As I Was Saying/Essay XXXIII

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Essay XXXII As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XXXIII: About Shockers

IT is well that students sternly devoted to that science should issue bulletins, from time to time, upon the state of the Detective Story; the stage it has recently reached in its present alleged progress or decline. Some hold that the possibilities of the detective story will soon be exhausted. They take the view that there are only a limited number of ways of murdering a man, or only a limited number of men who might plausibly and reasonably be murdered. But surely this is to take too gloomy and pessimistic a view of the case. Some hold that the detective story will, indeed, progress and evolve, but it will evolve into something else; and I always think that sort of evolution is a form of extinction. They seem to think that it will become so good that it will cease to exist; will die of sheer goodness, like the little choir-boy. What used to be called the police novel will expand into the novel where the problems are too subtle to be solved by calling in the police. For my part, as a matter of taste, I can do very well without the police; but I cannot do without the criminals. And if modern writers are going to ignore the existence of crime, as so many of them already ignore the existence of sin, then modern writing will get duller than ever.

Here, however, my only duty, as a dry recorder of scientific facts, is to note a few of the recent changes in the police novel, which do roughly correspond to changes in the social history of our time. I shall also venture, in my capacity of earnest ethical adviser to the young student of blood and thunder, to point out some dangers and disadvantages in these new forms and fashions in crime. For, though modern society has given us in some ways a wider range, and provided us with varieties of incident or implement not known to our fathers and mothers, and all the other simple and homely assassins of our childhood's days, yet this enlargement and variety is not an unmixed advantage for the artist in murder. There are several ways, in this as in other arts of life, in which the modern appearance of liberty is very misleading. Many a happy family, innocently priding itself on an uncle who was hanged in the quiet old Victorian days, would, in fact, find that their relative's career made a much better story, considered as a story, than some of these larger and looser studies of loose living, where there are so many new vices to cover the track of ancient crime.

I would therefore lay down this canon first of all: that the people in a really gory murder mystery should be good people. Even the man who is really gory should be good, or should have a convincing appearance of being good. Now, many of the very best of the modern writers in this style have partly failed through neglecting this maxim. They start out with another maxim, which is also in itself a perfectly sound maxim. They start out with the very reasonable idea of giving the reader a wide choice of suspects, that the imagination may hover long over them all before it swoops (if it ever does swoop) upon the really guilty person. Unfortunately, it is exactly here that the laxity of modern manners, not to say morals, actually comes in to spoil the effect. The writer begins with somebody doing what (I believe) is known as throwing a party; as a preliminary to the more private act of throwing another party, in the sense of another person, out of a window or down a well. The whole business begins in a rather heated atmosphere of cocktails, with occasional whiffs of cocaine. And the charming freedom and variety of such a social set, in these days, enables the author to crowd the room with all sorts of people who, in the older story, could only have escaped from Dartmoor or returned by ticket-of-leave from Botany Bay. The chief ornaments of these aristocratic salons are conspicuous, not merely by being cads, but by having every appearance of being criminals. In short, the suspects are so very suspect that we might safely call them guilty; not necessarily of the crime under discussion, but only of about half a hundred others.

But there is an obvious snag in this convenient way of spreading suspicion over a number of characters. It can be put in a word: such cases may cause suspicion, but they cannot cause surprise. It is the business of a shocker to produce a shock. But these modern characters are much too shocking ever to produce a shock. These dubious dopers, these suspected dope-traffickers, these alleged or half-alleged heroes of horrible scandals in the past--all these livers of the wild life have one inevitable touch of tameness. They all have one element that must make any ending of the story tame. And that is, that no reader would be even mildly astonished to learn that any one of them, or all of them, had committed the crime. It is true that, in some of the very best recent _romans policiers,_ this rout of rather bestial revellers is often introduced, not in order to convict any of them, but to distract attention from some seemingly conventional person who is ultimately convicted. But the method is wrong, even at the best; a hint of guilt should be thrilling; but there is nothing particularly thrilling about the safe bet that some of these social ornaments are capable of being thieves or thugs. If what we want is a thrill, the thrill could only be found in the virtuous Victorian household, when it was first realized that Grandmama's throat had been cut by the curate or by the rather too well-behaved nursery-governess. Even the love of murder stories, like other moral and religious tendencies, will lead us back to home and the simple life.

I think there is another weak point, which is the worst thing even in the best shockers. This also is connected with some recent social changes; as with the scientific fashion of Psychoanalysis, which is generally more of a fashion than a science. It is also connected with a certain mechanical or materialistic interpretation of human interests, which often goes along with it. I mean the expedient of distracting attention from the real criminal by suspecting him at the beginning and not merely at the end. It generally takes the form of some apparent conviction or confession, first dismissed as impossible, and finally found, by some unsuspected ingenuity, to have been possible after all. Often the first accusation is dismissed by some of the dogmas of the new psychology. The curate, let us say, confesses that he jumped over an incredibly high wall to murder the grandmother; and the professor of psychology (with the piercing eyes) points out that a theological training had repressed instead of liberated the _libido_ of the curate in the direction of trespass and burglary. He had dreamed he jumped over a high wall; or perhaps the height symbolized levitation and ascending into heaven; it is an accommodating science. Then when we think that the curate is cleared and out of it, we are relieved to find in the last chapter that he is the criminal after all; both he and the author having concealed up to this moment the fact that the curate held the International Championship for the High Jump, and had concealed a jumping-pole among the poles used for the punt.

This method, again, has every quality of ingenuity, and pursues the highly legitimate aim of shifting the spot light from the guilty to the innocent. And yet I think that it fails, and that there is a reason for its failure. The error is the materialistic error; the mistake of supposing that our interest in the plot is mechanical, when it is really moral. But art is never unmoral, though it is sometimes immoral; that is, moral with the wrong morality. The only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will; it involves finding out that men are worse or better than they seem, and that by their own choice. Therefore, there can never be quite so much excitement over the mere mechanical truth of how a man managed to do something difficult as over the mere fact that he wanted to do it. In these cases we have already considered the criminal as a criminal; we are only asked to consider him anew as a cracksman or crafty and clever criminal. The effect of this is always a sort of bathos; an anticlimax. I say it with regret, for it figures in some of the finest mystery stories I know. But, even if the book is of the best, it always makes me feel that the last page is the worst; when the last page should be the best of all.

I notice a curiously modern and sullen realism beginning to settle on some of the recognized tales of murder, once so gay, innocent, and refreshing. Once our detective art really was almost an unmoral art; and therefore the one which managed to remain almost a moral art. But shades of the prison-house--or, worse still, of the humane reformatory and the psychological clinic--begin to close upon the growing boy and the hopeful butcher of his kind. We are given detailed descriptions of depressing domestic interiors, as if being dumbly asked whether a wife so involved in the washing or the dusting or the spring-cleaning was not eventually bound to murder or be murdered in any case. It is all very well, but I would point out to the sanguinary sophist that the argument can be turned the other way. If it be true that a misguided wife may begin thoughtlessly by doing the washing, and find all sorts of vexatious consequences, possibly including death by violence, so it is equally true that she may begin by using murder as a minor gadget in the domestic machinery, taking death by violence in her stride as a plain, practical solution; and then, after all, find herself involved in a most inordinate amount of washing.

There could not be a grimmer example of this tragedy than poor Lady Macbeth. She had her faults, perhaps, but there is no ground for accusing her of any rooted or aboriginal taste for hygiene. When she was young and innocent, her imagination seems to have been quite unpolluted by the impure image of soap. I should even hesitate to accuse her of spring-cleaning in the serious, anti-social, and sinful sense of the term. Anyhow, a number of very different birds seem to have nested undisturbed over the main entrance to the reception-rooms; which looks as if she was once a human being, and more interested in spring-broods than in spring-cleaning. Unfortunately, like such a very large number of people living in dark, barbarous, ignorant, and ferocious times, she was full of modern ideas. She intended especially to maintain the two brightest and most philosophical of modern ideas; first, that it is often extremely convenient to do what is wrong; and second, that whenever it is convenient to do what is wrong, it immediately becomes what is right. Illuminated by these two scientific search-lights of the twentieth century in her groping among the stark trees and stone pillars of the Dark Ages, Lady Macbeth thought it quite simple and business-like to kill an old gentleman of very little survival value, and offer her own talents to the world in the capacity of Queen. It seems natural enough; to most of us who are used to the morals of modern novels, it will seem almost humdrum and tiresomely obvious. And yet see what a snag there was in it after all!

On this one doomed and devoted woman, who had done nothing but a little bit of a murder which she thought little enough of at the time (as De Quincey says), there fell from heaven like the Deluge the deathly curse of Cleanliness. She, who seems never to have known such morbidities before, was tortured with horrid suggestions of washing her hands, and pursued by furies who seem to have taken the form of modern salesmen offering different brands of soap. Those ambitions of the housewife, which seem to the modern moralist so obvious a cause of murder, were, in fact, wildly exaggerated in her case as a consequence of murder. It was the worst doom of the murderess that she wanted to do the washing, not on Monday, but at midnight; that she wanted to have a spring-cleaning, not in the spring of the year, but in the middle of the night. Who shall say lightly that a murder or two does not matter, when it may lead to the murderess becoming as hygienic as all that?

Sinister minds may be clouded by dark and unworthy suspicions that the views here discussed are not wholly serious; but some of the modern moralists favouring murder and other simple solutions of social difficulties are serious with a dry-throated earnestness that no satire could simulate. And even my own lighted prejudices on the negative side are not without spasms of sincerity. I certainly do not like that Religion of Ablutions which has always really been the Religion of Pharisees; even when it masqueraded as the Religion of Anglo-Saxons or the Religion of Muscular Christians. I made fun of it when it was blindly worshipped, though I have lived to see it too blindly and sweepingly derided, as the Religion of Pukka Sahibs or the Religion of Public School Men. And I know that in its domestic form it can sometimes produce a Puritanism that is very close indeed to Pharisaism. But I should still regard it rather as a symptom of social evil than as a necessary cause of social crime. Miss Miggs will sometimes make almost as much fuss about a spot of grease as Lady Macbeth about a spot of blood. But to infer from this that we are bound to murder Miss Miggs, and that Lady Macbeth was bound to murder Duncan, and that everybody is bound to murder everybody whom he happens to find troublesome for any reason for any considerable length of time-- that is one of the dubious and creeping deductions which are beginning to appear, more or less tentatively, in many of the tragedies published in our time; and I should like to protest against all such savage fatalism, before it becomes more explicit. It is, of course, only the logical consequence, as applied to the problem of murder, of what is now everywhere applied to the problem of marriage. It is the theory that there is no such thing as an intolerable solution of a problem, but only an intolerable acceptance of a problem. It is the theory that nothing can possibly be unendurable except having to endure. It is interesting to see how rapidly and quietly the same ethical spirit is already beginning to work in other fields of thought. It does really seem to me far less fantastic to say that a mania for washing was a mild and merciful punishment for murder than to say that murder is a just and reasonable punishment for a mania for washing. But, in any case, I protest against that arbitrary gesture of self-ablution and self-absolution with which some characters in modern stories conclude the confession of their crimes; like that weak tyrant who tried to combine the contraries of despotism and irresponsibility by washing his hands when he had delivered the innocent to death.