Supreme Moments in Detective Fiction by Burton Egbert Stevenson

Supreme Moments in Detective Fiction

Four Literary Detectives Who Are Considered Classic

by Burton Egbert Stevenson

Among all the detectives, amateur and professional, who have appeared before the public and performed their little tricks, there are only four who are classic — C. Auguste Dupin, Tabaret, M. Lecoq, and Sherlock Holmes. These abide. Beside them, the others are mere shadows. And these four are memorable not because they never bungled, not because occasionally they struck home with a cleverness and certainty which makes us forgive their mistakes. Their supreme moments are moments to be remembered with delight.

Table of Contents

It is not difficult to account for the steady popularity of the detective story. The pleasure to be had from a good one is of a unique and satisfying kind. The reader is invited to take part in a mathematical demonstration, in which the symbols are men and women, with just enough of the background of life to give them reality. The problem to be solved is one of human conduct, and the solution is reached when one has found X, the unknown quantity — usually the criminal. The task which the author must accomplish is to give his readers all the data of the problem, and yet to solve it before they do. All the data, mind you, or he is not playing the game.

The interest of a detective story is therefore intellectual and not emotional. There is no love interest — or, at most, a very slight one. For the problem is not to bring two loving hearts together, but to land the guilty man in jail. To attempt a love interest is to run every risk of failure.

So the detective story has always been held to be a man's story rather than a woman's. But times change; and women, certainly, are changing with them. They are still creatures of the emotions, and no doubt always will be, but they are coming to have their moments of intellectual detachment. Also, they no longer faint at the sight of blood.

The writer has been in charge of a public library for twelve years, and one of the most interesting features of that work has been to watch the changes in the taste of the reading public. It has been full of surprises and contradictions, of almost unbelievable whims and vulgarities, but one thing can be said of it with confidence: interest in detective fiction has been steadily growing, among women even more than among men. Today, in the library, leaving adolescents out of the question, there are almost as many women as men who ask to have a detective story recommended to them. Perhaps this is a symptom of their emancipation!

The fact of the matter is that the supply no longer equals the demand. Oh, yes, there are plenty of detective stories — but how few that one can recommend as entirely satisfying. The writer has read nearly all that have appeared during the past ten years, and yet not more than six or eight have left any abiding impression. Aside from the Sherlock Holmes stories, there are only three that provoked re-reading, and on the spur of the moment it is impossible to recall the name of the detective in any of them.

In short, among all the detectives, amateur and professional, who have appeared before the public and performed their little tricks, there are only four who are classic — C. Auguste Dupin, Tabaret, M. Lecoq, and Sherlock Holmes. These abide. Beside them, the others are mere shadows. And these four are memorable not because they never bungled, not because occasionally they struck home with a cleverness and certainty which makes us forgive their mistakes. Their supreme moments are moments to be remembered with delight.

What were their supreme moments?

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Supreme Moments of Detective Fiction

With Dupin, it was undoubtedly the moment when, standing before the window of the house in the Rue Morgue, he told himself that the nail which seemed to secure it could not really do so. It was a question, you will remember, of how the assassin of the two women had escaped. He could not have gone by the door, since there were some people on the stair, nor by the chimney, since it was too narrow, nor by the front windows, since there was a crowd in the street outside.

Careful search had failed to disclose a secret exit. Therefore, Dupin reasoned, the fugitive must have passed through one of the two windows in the back room. But each of them was apparently secured on the inside by a stout nail fitted into a gimlet-hole in the sash. Let Dupin tell the rest:

The murderers did escape from one of these windows. This being so, they could not have re-fastened the sashes from the Inside as they were found fastened. Yet the sashes were fastened. They must then have the power of fastening themselves. There was no escape from this conclusion. I stepped to the unobstructed casement, withdrew the nail with some difficulty, and attempted to raise the sash. It resisted all my efforts. A concealed spring must, I now knew, exist. A careful search soon brought it to light.

I now replaced the nail and regarded it attentively. A person passing out through the window might have reclosed it, and the spring would have caught; but the nail could not have been replaced. The assassin must, then, have escaped through the other window. Supposing the springs upon each sash to be the same, as was probable, there must be found a difference between the nails, or at least between the modes of their fixture. Getting upon the sacking of the bedstead, I looked over the headboard minutely at the second casement. Passing my hand down behind the board, I readily discovered and pressed the spring, which was, as I had supposed, identical in character with its neighbour. I now looked at the nail. It was as stout as the other, and apparently fitted in the same manner, driven in nearly up to the head.

You will say that I was puzzled; but if you think so, you must have misunderstood the nature of the inductions. To use a sporting phrase, I had not once been "at fault." The scent had never for an instant been lost. There was no flaw in any link of the chain. I had traced the secret to its ultimate result; and that result was the nail. It had, I say, in every respect the appearance of its fellow in the other window; but this fact was an absolute nullity (conclusive as it might seem to be) when compared with the consideration that here at this point terminated the clue.

"There must be something wrong," I said, "about the nail."

I touched it, and the head, with about a quarter of an inch of the shank, came off in my fingers. The rest of the shank was in the gimlet-hole, where it had been broken off.

The quotation has been made at length because this bit of reasoning is as coherent and closely knit as any detective story can show. In fact, The Murders in the Rue Morgue is in many ways the most satisfactory of all detective stories. The device of the newspaper advertisement to discover the identity of the criminal is one which Sherlock Holmes used many times.

And yet there are weak points even in this classic. In the first place, there are too many clues. The strange voice of the assassin and the unusual method of the murders should have been clues enough. When Dupin finds a tuft of hair between the fingers of one of the victims and afterward picks up a piece of greasy ribbon at the foot of the lightning rod by which the murderer escaped, the sense of fair play rebels.

Furthermore, when Dupin goes on to explain that the knot tied in this ribbon is one peculiar to Maltese sailors, one becomes utterly incredulous. It is unlikely that there is a knot peculiar to Maltese sailors; and even if there were, why should Dupin happen to know it? In a word, the incident is most improbable.

For, mind you, the writer of detective stories, in developing his plot, must keep within the probable — indeed, he should keep within the very probable. In life, everything is possible, no coincidence is incredible, and chance is always to be reckoned with. But in fiction, coincidence must be used most sparingly, nothing may be left to chance, and to say that, in its working out, a detective story is possible but not probable is to damn it. This does not refer to the initial situation; the more unusual that is the better, provided the explanation is adequate; but its development must impress the reader as inevitable, and the denouement must be the only one which fits all the circumstances.

There is one other particular in which Dupin strains the reader's faith. It is not easy to believe that he could have followed the train of thought passing through his companion's mind, as Poe makes him do in the first part of the Rue Morgue story. Sherlock Holmes, probably in a spirit of rivalry, tries the same feat with Watson on two occasions; Watson is impressed, but it is doubtful if anyone else is.

One point more. It must be confessed that the psychology of "The Purloined Letter" does not entirely convince; but admitting that it is so — admitting that, in order to conceal the letter which the police sought, the thief would resort to "the comprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it at all" — it is certain that he would not have proceeded as Poe makes him do.

The letter, it will be remembered, had been thrust into a card-rack, where it remained within full view of every one entering the thief's library. But, before being placed there, it had been put in a soiled and crumpled envelope, torn nearly in two, bearing a large black seal and addressed in a woman's hand to the thief. Surely it is evident that this soiled, crumpled and torn envelope, so out of place in a well-ordered apartment, would have attracted attention and awakened curiosity, and that a smooth, unsoiled, untorn envelope would have been far less likely to do so.

"The Purloined Letter," however, gives us for the first time what has since become one of the stock situations of the detective story — that of the regular police, baffled and mystified, seeking the advice and assistance of the astute amateur.

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Six Words Sum Up the Science of Detection: It Must Be All or Nothing

Twenty years after Poe's death, Émile Gaboriau began that series of detective stories which still remain, on the whole, the best of their class. There is probably no scene more satisfying than that in which Tabaret arrives at the place of the murder in The Lerouge Case, and, after a short investigation, proceeds to reconstruct the crime.

Here, plainly, is the genesis of Sherlock Holmes, and yet Holmes never quite rose to this height. And it is in this story that Tabaret reaches his supreme moment — the moment when, after having bound his chain about his victim, assured that there is not a single weak link in it, he sees it shiver to pieces. The accused man has been arrested, has been taken before a magistrate, and, although stunned and incoherent, has doggedly asserted his innocence, but has as doggedly refused to say where he was on the night of the crime. Finally he is led away and Tabaret enters.

"I have come," he says, "to know if any investigations are necessary to demolish the alibi pleaded by the prisoner."

"He pleaded no alibi," the magistrate replies.

"What? No alibi!" cries the detective. "He has, of course, then, confessed everything."

"No, he has confessed nothing. He acknowledges that the proofs are decisive: he cannot give an account of how he spent his time, but he protests his innocence."

Tabaret is thunderstruck — and reaches his supreme moment.

"Not an alibi!" he murmurs. "No explanations! It is inconceivable! We must then be mistaken: he cannot be the criminal. That is certain!"

The magistrate laughs at him, and Tabaret explains that the man who committed this crime, so carefully planned, so cleverly carried out, so audacious and yet so prudent, would, under no circumstances, have failed to provide himself with a convincing alibi, and that a man who has no alibi cannot possibly be the criminal. Still the magistrate laughs, and Tabaret proceeds to lay down a principle which all writers of detective fiction would do well to learn by heart:

Given a crime, with all the circumstances and details, I construct, bit by bit, a plan of accusation, which I do not guarantee until it is entire and perfect. If a man is found to whom this plan applies exactly in every particular, the author of the crime is found; otherwise one has laid hands upon an innocent person. It is not sufficient that such and such particulars seem to point to him; it must be all or nothing.

Those six words sum up the whole science of detection: it must be all or nothing. The writer himself dreams of someday writing a story in which the edifice of conviction is slowly and carefully built, four-square, like the frame of a sky-scraper, with every beam tested and every bolt rivetted, formidable and apparently impregnable, yet with a tiny hidden defect which, just as the last bolt is being placed, brings the whole structure smashing to the ground. That would be worth doing!

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Clues Subtle & Convincing; Clues Absurd & Illogical

In the Lerouge case, Tabaret built such an edifice; but Gaboriau carries coincidence too far. It is admissible that both the real murderer and the man suspected of the crime should, on that particular evening, have been carrying an umbrella and wearing a high hat; perhaps it is admissible, since they are the same age and about the same build, that their shoes should be of the same size and shape; but when the author equips them both with lavender kid gloves he adds one coincidence too many. In his desire to strengthen the chain of evidence, he overleaps himself and loses the confidence of the reader.

The question of clues is a most difficult one, for every writer of detective fiction is faced by this dilemma: The really astute, competent and thoughtful criminal should leave no clues, and yet, if none are left, it is impossible to apprehend him. A most instructive paper could be written upon this subject, for there are legitimate and illegitimate clues — clues subtle and convincing, and clues absurd and illogical.

To pause only to state one axiom: in fiction, at least, the name on the card found beside the murdered man is never that of the murderer, and the writer who seeks to fool the reader by any such clumsy device is many, many years behind the times.

Tabaret has a worthy pupil in M. Lecoq, although it should not be forgotten that he remains a pupil, with many things unlearned, to the end of the chapter. Sherlock Holmes's gibe at him seems to be the result of an unworthy envy. For Lecoq, though inferior to Tabaret, is far greater than Holmes — more picturesque, more subtle, more resourceful — and with a sense of humour. Probably his greatest moment occurs in The Mystery of Orcival. A murder has been committed and a house ransacked, the furniture upset, the clock thrown from the mantel. It has stopped at twenty minutes past three, and to everyone it seems evident that it was at that hour the crime occurred. Lecoq replaces the clock on the mantel, and slowly pushes forward the minute-hand to halfpast three. The clock strikes eleven.

That was a great idea — so great that no one will ever dare use it again without acknowledging its source. Sherlock Holmes came perilously near it, once, when he solved a mystery by re-winding a watch. But the honours belong to Gaboriau.

And for another thing the Frenchman deserves all praise. He recognised the fact that, to hold the interest, it is not enough that a crime should be committed and the criminal in the end discovered. There must be something more than that. There must be a war of intellect, a clash of theories. There must be confronting investigators, one seeking to establish a man's guilt, the other to establish his innocence. For the reader, the real pleasure is in following, step by step, this contest.

In so far as detective work goes, Gaboriau's stories are far better than Conan Doyle's; but Gaboriau tried to do too much. He sought to add a love interest, and in that respect he failed. Every one of his tales is built upon the threadbare formula, "cherchez la femme"; every one turns back for its motive to an illicit love affair. The writer avows that he has no patience with a plot which, for its explanation, must go back two or three generations; so these portions of Gaboriau's stories are to be skimmed rapidly, until Tabaret or Lecoq appears again upon the scene. Then not a word is to be missed. Amat Tabaret!

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Holmes' Puerile Deductions & Other Errors of Conan Doyle's Detective

Which brings one to Sherlock Holmes — whom one does not love. Indeed, it is not always easy to respect him. Wholly deplorable are those puerile "deductions" with which so many of the stories open. And in the whole series of his adventures, only three or four great moments can be recalled. His greatest, unquestionably, is in "Silver Blaze," one of the best of the stories. Silver Blaze, the favourite for the Wessex Cup, has disappeared, having been taken from his stable at night, while the boy on guard is sleeping off the effects of a dose of opium. His trainer has been found in a depression in the moor near by with his skull smashed in and a peculiar thin-bladed knife in his hand, such a knife as is used in the very delicate operation for cataract. Here is the great moment:

As we stepped into the carriage, one of the stable lads held the door open for us. A sudden idea seemed to occur to Holmes, for he leaned forward and touched the lad upon the sleeve.

"You have a few sheep in the paddock," he said. "Who attends to them?"

"I do, sir."

"Have you noticed anything amiss with them of late?"

"Well, sir, not of much account; but three of them have gone lame, sir."

It was, as Holmes afterward remarks, a long shot, but it hit the bull's-eye, for Silver Blaze's trainer, before trying to nick the tendon which was to lame him, had been practising on the sheep.

The writer has reread the Sherlock Holmes stories recently, but did not enjoy them as much as he anticipated. They do not wear as well as Gaboriau's, and the reason probably is because they are so very British — so stolid, so heavy, so lacking in humour. There is none of that nimbleness of phrase which so often illuminates Gaboriau's; the occasional flippant references to "noble lords" are a form of snobbery far more detestable than hearty admiration for the nobility as such; there is no wit — not a single chuckle in the whole series!

Holmes sometimes attempts to be witty, but the attempts provoke tears rather than laughter. He says "Ha!" when he is surprised or excited — changed in the later stories to the still more irritating, "Halloa! halloa! halloa!" He affects a light touch now and then, with a result positively elephantine.

And Watson! The most damning indictment against Holmes, as a man of discernment and imagination, is that he was able to endure Watson! Even to enjoy his company! Of course the foil to your principal must be something of a fool; but surely it is not necessary to make him a portentous jackass! Watson's questions and exclamations set the teeth on edge:

"My dear Holmes!" "Good God! what can it mean?"

"How on earth … !"

And yet, on second thought, it is evident that Holmes was not entirely wrong when he remarked that he had never met a man more eminently fitted to represent a British jury!

In one respect, a re-reading has caused a modification of the estimate of the relative merits of these stories. The writer had always believed that the earlier ones were the best, but now it seems that the stories grouped under The Return of Sherlock Holmes are as good as any, and better than most. "The Norwood Builder," "The Six Napoleons" and "The Golden Pince-Nez" are all first rate.

Indeed, in the last named, Holmes touches a height but little short of "Silver Blaze." A man has been killed, and a pair of gold-framed glasses are found in his hand. They are of unusual strength, so that it is evident that their owner's eyes are very defective. In entering and in leaving the house, the assassin is supposed by the police to have walked along a narrow grass border between a path and a flower-bed in order to leave no footprints.

Holmes, coming upon the scene, remarks that this is most extraordinary. On entering the house, he perceives that the floor of the corridor leading to the room where the crime was committed is covered with cocoanut matting. There is another corridor, of similar width, leading on into the house.

"I understand," says Holmes, "that this other passage leads only to the Professor's room. There is no exit that way?"

"No, sir," replies the police officer, Hopkins.

"We shall go down it," Holmes proceeds, "and make the acquaintance of the Professor. Holloa, Hopkins! this is very important, very important, indeed! The Professor's corridor is also lined with cocoanut matting."

"Well, sir, what of that?" Hopkins asks.

Holmes refuses to explain at the time, but it had occurred to him at once that the assassin, fleeing from the room, half-blinded by the loss of the glasses, might very easily have taken the wrong corridor and gone on into the house, instead of escaping from it. Which, of course, proves to be the case.

Of all the stories, the one whose start the writer likes best is "The Red-Headed League," but its conclusion is utterly commonplace.

The most ingenious is "The Naval Treaty," with "The Man with the Twisted Lip" a close second. The most outré is "The Speckled Band." The most obvious, from an American point of view, at least, is "The Five Orange Pips."

It is difficult to believe that even such a dunderhead as Watson should never have heard of Ku Klux Klan.

~ The End ~

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