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The New York herald. [volume] (New York, N.Y.) 1920-1924, April 02, 1922, SECTION EIGHT, Image 103

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What Are the Great Mvsterv Stories and Whv?
By LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE,
Author of "The Bras* Bowl," "The
Black Bag," "The Bronze Bell,"
Ac.
HE is a sad clown who doesn't
take his clowning seriously;
even he whose dreams are
haunted by a vision of himself in
the habit of Hamlet must be ex
pected to bristle a bit if he have rea
son to believe his ancient art mis
prized. And the chances are that he
wrill need only to be subjected to a
psychic frisking, such as provides
our intelligentsia with its favorite
Indoor sport, to be found guilty of
hip toting professional prejudices
containing far more than half of
one per cent, of pure venom. Upon
Buch manifestations of humanity in
clowns the seasoned will look in
dulgently. It is comfortable to pre
tend that the opinions of others don't
matter . . .
In this mood the writer is dis
posed to question the wisdom dis
played by the editor in picking on
one so long identified as a writer of
mystery stories to write about mys
tery stories and their writers. He
addresses himself to his topic, indeed,
with considerable diffidence, well
aware that his frankly partisan
pleadings are open to challenge as
utterances of simple self-interest, by
no means unconscious of the prompt
ings of amour propre, and fearful
lest his prejudices and faulty mem
ory lead him into error. A ticklish
task . . .
But one thing nerves his paltering
hand, the knowledge that the plea
he means to enter on behalf of the
mystery story can't be construed as
?wholly a selfish one in this season,
when the book he is offering isn't
a mystery story in any sense . . .
if one except an obvious question in
respect of its publication at any
season . . .
He has now in mind a time, too
long ago, when dumb luck startled
him out of an uneasy obscurity in
the penumbra of the literary spot
light with the news that he had,
overnight. In effect, become the
father of a best selling book. An
experience which imbued him with
sympathetic insight info the emo
tional reactions of all parents of ugly
ducklings. . . . He recalls an
evening subsequently spent in , the
home of a pretty lady with a good
husband, a kind heart, a vague eye
and an editorial berth that brimmed
her cup with sweetness and light.
She was telling the author how per
fectly thrilled she had been by his
book, how she had Wen positively
unable to put it down from the mo
ment when her attention was riv
eted by its opening phrases until j
that Inevitable ungodly hour in the
small of the morning when her poor, j
tired eyes read the closing words, j
And he remembers, oh, most
clearly! how glad and proud this
incense made him, and how he
purred a little?modestly, he hopes.
But of a sudden the pretty lady
became acutely aware that others
were listening in of the little com
pany whom she had bidden to meeJ
this lucky dog, and she stammered
guiltily. "But," she said, smoothing
her lap with a nervous hand?MBut,
of course, you understand. I don't
really care for mystery stories."
II.
Tlie author wondered th?n, and he
ts still wondering, with a wonder re
stimulated from time to time by
echoes in substantial sense of that
apology, why is It that a taste for
fiction that pleases mainly because
of the ingenuity with which its
plot is fashioned should be held
something low. and why a kpack at
fabricating such tales connotes to
the goneral an intelligence incapable
of appreciating (much less essaying)
other forms ot, literary expression?
For they are few and far to seek,
outside the thin well read line of
Presidents and Justices of the Su
preme Court of the United States
and Premiers of England, who will
hardly own up to liking a mfcrc mys
tery yarn. . . . And once, when
Th* Sun conducted a symposium on
the two best books of individual
reading published during a certain
year, the then editor prefaced the
author's nomination of "E! Supremo"
and "Sonia" with expressions of po
lite astonishment that so notorious
a peddler of fictional dope should
discover tastes so catholic!
Even at that time the authof was
inclined to fancy himself moderately
as the writer of more than one no\ el
not properly to be classed with the
mysteriously declasse mystery story;
and through such experiments he
has learned that, at least to one of
his gifts, no form of literary com
position is so difficult, no labor so
onerous and exacting, as the mak
ing of a mystery that will not wabble
under the weight of every hard look.
Which is one reason why It affords
him so much delight to come across
such a story from a new pen, and so
much vicarious indignation when he
sees it dismissed (as ordinarily it is)
with an impatient flirt of the critical
quill, as just another of those things,
while at the same time the rankest
sprout in the pseudo-psycho-car
naiytical hotbed and the most gauche
graduate of the flapperdoodlc class
are recommanded as noteworthy per
formances in the field of contem
poraneous letters. t _
The author pauses here to cock an
ear attentive to the drone of his mo
tor, fearing to detect the grumble of
personal grievance in Its generator
. . . and resumes reassured, hon
estly persuaded that he makes this
moan not on his singular account,
but rather as self-appointed cham
pion of a class of writers, of whom
he is one, and whose work he be
lieves to be commonly undervalued,
for what it is, when it isn't through
indifference or downright bias mis
represented.
Granted that most mystery stories
must fairly be reckoned trash, it will
hardly be claimed that any other
class of fiction, taking it by and
large, makes a nobler showing, or
that better than 15 per cent, (ad
mittedly an optimist's guess) of any ,
year's whole output of novels rises
above the level of even tolerable
mediocrity, therefore this author
contends that, as with work of other
sorts, when a workmanlike mystery
story turns up it ought to be pro
claimed as such, without regard to j
the predilections of the reviewer and
irrespective of th? clamor of clear
treble voices which rings down the
aisles of the literary jungle as the
bandarlog-rollers of the day roll
from log to log, gleefully chasing one
another's tales.
- in.
The mystery story may not be
"important" in the sense in which
that adjective may be applied to the
thoughtful study of life; but surely
to be entertaining for entertain
ment's sake alone is no unworthy
aim; surely there is nothing intrin
sically contemptible in a medium
which Balzac employed upon occa
sion, and Poe, too, and Conrad, Ste
venson, Henry James, Kipling,
Dickens, Mark Twain, Hudson, De
Morgan, Du Maurier?heaven knows
how many more honored pens!
Surely the mystery story of to-day
isn't necessarily to be held negligible
because in our day as in others
scores of ordinarily competent jour
neymen artisans have taken a fling
at it and returned to their lasts
sadder and wiser writers. "La Peau
de Chagrin,' a mystery story in
double sense, and "Une Tenebreuse
Affaire." among other essays of Bal- j
zac's, unquestionably influenced Poe
to compose tales of mystery which
made his name, and incidentally
American letters, illustrious. "Tom
Sawyer" and "Pudd'nhead Wilson",
were rare mystery stories. De Mor
gan seemingly couldn't write without
a mystery to lure on his pen. Con- 1
rad's "Chance," for the best part of
its great length, is a mystery story
superbly handled, and so is "Ro- j
mance." Dickens strung story after
story on threads of mystery, ending ^
with that whose snarl can never be
unraveled, "Edwin Drood. Th?
Turn of the Screw," if nothing else,
admits James to the goodly company
of the great who weren't too great!
to try?-and who didn't fail. The j
Man Who Would Be King" is. of j
course, by far the finest of Kipling s j
many briefer mystery stories; in his j
later manner there is "The Brush
wood Boy," for one of a dozen, all
admirable; and "Kim" carries its
fair measure of mystery, too. "Green
Mansions" is a great mystery story,
the greater for its exquisite simplic- ,
ity. A more perfect tale of mystery j
than "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" you
will search long to find; yet to this -
writer's taste nothing that Stevenson
ever wrote?or, for that matter, that
any other author ever wrote?holds J
so much of sheer magic as^ "The
Wrecker."
Here, if you please, is mystery that ,
runs full tide Trom start to close, a
dark, swift stream of wonder and
dread, whose illegible face is none the
less swept by the high winds of true i
romance, whose black ripples none
the less laugh back at the sun. . . .
With consummate craftsmanship the
secret of its enigma?posed by an
easy grouping of everyday circum
stances?is withheld to the very last;
the explanation, always the tricky
point In a tale of this order and too
frequently the disappointing one, is
at once simple enough to content the
most captious stickler for "proba
bility," and strange beyond all tell
ing. Rich with human character
and humor and drenched with color
of incomparable loveliness, a warm
book; this author finds it everything
a great mystery story ought to be.
He has read it at least a dozen times,
he hopes to read it as many more;
and he wiil lay it down at the last, as
after the first reading, with a sigh
of envy for that art which guards so
jealously the secret of Its sorcery.
Dumas dealt in mystery with a
spendthrift hand, though it isn't easy
to name one of his novels that may
rightly be rated a true mystery
story. He was forever giving a gay
gesture of mystery and forever run
ning short of patience to carry out
sure of finding, with him, a reward
ing mystery.
In novels dealing with the super
natural Bram Stoker's "Dracula"
set a standard which few writers
since have succeeded in approaching.
Of a slightly different order, but
still of the same school, the stories
of Arthur Machen, collected under
the titles of "The Hill of Dreams"
and "The Great God Pan," contrive
unique illusions of strangeness and
terror. Using like materials, Alger
non Blackwood, though more am
bitious. seems the lesser artist Som
erset Maugham was more successful
with "The Magician," a tale whose
weird atmosphere of horror ranks
with that of Wells's "Island of Dr.
Moreau."
Two excellent mystery stories that
have given this author hours of keen
enjoyment are little known in this
country, possibly in part "because of
their unfortunate titles ? "WOs"
and "The Ocean Sleuth"?by- Maurice
Drake. Lacking the supreme artistry
of Stevenson, their mysteries are
quite as sanely compounded as is
that of "The Wrecker," they are well
? Louis Joseph Vance.
Its promise through more than a few
chapters. His people lived at too
?brisk a pace to have time to waste
on riddles. "When a secret sought to
plant itself in the path of d'Artagnan
he had the heart out of it with his
sword in a twinkling, and hastened
on his headlong way with a laugh
for (he stupidity of the business.
His impetuous shoulders made noth
ing of the webs which Aramis was
always weaving between his ways
and the honest light of day. . . .
And in general Dumas had scant use
for mystery save as an expedient;
when invention faltered and pace of
narrative threatened to flag, it was
his custom to drag in some strange
character by the ears, christen him
The Unknown, and let speculation
about his identity keep interest
a-simmer till invention got its sec
ond wind and the story picked up its
heels once again ? when inconti
nently, as a rule. The Unknown
would be rudely shorn of his preten
tious incognito and left to shift for
himself in the ruck. m
At the knees of this colossus
stands one by no means of his stat
ure, but a giant among mystery
writers notwithstanding ? Jules
Verne, progenitor of ten thousand
tales of intriguing invention. And as
Poe was to Doyle, so Verne seems to
have stood to the H. G. Wells That
Was?one of the most ingenious of
mystery mongers in a day whose
passing has not for all of us been
altogether compensated for by H.
G. Wells As Is. The list of those puz
zle stories of his younger years is
long, and every one is worth your
while.
Of another school are the novels
of Sir Rider Haggard. Elements of
mysticism inform his mysteries, in
timations of supernatural forces at
work play like heat-lightning down
the far horizons of his midnight
skies. Wherever Allan Quatermain
turns in his wanderings you may be
written by a writer of excellent hu
mor. So are John Buchan's "The
Watcher on the Threshold," in which
the supernatural plays some part,
and "Greenmantle," In Which It
doesn't; the latter is one of the best
stories of mystery and adventure
ever penned. The stories of Bernard
Capes should find a place in the
same rack, somewhat overman nered
though most of them are. E. Phillips
Oppenlieim to-day carries on (not
consciously, in all likelihood) the
tradition of Henry Seton Merriman.
Jle hasn't mastered Merriman's con
vincing trick of sober and matter of
fact statement, understatement it
often seems, and his treatment is all
his own, hut he uses the same
brushes and pigments and makes
much the same choice of subjects.
At his best, when Oppenheim him
self is really interested, his mystery
stories are quite the finest of their
kind.
Echoes of mystery stories half
forgotten haunt the mind. This au
thor would like to read again, if
only to find out if they are really as
good as he thought them years ago.
E. W. Howe's "The Story of a Coun
try Town, Ballantyne's "The Missing
Ship," "The Great Hesper" (the
name of whose author eludes recap
ture), some ol the novels of Fergus
Hume, Cuteliffe Hyne, Archibald'
Clavering Gunter. . . . Titles and |
authors named wholly at rapdom, as
they coine to mind, without meaning !
to imply that they belong in the
! same group. . . .
In this country, within the last
two decades, a number of excellent
mystery stories have been written,
by Mary Roberts Rinehart, Meredith
| Nicholson. Robert W. Chambers and
! Rupert Hughes, whose titles are tou
' well remembered to need recount
! ing: "The Mystery," by Stewart Ed
ward White and Samuel Hopkins
Adams; "The Flying Death." by
Adams aloot; "The Leopard Worn
an," by White, likewise entirely on
his own; "The White Cat" and "Find
the Women," by-Gelett Burgess; an
other "Find the Woman" and "Un
easy Street," by Arthur Somen
Roche; "C-Q in the Wireless House"
and others, by Arthur Train; Mrs.
Atherton's "Mrs. Balfame," Tarking
ton's "The Two Van Revels" and
(though admittedly here the vein of
mysteiy Is slender) "Monsieur Beau
caire"; many of the short stories of
Irvin Cobb, Will Irwin's "The Red
Button" and "The Thirteenth Chair,"
any number of George Barr Mc
Cuteon's workmanlike romances^
Owen Johnson's "The Sixty-first
Second."
And from across the water. In the
same period, in addition to the titles
already mentioned, a series of splen
did stories have come from A. E. W.
Mason, with "Running Water" lead
ing the list, as well as B. L. Putnam
Weale's "The Human Cobweb," Cyn
thia Stockley's haunting "Blue
Ataes," Rose Macauley's"- "Potterism,"
Katherine Cecil Thurston's "The
Masquerader." ... .
Contemplation of these scrambled
lists suggests yet another reason
why the mystery story deserves bet
ter of the booktaster than it Is ac
customed to get these days. Demon
strably it' has done and is still doing
yeoman service in developing writers
of ability?and not infrequently in
suppressing the other sort, a service
as well worth generous recognition.
IV.
With the mystery story Balzac
emerged from his twilight years of
toil and frustration, with the mys
tery story Poe and Stevenson came
into their own. Sir Arthur Quiller
Couch as "Q" commenced author
with "Dead Man's Rock" and "Tile
Splendid Spur." "Peter Ibbetson"
and "Trilby" were mystery tales with
which Du Maurier developed his
genius. . . . And like these, most
of the authors of to-day who are
mentioned in this paper began with
the mystery story and have been
working up from it to higher levels?
several^of them have already gained
considerable altitudes. Those last
the mystery story taught to build
with that solidity of construction
which alone can insure permanence
in literature.
IH- V\llO VYUUiU UUliU U WCII Ili.'iue
mystery tale must respect funda
mental laws; must learn to dig and
plant a foundation firm enough to
support four walls and a roof ex
posed to" the most searching blasts
of incredulity and critical hostility.
After which it must be his part so
to embellish his building with be
coming graces of color and design
that he who runs will wish to pause
and rest in it a while. A method
whos? observance has yet to hurt
the serious study of character ani
modes and manners and which in
culcates as well a saving reVerence
for economy, simplicity and precision
of expression?for, in the sound old
word whose right significance is fast
being forgotten, grammar - the gram
mar of our English tongue, wanting
which every effort to achieve
glamour must prove unavailing.
Nevertheless, there is to-day ap
parent a studious and persistent
endeavor to deny the worth of such
honest workmanship and set up the
belief that true art in the architec
ture of fiction builds ever willfully
at random; seeking first (it would
seem) to establish an entrance, pref
erably a back door, then a scullery,
one or two more unsavory cubicles,
with bedchambers ad lib., rarely an
apartment less disconcerting, and a
foundation, if any, by way of after
thought. something as sketchy as a
pit a child will dig in sand. It is
against the rules of this school to
roof its makeshifts or hang" shutters
at the windows. ...
Work such as this can stand only
in the sight of those to whom jerry
building is a gauge gallantly flung
in the face of outworn convention.
With its contempt for first principles
of story building contempt for ele
mentary laws of language structure
and for sound usage jazzes cheek-to
cheek. Refusing to recognize any
necessity for taking form and pro
portion Into consideration when
creating a work of art, such writing
denies its right to term itself an art:
Art without form being unthinkable.
It would be amusing, then, instruc
tive as well as entertaining, if The
Dial, say, in fiursuit of its praise
worthy ambition to encourage new
writers, should condition its annual
gift of $2,000 upon the production of
a mystery story so well knit as to
command?on its merits alone?a
market with one of the popular mag
azines. One ventures the prophecy
that the results would he illuminat
ing to all concerned, donor, donee
ucd le. ig t-uHbring bystander to boot.

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