You may recall the post I did four years ago about Curtis Evans’s discovery of the T.S. Eliot’s mystery criticism. Well, the news has finally reached the mainstream media in the guise of an article by Paul Grimstad on The New Yorker website. As they say: Better late than never.
To the amateur, Grimstad’s piece brings nothing new to the subject, but it is worth reading as a capsule of literati thinking on the question. Like Wilson before him but in a much gentler manner, Grimstad appears to be genuinely baffled that Eliot could find any interest in so minor and artistically poor a genre – « mere puzzles » as the received wisdom has it – and is frustrated that he didn’t write instead on hardboiled fiction, certainly a much more deserving endeavour in his eyes. Challenging Wilson and Chandler and admitting that « mere puzzles » may have their virtues being not an option, Grimstad goes for an « ideological » explanation of Eliot’s bizarre detective mania:
It’s possible, though, that Eliot’s affinity for Golden Age detective stories had only partially to do with the genre’s literary merits. During the year he wrote his mystery reviews, Eliot was undergoing a sharp turn to the right politically, and was steeped in dense works of theology in preparation for his baptism into the Anglo-Catholic church. (In a June, 1927, letter to his friend Virginia Woolf he described himself, only half-jokingly, as a “person who specializes in detective stories and ecclesiastical history.”) His conversion to a man of royalist proclivities and religious faith, after which he attended Mass every morning before heading off to work in Russell Square, was at least in part a matter of giving order to a world he saw as intolerably messy. At the end of his 1944 essay, Edmund Wilson suggested that it was no accident that the Golden Age of detection coincided with the period between the two World Wars: in a shattered civilization, there was something reassuring about the detective’s ability to link up all the broken fragments and “know just where to fix the guilt.” Such tidy solutions were to Wilson the mark of glib and simplistic genre fiction. But to Eliot, who in “The Waste Land” wrote of the fractured modern world as a “heap of broken images,” it seems possible that Golden Age detective stories offered above all a pleasing orderliness—a way of seeing ghastly disruptions restored to equilibrium with the soothing predictability of ritual.
In short: if you like that « glib and simplistic » stuff then it’s because you are a right-winger, not because of its non-existent literary merits. No matter that this vision of Golden Age mysteries as conservative fairytales where order is invariably restored in the end doesn’t bear close scrutiny. No matter that the argument cuts both ways in that it could be said with reason that hardboiled/noir is so popular with the Literati because the genre leans left or appears to do so, not because it is artistically superior. Traditional mysteries remain a province of the philistine and the easily entertained, beguiling the sophisticated reader only by accident or a momentary lapse of reason and taste. Nothing to see here.
This is the mentality that serious mystery criticism has to conquer. The walls have been shaking lately with the reappearance in print and success of « lost classics » and some seminal critical/historical work by helluva scholars such as Martin Edwards (congratulations on his Edgar nomination, by the way) but they have by no means fallen down. It will take even harder work to convince the brilliant and advanced that no, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd was not the last word on the question. Heck, it wasn’t even the first.