Readers of this blog and people overall who followed me over my two decades online know that the relationship and differences between the American and British schools of crime writing are a major area of interest of mine. They also know how prone I am to say and write outrageous things with no other purpose than raise people’s hair and elicit strong responses. My latest such exploit won’t thus come as a surprise to them. I posted last week on the GAD Facebook group a short article to the effect that all things considered the Brits may well be the best plotters of them all. As expected this post elicited numerous comments, all of them perceptive and most disagreeing with me, but Nick Fuller’s later response I thought deserves to be quoted in full:
Well, perhaps I should say the American approach to the detective story is better than the British. The Americans have S.S. Van Dine in their DNA; the British have Austin Freeman and Freeman Crofts.
The typical British detective writers were – besides the two Freemen – Connington, Street, Wade, the Coles, Knox, and Sayers (basically the Freeman & Crofts approach used by someone who could actually write).
The fair-play puzzle plot (with challenge to the reader, &c) is really an American form.
True, there were Chesterton (an outlier, and considered too imaginative by people like H. Douglas Thomson), Christie (who didn’t really become » Christie » until 1934), the clever Berkeley, and Bailey (left-wing Evangelical Conan Doyle). But the British detective story is what Mike Grost called Realist. HOW matters: how the detective solves the crime, how the criminal commits it (the inverted). The whole idea of the detective story as game, of misdirecting the reader, is alien to this tradition.
The first important British writers for whom the fair-play puzzle plot were natural appeared in 1935 and 1936 (1934, if you widen « British » to include its colonies).
By that time, the Americans had produced Queen, Carr, Quentin, Palmer, and King, to name but a few.
And the American puzzle plot tradition goes back to people like Green, Wells (however crap she was), Ostrander, and Biggers.
Nick has a point. The detective story as a parlour game is indeed largely an American invention and never really set foot in Britain or in the rest of Europe for that matter. He is also right that a large segment of British detective fiction is more concerned with the How (and let us not forget the Why) than the Who. Both points I don’t dispute – mostly. What I dispute is their relevance to my original claim.
There is more to plotting than surprise endings and least-likely suspects. Plotting as I see it is first and foremost about construction – the careful and complex arrangement of apparently random elements into a coherent whole, a perfect machinery in which every piece fits and works smoothly. This might seem the least you can expect from a book but it’s rarer than you think, even in crime fiction – heck, loose plotting has been a distinctive feature of French crime fiction almost from the beginning. Taken in that sense, the Americans are very adroit plotters – but the British are geniuses, building on a tradition that long predates the advent of the mystery genre. If I was to oversimplify things – and you know I’d never do that – I might say that American crime writers are into tricks whereas the British are into mechanisms.
This doesn’t mean however that misdirection is, to quote from Nick’s post, « alien to [the British] tradition ». That the American school took it to unprecedented heights doesn’t mean it has a monopoly on it. The British indeed have Freeman and Crofts in their DNA, but they also have Wilkie Collins and more importantly E.C. Bentley (whom Nick surprisingly doesn’t mention) Besides, misdirection being one of the features of crime fiction most prone not to age well, it’s extremely easy to miss or undervalue it when reading old detective stories for we know things and tricks that readers (and authors) back then didn’t. Also some writers are better at the game than others. The Freemen and the other writers that Nick mentions didn’t intend their stories to be transparent; some element of surprise was expected and the fact that it no longer works must not keep us from acknowledging its existence. Finally, the detective story as a duel of wits was not foreign to the British school and they certainly didn’t shun fair play clueing, with Freeman himself emphasizing the latter in his Art of the Detective Story in 1924… four years before Van Dine devised his own « rules ».
What preceded might give the impression that Nick and I are in disagreement but – now that’s a surprise ending – actually we are not. The Brits, as he says, never envisioned the genre as merely a game – they took it way too seriously for that. Freeman in his essay admittedly uses the word but as a metaphor, not as a description, unlike John Dickson Carr thirty years later. Also they tended to eschew the outrageous (Christie being an exception) and kep their cases and surprises « reasonable » and « rational », which Nick calls « realist ». So while both wrote essentially the same kind of stories, their approaches were quintessentially different and depending on your own frame of mind or tastes you’ll like one better than the other. At the end of the day however, if you’re looking for plots that are sound and waterproof, the Brits are your (wo)men. :p