Talking about crime fiction (with apologies to P.D James)

October 29, 2012 at 7:58 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

  In the concluding chapter of Talking about Detective Fiction. P.D. James masterfully enumerates the paradoxes at the heart of the genre:

The [detective] story has at its heart the crime of murder, often in its most horrific and violent form, yet we read the novels primarily for entertainment, a comforting, even cosy relief from the anxieties, problems and irritations of everyday life. Its prime concern–indeed its raison d’être–is the establishment of truth, yet it employs and glories in deceit: the murderer attempts to deceive the detective; the writer sets out to deceive the reader, to make him believe that the guilty are innocent, the innocent guilty; and the better the deception the more effective the book….The detective story deals with the most dramatic and tragic manifestations of man’s nature and the ultimate disruption of murder, yet the form itself it orderly, controlled, formulaic, providing a secure structure within which the imaginations of writer and reader alike can confront the unthinkable.

This same chapter opens with the following quote:

The detective novel…is aimed above all at the intelligence; and this could constitute for it a title to nobility. It i in any case perhaps one of the reasons for the favour it enjoys. A good detective story possesses certain qualities of harmony, internal organisation and balance, which respond to certain needs of the spirit, needs which some modern literature, priding itself on being superior, very often neglects.

  This thought-provoking observation comes from Le “detective novel” et l’influence de la pensée scientifique, by Régis Messac. Written in 1929, its subject is the history of the French detective novel, or ‘roman policier’ as it is usually termed in France. According to the book’s description on Amazon – or rather, my translation of that description – Messac submitted this work as a doctoral thesis while studying at the Sorbonne. It was apparently the first work on this subject to be received there and has since come to be considered a pioneering study.

I’m grateful to P.D. James for this reference; I had not previously heard of Monsieur Messac.   In the introduction to his survey of detective fiction, Professor Charles J. Rzepka of Boston University singles out “Regis Messac’s magisterial dissertation” for special praise. (I am not sure if this treatise has been translated into English.)

Regis Messac 1893 – 1945

Emile Gaboriau 1832 – 1875

This might be a good time for me to recommend “The Little Old Man of Batignolles” by Émile Gaboriau. This story (or short novella) is included in The Dead Witness, Michael Sims’s excellent collection of Victorian mysteries. (Also to be found in that same collection is “The Diary of Anne Rodway” by Wilkie Collins.) 


I recently came upon a site called While not comprehensive, Detnovel has lots of interesting material on various aspects of mystery novels and films. It comes to us courtesy of Professor William Marling of Case Western Reserve University. Professor Marling has a special interest in noir fiction


  1. Guibert Lejeune said,


    This is a tremendous book of 660 pages full of valuable material and containing a summary of many leading examples. Mr. Messac has, however, a wide conception of his subject and includes “Police stories” as well as detective tales. These last must, we take it, be concerned with clues not easily discoverable by the ordinary reader, the solution coming at the end, and the puzzle must take precedence of every other interest in the book. The mystery story need not have an explanation at the end, and the tale of crime joins on by gradations with the detective tale, though crime is not essential to the latter. Thus Godwin’s “Caleb Williams” is not a detective story, because the secret of the murder which makes the narrator a vagabond fleeing from the rich and powerful murderer is revealed at an early stage.
    The East is the source hitherto, generally regarded as responsible for the beginnings of the detective story, that sort of discovery being used in the Book of Daniel. Mr. Messac, however, refers us to Greece and Archimedes with his “Eureka.” As to this, we remark that in the East the teller of curious tales of common people is well known, whereas Greek literature talks of gods and heroes. The rhapsodists recited portions of Homer, not adventures like those in the ”Arabian Nights.” Sherlock Holmes, as is well known, was taken from a living original, ant Poe is said to have founded his tales on the feats of French-Canadian trackers, Is it not likely that a particularly observant person in real life, like Zadig in Voltaire’s story, would lead to stories of his exploits? Fiction comes late in Greek literature and relies on the schools of rhetoric rather than on common life.
    Zadig is carried back here to an original in Italian of 1557 on the Princes of Serendip by an author who pretends to be inspired by a Persian original. This is unknown, and the source seems to be a part of the “Arabian Nights” not found in the oldest European translations. The ”Three Clever Brothers” appear in the Arabic of Tabari (838-923), but there are also Jewish sources, attested as older. Sherlock Holmes should have spoken of “inductions” not “deductions,” and Huxley calls such inductions in biology the method of Zadig. So we find ourselves in the presence of science, and the author suggests that all the versions of the “Brothers” we know are derived from a Greek original, some anecdote founded on physiognomy. The Arabs, of course, relied largely on Greek sources, but we cannot suppose that the Greeks had a monopoly of the beginnings of science. There were doctors surely investigating cases in ancient lndia before Greek influence was felt there. The chapter on “Pathfinders” seems to us much to the point. Mr. Messac seems to have noticed with amazing erudition every prominent author at all concerned with clime and mystery as well as the views of numerous critics. When he comes to Sherlock Holmes, he discovers debts to Gaboriau and Poe’s Dupin, and nothing essentially new except in the form.
    The work is a vast repository which future critics of the detective novel cannot neglect. It recalls much that might be missed, especially in French, and much that is difficult to read. The American Nick Carter and Sexton Blake have already had 1.200 adventures, we learn, but these heroes lay such a heavy strain on probability that they are not of much account.

    The English Review, mai 1930, pp. 655-657.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      M. Lejeune,

      Merci mille fois!

  2. Guibert Lejeune said,

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