It cannot be denied that the greatest Detective Stories, short or long, have been written around a murder. Poe, Gaboriau, Conan Doyle, and Anna Katharine Green all look upon murder as the theme par excellence for a Detective Story, and other crimes are used by authors only as a relief from monotony.
Human nature thinks more lightly of robbery, or arson; but murder stirs up a spirit of righteous indignation and a desire for justice or revenge. "A life for a life" is the logical sequence of "an eye for an eye" and a murder mystery will hold a reader's interest when a lesser crime will pall.
Murder Considered in the Abstract
But, first of all, let us dissociate the real horror felt at a real murder, from a murder plot used as a peg on which to hang the absorbing puzzle meant to enthrall the intellect. People who say, "How can you enjoy reading about such a revolting subject as murder?" are unable to discern the difference between a realistic newspaper story and a carefully planned romance.
The reason for reading newspaper accounts of a real murder trial are absolutely separate and distinct from the reasons for reading a Detective Story. The latter is an absorbing mental occupation, with a setting of human interest that differentiates it from a mere mathematical problem. If the reader is thrilled, it is through the intellect, not through the emotions. Sympathy is not called for; pity is not kindled; every situation is viewed by the cold light of reasoning. The whole affair is entirely divested of the sentiment that would surround it in real life. As Charles Lamb says of dramatic art:
"We dare not dally with images, or names, of wrong. We bark like foolish dogs at shadows. We dread infection from the scenic representation of disorder; and fear a painted pustule. In our anxiety that our morality should not take cold, we wrap it up in a great blanket surtout of precaution against the breeze and sunshine.
"I confess for myself that I am glad for a season to take an airing beyond the diocese of the strict conscience, now and then, for a dreamwhile or so, to imagine a world with no meddling restrictions.
"I come back to my cage and my restraint the fresher and more healthy for it. I wear my shackles more contentedly for having respired the breath of an imaginary freedom.
"I am the gayer at least for it; and I could never connect those sports of a witty fancy in any shape with any result to be drawn from them to imitation in real life. They are a world of themselves almost as much as fairyland."
And of a criminal he says:
"In its own world do we feel the creature is so very bad?
In their own sphere, they do not offend my moral sense; in fact, they do not appeal to it at all. They seem engaged in their proper element. They break through no laws, or conscientious restraints. They know of none.
They have got out of Christendom into the land—what shall I call it? The Utopia of gallantry, where pleasure is duty, and the manners perfect freedom. It is altogether a speculative scene of things, which has no reference whatever to the world that is. No good person can be justly offended as a spectator, because no good person suffers.
"The whole is a passing pageant, where we should sit as unconcerned at the issues, for life or death, as at a battle of the frogs and mice. But like Don Quixote, we take part against the puppets, and quite as impertinently. We dare not contemplate an Atlantis, a scheme, out of which our coxcombial moral sense is for a little transitory ease excluded. We have not the courage to imagine a state of things for which there is neither reward nor punishment.
We cling to the painful necessities of shame and blame.
We would indict our dreams."
In a word, the reader is transported to a pleasant land of burglary and murder, which is acceptable—because it is not true.
One need not be of a murderous instinct to enjoy the story of "Murders in the Rue Morgue." How many happily married people read stories of divorce; how many just and upright citizens read tales of men who succumb to temptation; how many strictly conventional people enjoyed "Trilby."
No, the devotee of the Detective Story must be willing, for the time being, to look upon murder as a fine art.
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Murder as a Fine Art
The exact point of view is perfectly set forth in De Quincey's essay with that title. I wish I might quote it all here the delicious satire that is yet sound philosophy, is marred by separation from its context.
But a few passages may be given:
"People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us; and to me, therefore, in particular, has deepened the arduousness of my task. Like Aeschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michael Angelo in painting, he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity; and, as Mr. Wordsworth observes, has in a manner 'created the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.' To sketch the history of the art, and to examine its principles critically, now remains as a duty for the connoisseur, and forjudges of quite another stamp from his Majesty's Judges of Assize."
This is the right spirit in which to read of a murder in Detective Fiction. De Quincey goes on to say:
"The murder was a sad thing, no doubt, very sad; but we can't mend it. Therefore, let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer any thing out of it for moral purposes, let us treat it aesthetically, and see if it will turn to account in that way. Such is the logic of a sensible man, and what follows? We dry up our tears, and have the satisfaction, perhaps, to discover that a transaction, which, morally considered, was shocking, and without a leg to stand upon, when tried by principles of Taste, turns out to be a very meritorious performance."
Still in his whimsical mood, De Quincey thus goes back to Ancient History:
"The first murder is familiar to you all. As the inventor of murder, and the father of the art, Cain must have been a man of first-rate genius. All the Cains were men of genius. Tubal Cain invented tubes, I think, or some such thing. But, whatever might be the originality and genius of the artist, every art was then in its infancy, and the works must be criticized with a recollection of that fact.
Even Tubal's work would probably be little approved at this day in Sheffield; and therefore of Cain (Cain senior, I mean) it is no disparagement to say, that his performance was but so-so. Milton, however, is supposed to have thought differently. By his way of relating the case, it should seem to have been rather a pet murder with him, for he retouches it with an apparent anxiety for its picturesque effect:—
#>'Whereat he inly raged; and, as they talk'd,
#>Smote him in the midriff with a stone
#>That beat out life: he fell; and, deadly pale
#>Groan'd out his soul with gushing blood effused.'
#>-Paradise Lost, Book XI.
Following history's list, we learn that:
"The finest work of the seventeenth century is, unquestionably, the murder of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey, which has my entire approbation. In the grand feature of mystery, which in some shape or other ought to color every judicious attempt at murder, it is excellent."
And another excellent affair is mentioned:
"The King of Sweden's assassination, by-the-by, is doubted by many writers, Harte amongst others; but they are wrong. He was murdered; and I consider his murder unique in its excellence; for he was murdered at noon-day, and on the field of battle—a feature of original conception, which occurs in no other work of art that I remember. No unpracticed artist could have conceived so bold an idea as that of a noonday murder in the heart of a great city. It was no obscure baker, gentlemen, or anonymous chimney-sweeper, be assured, that executed this work.
"With respect to the Williams' murders, the sublimes" and most entire in their excellence that ever were committed, I shall not allow myself to speak incidentally. Nothing less than an entire lecture, or even an entire course of lectures, would suffice to expound their merits. Indeed, all of these assassinations may be studied with profit by the advanced connoisseur. They are all of them exemplaria, model murders, pattern murders of which one may say,—
'"Nocturna versate menu, versate diurna,1 especially nocturna."'
Continuing this remarkable essay, we come upon this:
"But it is now time that I should say a few words about the principles of murder, not with a view to regulate your practice, but your judgment: as to old women, and the mob of newspaper readers, they are pleased with anything, provided it is bloody enough, but the mind of sensibility requires something more. First, then let us speak of the kind of person who is adapted to the purpose of the murderer; secondly, of the place where; thirdly, of the time when, and other little circumstances. "As to the person, I suppose that it is evident that he ought to be a good man; because, if he were not, he might himself, by possibility, be contemplating murder at the very time; and such 'diamond-cut-diamond' tussles, though pleasant enough where nothing better is stirring, are really not what a critic can allow himself to call murders. I could mention some people (I name no names) who have been murdered by other people in a dark lane; and so far all seemed correct enough but on looking farther into the matter, the public have become aware that the murdered party was himself, at the moment, planning to rob his murderer, at the least, and possibly to murder him, if he had been strong enough. Whenever that is the case, or may be thought to be the case, farewell to all the genuine effects of the art.11
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"The subject chosen ought to be in good health: for it is absolutely barbarous to murder a sick person, who is usually quite unable to bear it. On this principle, no tailor ought to be chosen who is above twenty-five, for after that age he is sure to be dyspeptic."
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"So much for the person. As to the time, the place, the tools, I have many things to say, which at present I have no room for. The good sense of the practitioner has usually directed him to night and privacy. Yet there have not been wanting cases where this rule was departed from with excellent effect."
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As might be supposed, this essay of De Quincey's brought forth various criticisms. To these he replies in another essay:
"A good many years age, the reader may remember that I came forward in the character of a dilettante in murder. Perhaps dilettante is too strong a word. Connoisseur is better suited to the scruples and infirmity of public taste. I suppose there is no harm in that, at least.
A man is not bound to put his eyes, ears, and understanding into his breeches-pocket when he meets with a murder. If he is not in a downright comatose state, I suppose he must see that one murder is better or worse than another, in point of good taste. Murders have their little differences and shades of merit, as well as statues, pictures, oratorios, cameos, intaglios, or what not.
"I am for morality, and always shall be, and for virtue, and all that; and I do affirm and always shall (let what will come of it), that murder is an improper line of conduct, highly improper; and I do not stick to assert, that any man who deals in murder, must have very incorrect ways of thinking, and truly inaccurate principles; and so far from aiding and abetting him by pointing out his victim's hiding place, as a great moralist of Germany declared it to be every good man's duty to do, I would subscribe one shilling and sixpence to have him apprehended, which is more by eighteen pence than the most eminent moralists have hitherto subscribed for that purpose. But what then? Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey); and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it—that is, in relation to good taste. Genius may do much, but long study of the art must always entitle a man to offer advice. So far I will go—general principles I will suggest. But as to any particular case, once for all I will have nothing to do with it. Never tell me of any special work of art you are meditating—I set my face against it in toto. For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time."
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Though written in a whimsical vein, these observations of De Quincey apply definitely to the Murder Fanciers of Detective Fiction.
Shakespeare's murders are calmly accepted on the stage, and our children are placidly told Who Killed Cock Robin because these killings are not true, but are merely the manufactures of art.
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The Murder Theme
As a proof that murder, or apparent murder, or attempted murder, is the favorite theme with our best detective writers, we may note these statistics.
Of the two-score-odd Sherlock Holmes stories, more than twenty have murder as the crime; and this, in spite of his assertion in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" that "there are many interesting little problems for detectives which are striking and bizarre without being criminal." Yet in more than half of his stories, Conan Doyle uses a murder motive.
Of Poe's three Dupin stories, two are based on murder.
Jacques Futrelle in his clever "Thinking Machine" stories, employs murder as an interest in eight out of nineteen.
Of Samuel Gardenhire's eight stories in "The Long Arm," five are murder stories.
And so on, through all the books of short stories, each volume of which narrates the exploits of a Transcendent Detective, the average of the murder plot is more than one- half.
Novels of detective fiction almost invariably use a murder plot. "The Moonstone" is an exception; but nearly all of Gaboriau's, Du Boisgobey's, Anna Katharine Green's and Ottolengui's are murder mysteries.
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The Robbery Theme
After murder, robbery is next in favor as a crime for detective fiction. It is not easy to create intense interest in a robbery.
To quote Sir Walter Besant on this subject:
"Consider—say, a diamond robbery. Very well; then first of all, it must be a robbery committed under exceptional any mysterious conditions, otherwise there will be no interest in it. Also, you will perceive that the robbery must be a big and important thing—no little shop-lifting business. Next, the person robbed must not be a mere diamond merchant, but a person whose loss will interest the reader, say, one to whom the robbery is all-important."
These conditions are all perfectly observed in "The Moonstone. Indeed, so well did Wilkie Collins know that the jewel must be of not only enormous but peculiar value, that he thus describes it, through the medium of the old House Steward:
"Lord bless us! It was a Diamond! As large, or nearly, as a plover's egg! The light that streamed from it was like the light of the harvest-moon. When you looked down into the stone, you looked into a yellow deep that drew your eyes into it so that they saw nothing else. It seemed unfathomable; this jewel, that you could hold between your finger and thumb, seemed unfathomable as the heavens themselves. We set it in the sun, and then shut the light out of the room, and it shone awfully out of the depths of its own brightness, with a moony gleam, in the dark. No wonder Miss Rachel was fascinated; no wonder her cousins screamed. The Diamond laid such a hold on me that I burst out with as large an 'O!1 as the Bouncers themselves."
And even before this description, the Diamond had been given a value quite other than intrinsic. It was a historic gem famous in the native annals of India. It was the subject of tradition and superstition, and it had been having adventures since the eleventh century. It had been the reason for theft and bloodshed, and was the cause of a family feud. All this interest in addition to the setting of the story, the personality of the characters and the adroit art of Wilkie Collins, causes the mystery to be a worth-while one.
A later story of a jewel robbery is found in Robert Barr's book, called "The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont."
This story is built around a diamond necklace which a court jeweler made, hoping to sell to Marie Antoinette. It contained half a thousand marvelous stones and had been through desperate adventures for many years. After its thrilling history is narrated the necklace is thus introduced to the reader:
The jeweler who made the necklace met with financial ruin; the Queen for whom it was constructed was beheaded; that high-born prince, Louis Rene Edouard, Cardinal de Rohan, who purchased it, was flung into prison; the unfortunate countess, who said she acted as go- between until the transfer was concluded, clung for five awful minutes to a London window sill before dropping to her death to the flags below; and now, a hundred and eight years later, up comes this devil's display of fireworks to the light again!
These preliminaries, though so similar to those employed in "The Moonstone," are in no sense a plagiarism. They are the legitimate methods of whetting the reader's interest in a robbery.
Gaboriau's "File No. 113" hinges on a robbery. This, a bank robbery, is not a great one, the sum of $70,000 being stolen. But the popularity of the story is caused by the skill of the detective Lecoq and the contrasting inefficiency of a younger detective in unraveling the complicated web of circumstances. As is usual with Gaboriau, the story is spun out to a tiresome length; and the simple plot of the robbery, the clue of the scratch on the safe and the mixed-up social relations of the characters are presented as a novel, when they are barely enough material for a novelette.
Robberies other than of jewels or money are sometimes thefts of valuable papers. These papers are often of political import, and not infrequently are of such nature that their falling into wrong hands would precipitate dire and disastrous war among the greatest of the world's powers. Naval treatises, war maps, or specifications for astonishing new inventions in the way of explosives, are among the most used sorts, followed closely by wills, love letters, photographs, and, in one instance at least, college examination papers.
Poe's "Purloined Letter" is the first and best of these stories; but the value of that masterpiece is more in the work of the detective than in the actual situation.
Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" is a similar plot with an incriminating photograph for the booty.
Theft stories are built, too, around antiques or curios, idols, heirlooms, and, especially since the disappearance of the Mona Lisa, around valuable paintings. There was even a very clever and original story written about the theft of the Venus of Milo from the Louvre; and this some years before the abstraction of the Mona Lisa.
Any article will do for fiction robbery, provided it be of exceeding great value, either intrinsically or by association.
In the Sherlock Holmes stories, one-quarter hinge on robbery as against one-half on murder. Next in favor is mysterious disappearance, or abduction.
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The Mysterious Disappearance
The kidnapping of children is unpopular, as it is difficult to eliminate personal feeling when a child is brought into the story.
Samuel N. Gardenhire thus refers to it in "The Abduction of Mary Ellis":
"The stealing of children," he said, reflectively, "is probably the most unpopular crime that can be committed in this country. It is not indigenous to the soil. It is an exotic—an imported offence, one that has best thriven in communities where the poor are oppressed by the rich and where the element of revenge is combined with the instinct of greed."
"The Millionaire Baby," by Anna Katharine Green, is perhaps a unique instance of a full-sized book with a kidnapping case for its theme. But treated by this skillful author it is in all respects a success.
Among the Luther Trant stories, a kidnapping mystery is well solved in "The Red Dress"; and in "The Master of Mysteries," Astro happily rescues a kidnapped child.
Sherlock Holmes' nearest approach to a child-stealing case is the tracing of a missing school-boy in "The Adventure of the Priory School."
The abduction of older girls, or young women, is more often narrated, "The Strange Disappearance of Eleanor Cuyler," and "A Mysterious Disappearance," by Anna Katharine Green, being among the best examples.
Mysterious disappearance, though not necessarily abduction, is always a useful theme. In "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor," Sherlock Holmes remarks thus on the disappearance of a bride during her own wedding breakfast:
"Before the what?" asked Holmes with a start.
"The vanishing of the lady."
"When did she vanish, then?"
"At the wedding breakfast."
"Indeed. This is more interesting than it promised to be; quite dramatic in fact."
"Yes; it struck me as being a little out of the common."
"They often vanish before the ceremony, and occasionally during the honey-moon; but I cannot call to mind anything quite so prompt as this."
A man is abducted in "The Adventure of the Missing Three- Quarter," value being given to this particular man because he is a three-quarter in a celebrated football team.
Other authors average much the same as Conan Doyle; and, to sum up, we find that throughout Detective Fiction half of the stories are murder mysteries, one quarter are robberies, and the other quarter is divided among crimes more or less dramatic or picturesque. These include forgery, counterfeiting, blackmail, arson, dynamiting, body-snatching, and other rare and even unique crimes invented by a daring author for a jaded public.