The Realist School of Detective Fiction | Characteristics of Realist School Writers | Characteristics of Intuitionist School Writers | Realism, A.A. Milne and Raymond Chandler | Dashiell Hammett on S.S. Van Dine: Another Realist Critique
Trees of Mystery Writers: Casebook Fiction Tree | Intuitionist Writers Tree | Scientific Detection Tree
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Policeman heroes, following standard police routine, solve the cases. The school is probably the ancestor of the post war Police Procedural school.
Private detectives sometimes solve the cases. They use the same "routine" methods as do the police, but are a bit freer to evade nice points of the law. These private detectives are not the anti-authoritarian loners of American PI fiction. These British PIs tend to have warm, cooperative relations with the police, and follow the sort of steady, systematic investigative techniques of their police allies.
Realism is followed in detail. This means no melodrama, international conspiracies, aristocratic high life, bizarre eccentrics, or surrealistic environments (although the original crime can be bizarre). Instead there is a realistic portrayal of various institutions, especially businesses, but also universities, clubs, ships, trains, and the police themselves. These realistic portrayals give readers an "inside" look at the functioning of these institutions on a day to day level. This look is clearly one of the main "selling points" of this fiction, and continues to be interesting to this day.
Alibis, genuine and fake, are one of the main focuses of the plots. Many solutions turn on the police breaking down ingeniously contrived fake alibis of the villains.
There is also great emphasis on detective work based on deduction from physical evidence, such as footprints, tire marks, smudges on walls, marks on shoes, etc.
Between breaking down the alibis and deducing from the physical evidence, the police are always trying to "Reconstruct What Happened". They use time tables, outlines of events, and diagrams to build these reconstructions. This approach requires careful craftsmanship on the writers' parts, to make every piece fit.
The villains in this school are always leaving false trails for the police. The police always reconstruct these trails, and initially draw the Wrong Conclusions from the faked evidence. Sometimes this involves directly framing an innocent person with false evidence. Other times it involves more elaborate faked trails, perhaps to create an alibi, or for some other subtle reason.
The faked alibis and misleading trails often turn on a breakdown of identity. What seems to be a trail left by two people, can really be the work of one. Or "one person"'s trail can really have been left by two people. Evidence apparently left by person A was really left by person B. There are many complex variations on this, involving permutations of more than two people. The breakdown of identity can involve physical objects, as well. Just how many seemingly identical casks are there, in The Cask? As far as I can tell, no symbolic meaning is given to this breakdown of identity. More literary writers would have had a field day, associating all sorts of religious, psychological, sociological, sexual, historical and economic meanings to these transformations and collapses of identity. Look at Poe's "William Wilson", for example, or Conrad's "The Secret Sharer". Here, in the mystery genre, there is just the spectacle of the collapse of identity, presented in the most forceful and systematic way possible. Even if it has no assigned meaning, this vision is inevitably very startling and suggestive.
Many of these same authors also wrote inverted tales. In this form, invented by R. Austin Freeman, first we see the criminal committing his crime, then in the second half of the story we are shown the detectives tracking him down. At the end of these works, the police use the same steady, routine investigative techniques, and deductions from physical evidence, to bring the crime home to the protagonist, as they do in the conventional works of these authors. So there is much in common in approach here between these authors' "conventional" and "inverted" stories.
This attack on racial prejudice can be seen in other authors of this school, too. Wade's "The Three Keys" looks at some Jewish diamond merchants who are being ripped off by Gentiles; Wade also takes us inside an athletic club that accepts mainly Jewish members who are not welcome in the racist social clubs of 1933 Britain. Crofts' The Cask contains detailed, dignified portraits of the French, who are more often the targets of cheap satire in British fiction of the era.
In general, the emphasis on realism in this school goes hand in hand with a certain attack on, or at least disinterest in, both racism and snobbery. The characters are more likely to be middle class than aristocratic, and a certain common sense attitude that people are people and must be judged fairly on their behavior and character rather than their race or social status seems to hold sway.
In any case, Colin Watson's categorization of this era of mystery fiction as "Snobbery With Violence" doesn't seem to apply to these authors. There is not much snobbery or violence in their works.
There are also false trails of evidence in Freeman's works, and breakdowns of identity while leaving the false evidence. These motifs are very strong in The Eye of Osiris, for example. Freeman's work can be considered the direct source for these techniques in the school of police realism.
By contrast, there are some differences between this school and Freeman's work. Detective work in Freeman tends to be based in science, which is not always true for these writers, who probably lack Freeman's scientific background, for starters. These writers tend to be much more interested in daily life and the business world than Freeman ever was. Freeman tended to look askance on the modern world, longing for the historical past, while Crofts' characters pride themselves on being "men of the world".
Trails of evidence in Freeman tend to be physical: following a series of footprints or tire tracks, for example. There is plenty of this in the police realism writers, but there are also trails of the following kind: at 7, the subject was at the restaurant, at 8 at the opera, at 11 at his hotel - or so he claims. This sort of trail is much more common in the school of police realism, and seems to be a particular focus of Crofts.
There are even some superficial echoes of Crofts writing in Propper's works. The young policeman who witnesses part of the crime on his beat and rushes in to help, in One Murdered, Two Dead (1936), seems reminiscent of a similar young constable in the opening sections of The Cask. I haven't read that much of Propper's work, but what I know about it suggests more of a Crofts feel than an Ellery Queen or S.S. Van Dine approach.
The importance of background in Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, and Gaudy Night, comes right out of the Freeman-Crofts paradigm. Also, the plotting style of the first two of these novels is a long way from the formal detective story (or "puzzle plot") as found in Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. Neither is a true puzzle plot, by any standards, nor do they attempt to be puzzle plots.
The style of plotting in The Nine Tailors reflects elements of Croftsian practice, that involving laborious reconstruction by detectives. The detective plot of The Nine Tailors involves reconstructions of a complex series of past crimes. Each piece neatly dovetails into other pieces, and eventually builds up a complete picture. This is similar to the detectives in The Cask reconstructing the movements of the cask and the suspects. The "feel" of the two books is similar: reading The Cask immediately reminded me of Sayers. I have mixed feelings about this reconstruction technique. It has a certain charm, a certain beauty of pattern unfolding and completing, as the story of the crime gradually comes together. However, it lacks deep artistry, in my opinion, and never grips me the way a formal detective story does. There is always a certain element of work, for this reader at least, a certain feel of duty more than pleasure, in plowing through the text and accompanying the detectives on their labors.
When Sayers does use puzzle plots, as in some of her later Wimsey ("The Queen's Square", "Absolutely Elsewhere") and in most of the Montague Egg short stories, they are generally Croftsian in feel. Alibis are central, whether focusing on time, or on the complexities of railroad travel. There is also a horror story, "In the Teeth of the Evidence", that focuses on corpse identification through teeth, like some mad extension of a Freeman tale. Many of Sayers' works focus on ingenious poisonings, a Freeman specialty.
Differences between Sayers and the Crofts school focus more on content than on detectival form. Sayers used flamboyant amateur detectives, such as Lord Peter Wimsey, instead of the colorless policemen of Crofts & Co. Her backgrounds focus on areas of great personal importance to her, such as religion and women's education, so they are far more emotionally and intellectually significant to her than the businesses described by Crofts. Sayers' whole literary style focuses on liveliness and color, instead of the gray naturalism favored by Crofts and his school.
Still Sayers' unique subject matter and style should not disguise how much Sayers has in common with Freeman and Crofts, especially when her works are studied as detective stories. The underlying similarities of detectival approach are substantial.
The second wave of American influence was a one by one emergence of American writers during the 1920's and 1930's who wrote within the paradigms of the realist school. These include such writers as Karl W. Detzer, Earl Derr Biggers, Lawrence L. Blochman, Milton M. Propper, and Helen McCloy.
The third wave of American realists crested in the late 1940's and 1950's. It involved veteran realist writers like Blochman and McCloy, and newcomers such as A.Z.H. Carr and Hughes Allison. Several factors contributed to the rise of Realism during this time. This era was one in which there was a stress on society and its institutions being examined in American mystery fiction. This focus was a property of mystery fiction as a whole, not just the realist school. It also affected other branches of popular culture, such as the movies, and science fiction. Among the schools of mystery fiction, the Realist school was uniquely well placed to examine society. Its emphasis on Backgrounds which realistically depict a social institution or a society gave it a built in mechanism for sociological study. Also, the school's traditional sympathetic investigations of minority racial groups helped it be on the cutting edge of one of the most important trends of the era, the Civil Rights movement.
The Realist school's flourishing during the post war period was also related to matters of attitude and confidence. After World War II ended in 1945, many publishers and critics began to regard traditional mystery fiction as passé, preferring instead crime novels, hard-boiled thrillers, and suspense fiction: crime stories without mystery plots or detection. This had a destructive effect on mystery fiction as a whole. It was harder for mystery authors to publish their work. And it looks as if several authors lost confidence in their work, and left mystery fiction to write other kinds of things - Carr to historical fiction, Sayers to poetry, Rinehart to mainstream fiction. Ellery Queen de-emphasized the puzzle plot in such books as Cat of Many Tails (1949). By contrast, the Realist school stuck to their guns. While everyone else was rushing to publish non-mystery oriented fiction, they wrote full fledged mystery stories in the realist tradition, complete with puzzle plots, police procedural and/or scientific detective work, Backgrounds, and the breakdown of identity. In mystery fiction, as in much of life, self confidence is directly linked to success. In addition, one suspects that realist stories appealed to publishers because of their sociological detail. Publishers would be willing to "forgive" writers for the "sin" of including a puzzle plot, because of the social Backgrounds in their stories.
The Mason books often deal with a background of business, realistically presented, just as do the Crofts school. The Mason books focus less on an "inside" picture of the day to day operation of some business, however, and more on financial struggles to control the business or to establish new enterprises. These struggles add dramatic conflict to the plot, something that is conspicuously lacking in Crofts.
Similarly, the police and Mason have a dramatic, adversarial relation. By contrast, Crofts completely fails to even confront the PI who solves The Cask with any of the police who dominate the investigation in the first two thirds of the book. Gardner's approach involves much more conflict: adding to the drama, but also avoiding the deliberately calm, thoughtful mood in which Crofts engulfs his plots.
Legal questions play a major role in Freeman, Wade, Propper, and maybe others of the Crofts school. Here once again, the influence of this school on the Perry Mason books is apparent.
A major plot element of The Cask is the alleged adultery of a rich businessman's wife. This will be a constant, much repeated motif in the Perry Mason books.
The Crofts school did not consistently feature puzzle plots in their work, although they included ingenious ideas about alibis, faked trails of evidence, identity breakdowns that often approached the puzzle plot. They also did not eschew ingenious puzzles if they happened to come up with them. This is similar to Gardner's attitude: he didn't worry if he didn't have a puzzle plot, but was content to thoroughly reconstruct a crime. But sometimes he did include ingenious puzzles.
Gardner also puts much emphasis on tracking down trails of evidence, both physical and alibis. Bad guys often leave fake trails, and the "breakdown of identity" is a theme in some of the stories. The breakdown of identity can involve both humans, and animals (The Case of the Perjured Parrot) and inanimate objects, just as in Crofts. While these elements are important strands in Gardner's web, he interweaves them with other types of plot elements, so that they are less relentlessly, systematically used than in the British police realism school.
The following is a checklist. It lists characteristics for each of the five writers: R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, The Coles, E.C. Bentley, H.C. Bailey. Then for each of these five writers, it gives a list of that writer's followers.
Crofts' and Freeman's followers tend to be two distinct groups. Writers tend not to influenced by them equally. An exception was Dorothy L. Sayers; even she felt the influence serially, passing first through a Freeman influenced period, then a Crofts one. Freeman's followers tend to continue his tradition of scientific detection. By contrast Croftsians do not tend to be especially scientific, unlike Freeman and his followers. Oddly, Crofts himself is very scientific, and very influenced by Freeman in this direction. Crofts himself is close to Freeman, whereas Crofts' followers are typically not.
All Realists - Common Characteristics:
R. Austin Freeman
Writers influenced by R. Austin Freeman:
Freeman Wills Crofts
Writers influenced by Freeman Wills Crofts:
Writers influenced by The Coles:
Writers influenced by E.C. Bentley:
A group of writers partially related to the realists, and partially not, was the Bailey school. Here are some characteristics:
Writers influenced by H.C. Bailey: all contained in the article about him. They are all British authors.
Intuitionist school characteristics:
Milne added an introduction to The Red House Mystery in 1928. This introduction is virtually a manifesto for intuitionist ideas in mystery fiction. It attacks R. Austin Freeman's use of scientific detectives to solve crime. Milne includes a burlesque of some of Freeman's fiction; while not mentioned by name, the story attacked is a real one: "A Wastrel's Romance" in The Singing Bone (1912). This book is Freeman's most famous and most prestigious, and is a cornerstone work of the whole realist movement in detective fiction. Milne claims that it is almost impossible for a typical reader to anticipate the ideas of a detective who has scientific means at his disposal to solve stories. He feels that such stories are therefore unfair to readers. He prefers stories in which the detective solves the mystery through pure intellect, reasoning upon facts which are known to the reader. Such an emphasis on pure human reason is the core of the intuitionist approach.
Some comments: I have labeled Milne's school the "intuitionists". This is for short hand convenience. In their day, they had no short, convenient name. S.S. Van Dine called them "the logic-cum-intuition school", and this name is perhaps better, in that it emphasizes their devotion to reason in solving problems. But they also achieved their breakthroughs by intuitive leaps in understanding the basic nature of the mysteries they were trying to solve; a phenomena called "insight" by modern cognitive psychologists, one that plays a crucial role in scientific discovery.
More comments on Milne: How "unfair" is Freeman's approach? Freeman kept to scrupulous scientific accuracy in his works. But the reader of The Singing Bone has no way of anticipating some of the physical clues Dr. Thorndyke might find. The reader can only watch while Thorndyke uncovers a certain kind of dust, and then concludes the killer lives in a certain district of London. It is fascinating, and realistic, but it is not "fair play". (One might add that this scene in "A Wastrel's Romance" is one of the most magical and enchanting in Freeman.)
Milne believed that the intuitionist approach, by its very nature, was fair to the reader. The reader of a detective story sees all of the same facts that the detective sees. The detective then solves the crime through a mix of logic and intuitive insight. The reader has the same mental skills, and presumably has a fair chance to apply logic and intuition to obtain the same solution as the detective. I think Milne's argument is essentially sound here. It does not prove that the intuitionist approach is the only fair play way to construct a mystery, but it is true that mysteries based on the intuitionist approach are inherently fair to readers.
Another implication of Milne's approach, is that since the detection is done by pure human intellect, the detective can be anyone, amateur or professional, who is good at thinking. Milne underlines this point by making his detective an affable, ordinary upper middle class Englishman, Anthony Gillingham, an "anyone for tennis" type, a person with no previous experience or special detectival skills. (Similarly, Milne's fellow intuitionist Agatha Christie introduced her little old lady sleuth, Miss Marple, a woman who had little experience beyond her village, but who was wonderfully intelligent and insightful.)
Let's switch focus to the hard-boiled school of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. One of the school's founders, Hammett, was probably influenced by the realist approach of Freeman and his disciple, Freeman Wills Crofts. Hammett's first Continental Op story, "Arson Plus" (1923), shows many signs of influence from Crofts, and the whole low key, "day in the life of a private detective" approach used first by Hammett, and then by Chandler, seems ultimately to derive from Crofts' similarly realist tales of police procedure. We know from a much quoted letter of Chandler's that he was a deep admirer of Freeman, and his essay "The Simple Art of Murder" labels Crofts as the most realistic, and hence the best, of the Golden Age mystery writers. While the hard-boiled school was very different from the realist school, Chandler and Hammett seemed to regard the realist writers as much admired models and precedents for their fiction.
Chandler's attack on Milne's book in "The Simple Art of Murder" is not a free form attack on Milne's novel. Instead, it concentrates on refuting the intuitionist and anti-realist school ideas set forth in Milne's introduction. One suspects that Chandler choose The Red House Mystery for discussion because of its introduction, not because anything in the novel particularly interested him. Chandler agues that professional police detectives could have solved the crime in The Red House Mystery much faster and more efficiently that Milne's amateur detective does. Chandler also argues that the use of scientific detective techniques, such as fingerprints and the telegraph, would have produced better results that Milne's use of pure reason. Chandler's arguments in favor of the police, and of scientific detection, two pillars of the "realist" school's approach, have considerable weight. He clearly establishes that the methods favored by realist writers such as Freeman and Crofts would achieve a good solution of the case. If Chandler successfully defends the "honor" of the realist approach here, he fails, in my judgment, to demolish the legitimacy of the intuitionist approach favored by Milne, or to show that there is anything wrong in the intuitionist detection in The Red House Mystery.
Chandler's arguments here are between two approaches to detective fiction, the realist and the intuitionist. It is worth pointing out several things which are not found in Chandler's essay. Chandler does not claim that Milne is a bad prose stylist, or is somehow "subliterary". Chandler does not claim that either Milne or mystery fiction as a whole are beyond the boundaries of serious art.
Chandler's essay went beyond arguing the two approaches to detection, however. He also was interested in the subject matter and social backgrounds of the crimes depicted. He made a claim that the underworld characters shown by Hammett were the only ones likely to commit murder in real life, and that hence, only crime books set in a hard-boiled, underground milieu were truly accurate or realistic. And because this sort of social realism was the principal criterion on how books should be judged, Chandler felt that only hard-boiled books were worthy of artistic respect. Here the word "realism" is being used in its traditional literary sense, not as a synonym for the Freeman school, but as involving a realistic depiction of society.
The word "realism" has two overlapping meanings in criticism of the 1920's through the 1940's. On the one hand, it meant realism in the Balzac-Zola sense, writers who gave a realistic portrait of society, crime and the police. On the other hand, it was often used to both invoke and praise the Freeman-Crofts school of "Realist" detective writers. "Realism" was Chandler's battle cry as a critic. It was also a chief concern of Dashiell Hammett's mystery criticism in the 1920's.
Chandler's arguments here have often been ignored or misrepresented by later critics who have cited his essay. Most have been oblivious to the difference in approaches between Freeman-style realists and intuitionists. Chandler's final arguments about hard-boiled school being more realistic are also ignored. Most contemporary critics do not use social realism any more as the sole criterion of literary excellence. Instead, many contemporary critics tend to regard the hard-boiled school as showing literary excellence, and depict most non-hard-boiled Golden Age writers as subliterary types. Chandler's essay never made any such claims, but his essay is often dragged in in support of this viewpoint.
Hammett's review of S.S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case (1926) is consistent with a Realist position. He is deeply annoyed at the use of a genius amateur detective in the Intuitionist tradition. Hammett repeatedly points out how routine police procedure, of the kind favored by Realist writers, especially followers of Freeman Wills Crofts, would have solved the crime. He criticizes Van Dine in detail for not allowing his police to perform such steps. Hammett lists a whole series of potential police lines of investigation, lines absent in Van Dine's book, that would have helped solve the case. Hammett states that Van Dine left such police investigations out of the novel to "supply this genius [Philo Vance] with a field for his operations".
Hammett's criticisms of Benson are very similar to Chandler's objections to Milne's The Red House Mystery, nearly twenty years later. Both dislike the use of an amateur detective to solve a crime through pure thinking. Both correctly point out how regular, routine police investigation could have solved the crime instead. Such routine police investigation was the favored approach of Crofts and his followers. Both are somewhat mysteriously horrified by Milne and Van Dine using a different, "pure thinking by an amateur" approach. Hammett correctly points out that only the deliberate suppression of such police investigations in Benson leaves room for an amateur detective to operate: "a field for his operations". This spatial metaphor is vivid and interesting.
Once again, my position on this is as follows: Hammett and Chandler are partially correct in their analysis of the Intuitionist school. Many crimes solved by pure thinking in Intuitionist novels could also have been solved by Croftsian police investigation. But I do not see why this matters. Isn't the use of pure thinking a fascinating spectacle? Thinking and investigation are modes for the advance of science, and much creativity, engineering and human progress. Shouldn't we admire and enjoy fictional depictions of this process? Isn't the Intuitionist approach a valid and worthwhile one for the detective story?
Hammett is on weaker grounds in his criticism of Philo Vance. Hammett states that Vance's discussions of art are a "bore". Boredom is a matter of personal judgment, of course. But I can only strenuously object to this. Philo Vance on world art is fascinating. His creator S.S. Van Dine was one of America's most gifted art critics. Both Hammett and Chandler mainly wrote about either underworld types, or the decadent rich. They seem to think that these two classes of people are all that should interest any human being. Chandler even goes on to say that such writing is the only honest writing of our time, a statement that has always been a red flag to many dissenters. Joyce Carol Oates was especially scathing about this in her recent review of Chandler. By contrast, Van Dine school writers have regularly set their work among the intelligentsia. Their books often feature scholars in some area of the arts, or people involved in the creation of theater or film. Such characters are deeply interesting and appealing. As Chandler and his followers have never tired of pointing out, they are less realistic as perpetrators of murder than underworld mobsters. But such intellectual characters make richly fascinating subjects for fiction.
British Casebook writers of the 1860's; "Waters", Charles Martel, Andrew Forrester, Anonyma
These writers form a huge body of mystery fiction, going back in a tradition that reaches into the 1860's.
Most focus heavily on detectives, men who try to solve crimes. Some focus instead on Rogues, clever criminals.
Disguise and undercover operations play a heavy role in most of this fiction. In other words, there is a direct connection between FBI agent Vinnie Terranova going undercover on the TV show Wise Guy in the 1980's, and Lecoq's use of disguise in Gaboriau's Le Crime d'Orcival in the 1860's.
There is typically not a heavy use of the puzzle plot in this mystery fiction. There are exceptions: in the pulps, both Gardner and Bellem combined this tradition with the puzzle plotting that was the center of their Intuitionist contemporaries of the Golden Age. On the whole, however, while there are mysteries, detectives and detective work in these tales, the puzzle plot is largely absent.
Many of these writers appeared in media other than books. These media tended to be less prestigious than regular books. These media include casebooks, dime novels, pulp magazines, B movies, comic books, movie serials and TV crime shows. These media are all considered "subliterary". They are outlets that are considered automatically to mark anything that appears in them with a taint, suggesting that it is clearly written to artistic standards below the norm. Whether or not that this judgment is correct is another matter: I will go on to argue in the Guide that many of these works show considerable artistic accomplishment. But the official perception of these formats by most leaders of our culture is that they and their contents are systematically inferior.
These media are also often considered to be targeted to a lower class audience. Not the absolute poor, in most cases; rather to the working classes that were on the bottom of the social heap. This is clearly not entirely true: Black Mask's readers included Dorothy L. Sayers, for instance, the Oxford educated daughter of an English clergyman. Still, the working class stigma clings to this fiction. It is part of its whole subliterary reputation: Inferior fiction in subliterary media for the lower classes.
Scientific Detection: L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace