I'm reading, on and off, an anthology of American Detective Stories. It has some authors I've heard of, including Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, Sue Grafton and William Faulkner (yes, that William Faulkner!) and many I hadn't. Clinton H. Stagg is of the latter group. His story, The Keyboard of Silence (1923), features - wait for it - a blind detective.
Reading the story has convinced me of a long-standing thesis of mine: detective fiction is actually a branch of surrealism.
To quote one joyously surreal passage: ‘“One often wonders,” continued Colton [the blind detective] ... “why a stout woman, like that one two tables to our left, for instance, will suffer the tortures of her hereafter for the sake of drinking high balls in a tight, purple gown.”’
His assistant is understandably amazed. But as the blind detective explains, ‘”All stout women who breathe asthmatically wear purple. It is the only unfailing rule of femininity. And to one who has practised the art of locating sounds that come to doubly sharp ears the breathing part was easy.”’ And so on.
Stagg (who sadly died at the age of 26) was parodied by no less than Agatha Christie for his lack of realism. But I can’t help feeling Agatha is missing the point. The point is not that it’s unrealistic. The point is it’s fun.
Another surrealist masquerading as a detective writer is G.K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown stories I am also dipping in and out of at the moment. Chesterton was a master of the ‘impossible crime’, and an unashamed exponent of the puzzle story. In fact, back then, in the Golden Age of detective fiction, there was no shame in writing stories that were primarily literary puzzles.
Much of the surrealism of the Chesterton stories is tied up in the solution of the crime, which often pushes plausibility to the limit. Well, beyond it, if we’re honest. I can’t give you any specifics, because I would be giving away the endings, but it’s hard to beat ‘The Secret Garden’ for the sheer audacity and outrageousness of its denouement.
The surrealists themselves were fans of pulp crime fiction, most notably the Fantômas series of novels by Souvestre and Allain. The fascination shows in Magritte’s 1926 painting The Menaced Assassin. A woman lies naked on a chaise longue, blood streaming from her mouth. A man, presumably her murderer, listens to a gramophone. His overcoat and hat are on a chair, with a suitcase on the floor. Two men in lie in wait for him on either side of the doorway, one holding a net, the other a club. At the window behind him, three heads are shown peering into the room. It was that painting, and the desire to write the story it suggests, that inspired me to take up crime writing in the first place.
How will Fantômas escape? Answers on a postcard – or in a blog comment.
Detective stories link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Oxford-Book-American-Detective-Stories/dp/0195117921/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239207912&sr=1-1
Father Brown link: http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780140097665,00.html
Reference for Magritte painting: http://robertarood.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/the_menaced_assassin.jpg
Roger Morris lives in North London and is the author of a series of historical crime novels featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the detective from Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment. In fact today sees the publication of the US Penguin paperback of the second book in this series, A Vengeful Longing. To find out more about his successful writing career visit his website or blog.