences and Limitations of Detective Fiction (1972) by Erik Routley

Well today’s title under review probably wins the prize for the longest title!

I came across this book many years ago in an Oxfam charity bookshop, when I was at university. It was priced at £10 and at the time I didn’t have the funds to buy so expensive a book and reluctantly I left it where it was, until it disappeared, (i.e. sold), some weeks later. After that I occasionally saw copies of it online, naturally for much higher prices, and still I wondered if I should take the plunge and buy it. Recently I came across a reasonably priced copy and decided to get it. So after an eight year wait, was the book worth it?

Those who follow me on Twitter will probably have an inkling as to the answer of that question, but for everyone else you’ll just have to read on…

The dustjacket cover reveals that this book ‘is a highly personal, idiosyncratic and stimulating book about some of the most famous and influential writers of detective stories in the English language.’ It goes on to say that Routley ‘sets out to fit the detective story within its historical heritage of the puritan Anglo-Saxon tradition.’ However, the warning sign of course should have been noted in the following:

‘his judgements and attitudes are all the more stimulating for often being so very much his own; though always based on wide reading and thoughtful reasoning, they will certainly be hotly contested by some of his readers – and are all the more enjoyable because of this fact.’

I would say this book about detective fiction fits within the rather large category of books written by academics who profess to enjoy reading detective novels yet manage to hide this enthusiasm very well when talking about them. Well in fairness, on a sliding scale, I would say he is not as bad as some writers, such as Richard Bradford, (who I am pretty sure, based on Crime Fiction: A Very Short Introduction, only likes about three crime novels.)

Anyways back to Routley’s book. It all kicks off with a short prologue which looks at some early examples of detective fiction in the 19th century, though this “history” is rather a selective one. So you would be much better reading works such as those written by Dr Clare Clarke, amongst others, if you want a more informed picture of this time period. I think Routley was just very keen to get to Sherlock Holmes and looking back at the book as a whole I would say this was the area in which the author seemed to have the most to say and there is a greater development of ideas in these chapters.

But to backtrack slightly, I found it interesting that Routley suggested three conditions required for detective fiction to ‘flourish.’ These three conditions were: ‘a tradition of integrity in the police force; second, a readiness in the reader to accept a ‘hero’ played perfectly straight, a detective who never fails; and third, an eagerness in the reader to take pleasure in the special activity of observation.’ It was the last of these three which interested me the most, as it got me thinking whether novels, regardless of genre, inherently encourage the reader to engage with observation, in particular the observation of their fellow humans. In the works of Austen, for instance, observation is important, it just has a different focus, i.e. whether a person is a suitable match or not. Did these earlier novels prepare readers for the birth and growth of detective fiction?

Routley also goes on to make the point, about earlier crime fiction that:

‘the police-image in the classical and romantic detective story is never an image of naked power. More often (and this is the most revealing thing of all) it is an image of somewhat thick-headed rectitude […] It is thoroughly characteristic of the culture we are here investigating that the police force should be intellectually vulnerable, but morally impregnable.’

Though I think in the post war era we can see this image challenged substantially.

Routley’s ideas surrounding Holmes and the fictional world he inhabits tend to jump around a lot. I found Routley’s manner of exploring his themes did not hugely include road mapping sentences. The reader does not know what direction the argument is heading in, which means at points, Routley’s conclusions seem a little startling. Not because they are shocking, but that simply the narrative previously did not indicate that was the point being built up. For example, Routley’s discusses Holmes untypical embodiment of the superman figure and Doyle’s utilisation of foreign countries in his work, before landing the following conclusion:

 ‘all this supports the conclusion that the Holmes stories are in a way the distillation of romantic literature: romantic literature brought to special eminence by the injection of a non-romantic element. Holmes is what he is because of the counterpoint between the character of the cold logical reasoner and the romantic remoteness of this character from the ordinary run of the fictional heroes. This produces a transformed or revived romance which, after the exaggerations of popular Victorian melodrama, proved to be a much-needed refreshment for the devotee of light reading.’

Thankfully Routley unpacks this idea subsequently, though initially I was a little flummoxed that the previous ideas were supposed to be leading up to this point. At this juncture I should note that romantic literature is more than stereotypical tropes i.e. courtships etc., and also encompasses a style of writing. Doyle’s description of nature and the weather comes under this heading. Routley also helpfully goes on to explore how the Holmes canon meets the list of components C. S. Lewis suggests romantic literature has. These seven elements are:

‘(1) Dangerous adventure,

(2) the marvellous and the mysterious,

(3) the cult of titanic and more-than-life-size character,

(4) indulgence in anti-natural and abnormal moods,

(5) egoism and subjectivity,

(6) a revolt against convention and any given civilisation, and

(7) sensibility to natural objects, of a solemn and enthusiastic kind.’

Credit due, I did find this section of the book the most interesting, in terms of showing me something new about the Holmes stories and the literary context they were operating in. Furthermore, Routley brings up the idea of the:

 ‘constant tension between the far-flung remoteness of romanticism and the restrictions of reason tied down to physical particulars that form the dynamic of the detective story as Doyle understood it.’

I am finding it increasingly interesting how fluid stories were in the latter 19th century when it comes to genre types.

Now I am sure you have all been wondering about the title of this book. You’re not alone! I’m hoping I am not the only who had mental images of 16th century puritans engrossed in an Agatha Christie novel, (probably Ordeal by Innocence), or chuckling away at an Edmund Crispin story. Illumination on what the title refers to occurs some chapters into the book when it is revealed that Routley is in fact referring to secular puritanism. Apparently, the English puritan tradition ‘has three basic constituents: intellectualism, moralism, and the acceptance of the values of the city’ and Routley considers that nowadays the term humanist would be used instead. Puritanism seems to have negative and positive connotations, and in regards to the latter ‘the puritan values can be expressed as a love of just and rational conversation, a passion for social justice which leaves room for individual development and distinction, and a denial that in order to live the good life you must live in the English countryside.’ Further criteria mentioned at the end of the book include, ‘rationalism and a suspicion of the supernatural,’ ‘the assumption that work is a virtue and idleness a vice,’ ‘the cult of masculinity,’ ‘the relegation of sex to a subordinate place in the scheme of human values’ and ‘a special love of good conversation.’ Looking at these factors as a whole I can see in a general way how earlier detective fiction was moulded by that type of culture, though as we move into the 20th century and the golden age of detective fiction, I do have some qualms. In particular this idea of a masculinity cult, holds some water regarding Holmes, but when we look at the likes of Poirot and Wimsey it does so much less. In fact, other commentators, such as Susan Rowland, have noted almost a feminisation of the male detective, with an increased valuing of domestic knowledge for solving crimes.

After this point in the book we continue to move chronologically, (roughly speaking) through the eras and the detectives they birthed. This is where the contentious views very much become apparent. Here are some of the edited highlights…

R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke: ‘…it is difficult to say anything kind concerning his style and literary deportment. It really is a question what pleasure anybody can have taken, and what pleasure some still take, in reading the memoirs of Doctor Thorndyke […] It really can be safely said that there is no author now living and writing in this field who is capable of setting down such massive blocks of literary gobbledygook as Freeman habitually did.’

Freeman Wills Crofts work: ‘…it is all sober, systematic slogging.’ Nevertheless, he is actually quite positive about Crofts and sees how this writer forged a way ahead for the police detective novel in which the detective is not romanticised in the way Inspector Alleyn is. Routley also opined that Death of a Train (1946) is the ‘best example of the technique of arousing and holding a reader’s interest in a specialised work-situation, worthy to stand alongside the best middle-period of Sayers…’

*Warning Agatha Christie fans are advised to brace themselves for a lot of Christie bashing….

Despite acknowledging how successful Christie is, Routley’s praise is often of the backhanded variety, with a real negative emphasis on her following a pattern. For instance, Christie apparently wrote ‘to amuse, not to involve.’ Furthermore, he writes that Christie ‘never arouses in the reader the least personal interest in character – this would distract him…’ This last point especially gets my goat, as it is so blatantly untrue, and who the heck finishes a book and thinks to themselves, “Hmmm that would have been a great book if only the writer had not distracted me from the plot, with that brilliantly engaging character….” We then get the usual comment that with the settings of her stories, ‘she allows herself just enough variation not to become wholly boring, [but] is always some permutation of an agreed system of clichés.’ I’m not saying we don’t get some similar ones, but I do think that her books are no less varied than a lot of “literature.” No one does Austen down, after all, because her books all include country houses, or that Dickens’ works often included plot threads involving slum dwellings. Routley goes on to emphasis the country house or large London house settings of Christie’s work, propounding that ‘she accepts the convention of providing romantic escape for groundling urban commuters.’

What else is there to criticise about Christie? Well…

The Detectives: Poirot is ‘a stage foreigner all the time, and in the readers’ sympathies the colonels and squires usually win.’ ‘Poirot doesn’t arouse any affection in the reader. He is competent and assured, but never kind or attractive. Miss Marple manages to arouse a sort of mild pleasure.’

Christie’s writing style: ‘No writer worth attending to has used more stock phrases in dialogue than she did.’ Her work is ‘traditional, innocent of style and social criticism, middle of the road…’ Sayers, although more approved of by Routley, especially her characters, is equally said to have produced novels in which ‘there is no more social judgement in Sayers than in Christie; she takes the world very much as she finds it.’ Clearly, he missed all the comments on the role and place of women in society…

This is definitely a book in which the modern-day classic crime fan is likely to be baffled: baffled by the inconsistency of Routley’s criticism. No more so than when he begins talking about Ngaio Marsh. He says she attempted less and achieved more, stuck to what she knew – something he also said of Christie, yet with Marsh these comments are not phrased as criticisms. Surely if you find Christie formulaic, then you must find Marsh so also? He also seems to prefer beige-boring Inspector Alleyn: ‘I don’t believe it was really difficult to create him, although he is most skilfully made credible.’ The lack of criticism is surprising given the limited quality Routley bestows upon Marsh’s work:

‘what you chiefly remember is pleasant characters and pleasant situations […] You remember with more difficulty and searching who was murdered and why, and what kind of pressure the murderer was under.’

I feel if Christie had been described so, it would have been in much harsher terms. I am unsure why some commentators feel the need to ram up the intensity of their criticism when discussing Christie.

Further Christie bashing occurs in Routley’s discussion of John Dickson Carr, as we are told that Christie has ‘no gift at all for humour.’ What also annoyed me was the difference in language used to discuss the same quality in Christie and Carr’s work. With the former it is a begrudged compliment, whilst with Carr, a man, it is written more positively. The quality in question is that of plotting. Christie’s plotting, according to Routley, is repetitive, cliched, formulaic, conforming to a pattern. Meanwhile with Carr we have the ‘professional construction of a story, the precise disposition of clues, the inevitability, along with the shattering surprise, of the solution.’ And to top it all off we have: ‘He is a master of misdirection, of making the reader kick himself for being deceived.’ How can Routley not see that all of these statements equally apply to Christie? Carr does get his comeuppance later on with some muted praise, wrapped in negativity, but all the same I was not impressed.

We then have the joys, (annoyances?) of Routley fanboying about Michael Innes’ writing style. No mention of his rather shoddy plotting abilities. Perhaps that does not matter as long as he transcribes dialects beautifully? The nearest we get to any commenting on the plots is this: ‘For old intellectual puzzle Innes substitutes intellectual wine tasting, the pleasure of the story rather than the pleasure of the chase […] For him narrative is vastly more important than plot and character.’ I have also noticed that with authors Routley does not intend to criticise he tends to veer away from opinions and instead gives potted histories of some of the books the writer in question penned. Although these sections were less infuriating, I also felt they were not hugely useful either, other than giving readers a heads up on some title names.

As the book progresses, we get a higher number of authors discussed, though the depth of the discussion decreases with this. We have big names like Edmund Crispin and Christianna Brand, (at least he said Green for Danger was ‘one of the really great detective novels of all time’), as well as less well-known authors such as Thurman Warriner, Glynn Carr, Stanley Hyland and Holly Roth. We also unexpectedly get a brief comment on Georges Simenon and his sleuth Maigret, who he seems to like a lot (for him):

‘He is, however, unlike anybody else, and his sensitive, courageous, whimsical Maigret has things to say which could only have been said by a Frenchman, and therefore fills many needs that are left open by English stylists. He cannot be central to this study because of his Frenchness: but a very respectful salute over the Channel is in order.’

I never realised Frenchness barred you from being discussed in a book on detective fiction?

Some of Routley’s other ideas also clash with modern thought. For example, he states, (he doesn’t back up), that ‘the First World War seems to have had no effect whatever on the development of the detective story.’ I think Alison Light amongst others would have something to say about that…

He also seems convinced that the end of the detective novel is in sight. It apparently all begins with how WW2 had a ‘catastrophic’ effect on the detective novel. He goes on to write that:

‘The puritan values of right and wrong, law supreme over lawlessness, had been vindicated in a big way (or so people generally thought). Everything we say in that sense about World War I was contradicted by World War II, which really did rock the moral foundations of western society, letting loose a desperate anger and a fatalistic sense of guilt in which detection could not flourish because the people who wrote it and those who read it were precisely the people who suffered most from the effects of this moral tornado.’

Yet clearly that cannot be the case. Detective fiction may have changed and evolved, but it certainly did not stop flourishing. Equally his view of WW1 seems rather rose tinted, as it does not take into account the grievances and accusation-toned poems of the war poets.

Nearer the end of the book Routley returns to this idea, once more stating that ‘nobody will turn to a detective story if he is really in deep trouble.’ Again, I can only assume he was not aware of the popularity of detective novels during the Blitz. Routley goes on to argue that there is too much anxiety in the post war world for detective fiction to survive:

‘There is now too much anxiety altogether: the bombs are falling. Neither are writers inspired to write them nor readers prepared to read them anymore. It’s quite likely that the readership of detective stories will be forced further and further out towards the fringes of society.’

Moreover:

‘Too much of what the detective story counted on has been, in the eyes of most people, discredited. Detective stories don’t go with permissiveness; they go with convention and style and dogma and assurance; they go with such assumptions as that a society in which authority is accepted, and correction by wiser people of the unwise or the young is permitted, is a good society.’

This would make sense if detective fiction had stopped being popular, if sales figures had plummeted and fewer titles were being published. What he might be poorly suggesting is that the detective novel as pre-WW2 readers knew it was changing into a new format? Yet if that is the case then his notion that ‘detective fiction […] does not attempt […] to react to life,’ evidently does not hold water. A genre changing its style must be reacting to changing events in the world, surely?

American detective fiction gets a whole chapter to itself, though even he admits it cannot do the subject matter justice. Anna Katharine Green, and many other earlier American mystery writers get no mention at all. We jump from Poe to Queen. He seems to have approved of Queen’s work.  He writes that there is ‘surprisingly little repetitiveness in the plots and a remarkable faculty for coming up with something quite fresh.’ I should also point out how The Glass Village was Routley’s favourite by them and that he thought the Queen’s books were ‘remarkably free from cliché and verbal adiposity.’ Did the man not read early Queen – Ellery’s language could certainly have gone on a diet or two…

Once more we get a criticism gender bias, with Erle Stanley Gardner avoiding strict censure for faults brought up in Christie’s work:

‘I suppose that if any American writer of standing can be compared with Agatha Christie in his tendency to tell stories in hunks rather than in elements, it must be Erle Stanley Gardner […] His plots are splendid, yet each one is like the others…’

Compared to what he said about Christie this is quite muted in its criticism. (And yes, I don’t think Routley means hunks as in good looking men… well I don’t think so anyways…)

Routley also includes the familiar stereotyped idea that American detective fiction was ‘less dominated by cliché of character or situation…’ when in fact such fiction simply had different clichés. Perhaps their clichés were better? Routley certainly seems to think that American detective fiction provided ‘a stiffening of professional and disciplined craftsmanship to support the failing energies of what used to be England’s inspired amateurism.’ Was British detective fiction that dire after WW2?

The final section of the book is concerned with the arguments made against detective fiction and like many other writers before and after him, he invariably ends up agreeing with the very ideas he was apparently trying to criticise. At one point he decides to consider why people read detective fiction in the first person, and for reasons best known to himself, he includes this theory by Geraldine Pedersen-Krag, from her article ‘Detective Stories and the Primal Scene,’ which was published in the 1940s originally. *brace yourselves* Here it is…

‘According to her the murder is a symbolic representation of parental intercourse and the victim is the parent for whom the reader (the child) has negative oedipal feelings. The clues in the story, disconnected, inexplicable and trifling, represent the child’s growing awareness of details it had never understood, such as the family sleeping arrangement, nocturnal sounds… The reader addicted to mystery stories tries to actively relive and master traumatic infantile experiences he once had to endure passively.’

Routley then includes her break down of The Moonstone with this theory, and the book is summed up by her to be ‘an unconscious representation of the sexual act.’ Who knew?  Penguin has certainly missed a trick there! I’m sure if they included that as a tagline on their next edition of Wilkie Collin’s book it would become a bestseller!!

Well we made it! Well done if you read all of this review. Don’t worry there will not be a pop quiz on it! Overall, I think Routley had something worthwhile to say about Holmes, with his ideas being backed up much more. After that his opinions become increasingly more ropey (– in my opinion!) In particular a weakness of the book is that in many places the narrative becomes rambling, so the points Routley makes get lost beneath tangents and extensive quoting from books. He is a writer who does not seem familiar with the topic sentence! So perhaps, after all, I was not missing out on all that much when I did not buy this book all those years ago!! Oh well hopefully I have entertained you all a bit and taken a bullet for you.

Rating: 2.5/5

P. S. Oh and this book also contains some information errors…

  • Routley states that Dorothy L. Sayers worked in an advertising company to get copy for her book, Murder Must Advertise.
  • He also gets very muddled at one point. He makes a point about a book which must be Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce, but in his text he says it was Case for Four Detectives, written around 1950. I think he was referring to Christopher Bush’s The Case of the Fourth Detective (1951) – which incidentally is not a pastiche nor parody. He also mentioned how Holmes is involved in this pastiche, which he was not in the Bruce title.

20 comments

  1. I was similarly unimpressed by this book. I do not mind an opinionated writer in fiction/literary criticism, but the there weren’t many notable insights worth committing to memory.

    The title is indeed eye catching and intriguing, but the theme is not carried throughout the book. Moreover, the title made me some expect something along the lines Max Weber’s work on the Protestant ethic, and I ended up disappointed in that regard as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also found this frustrating and rather silly, like much of 1960s and ’70s detective fiction criticism. (Symons, Panek…) Doesn’t Routley also claim that the detective story doesn’t play fair, and that it isn’t about solving the problem?

    Another for your collection of errors: According to Routley, Freeman didn’t write any novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I first read this about 50 years ago (library copy) and it didn’t make quite such a negative impression on me – however, when I re-read it recently I found it quite annoying in places(I certainly disagree strongly about Austin Freeman, though not Innes). Even so, there’s enough of interest in it that I won’t be getting rid of it (not yet, anyway).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To be fair, I’m sure I read in a bio of Sayers back in the 1970s that she had worked in an advertising agency which had given her the idea for Murder Must Advertise.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is quite correct, but Routley was suggesting that she joined an advertising agency to get copy for her book, whilst in fact she worked in an advertising agency, and then decided to write, and only some years later did she produce Murder Must Advertise.

      Like

  5. I hugely enjoyed your review, and it made me laugh, but actually I love this book. I got it out of the library years ago and then couldn’t remember who it was by and used to think about it sometimes. Eventually the internet era made it possible to find it and I tracked it down with glee and now proudly have my own copy. I KNOW he is prejudiced and strange and wrong-headed, and there are whole chapters I miss out if I’m re-reading, but there are great chunks that I really really enjoy… I like the fact that he knows he is being deeply subjective…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I never came across this book in used bookstores. Routley studied at Magdalen and Mansfield colleges at Oxford (Wikipedia). From your review, he appears to be batting more like a village blacksmith smiting the ball than like an Oxford blue.

    I will not waste any shelf space on this book. If you cannot find a buyer, donate it to Oxfam.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Forgot to add:

    The book was published by Gollancz in 1972. There is used copy available on Amazon (US) for $945. The year of publication is listed as 1683.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Routley writes like he is speaking to an audience and much of this book is written as he would speak, without the nuance and inflection. An avid fan of the detective story, he wrote the book as a response to a challenge from his son, note the dedication. Yes, he is “strange, prejudiced, and wrong-headed,” but in his way, he is often unique and important with his observations. Some books don’t bear the test of time, but as you point out there are snippets of insight throughout the book.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.