R. Austin Freeman: The Art of the Detective Story (2)

R. Austin Freeman

R. Austin Freeman

We left R. Austin Freeman’s 1924 essay earlier in the week, with his opinion on why a lot of detective fiction is no good. He proceeds (not without a certain amount of self-congratulation, I feel) to outline why it should be left to the experts.

… a completely executed detective story is a very difficult and highly technical work, a work demanding in its creator the union of qualities which, if not mutually antagonistic, are at least seldom met with united in a single individual. On the one hand, it is a work of imagination, demanding the creative, artistic faculty; on the other, it is a work of ratiocination, demanding the power of logical analysis and subtle and acute reasoning; and, added to these inherent qualities, there must be a somewhat extensive outfit of special knowledge.

So, best just to leave it to Mr Freeman…

His next argument is that detective fiction is different to mere crime fiction, which is merely sensational. By the way, considering he wrote his essay in 1924, Freeman was prescient about the development of the film industry.

The entertainments of the cinema have to be conducted on a scale of continually increasing sensationalism. The wonders that thrilled at first become commonplace, and must be reinforced by marvels yet more astonishing. Incident must be piled on incident, climax on climax, until any kind of construction becomes impossible.

And this is before he saw Transformers IV: Age of Extinction.

Freeman ends with top tips for detective-story writers. First, don’t play any dirty tricks with the reader.

Devices to confuse and mislead the reader are bad practice. They deaden the interest, and they are quite unnecessary; the reader can always be trusted to mislead himself, no matter how plainly the data are given […]  It may generally be taken that the author may exhibit his facts fearlessly provided only that he exhibits them separately and unconnected.

Bad detective fiction tends ‘to be pervaded by logical fallacies, and especially by the fallacy of the undistributed middle term’.

I had to look his up, and want to share my hard-won knowledge with you now. The fallacy of the undistributed middle term can be illustrated very clearly with two examples.

1. All lions are animals. All cats are animals.
Therefore, all lions are cats.

This makes sense, so we accept it, but if we plug in different terms we can see that it is nonsense.

2. All ghosts are imaginary. All unicorns are imaginary. Therefore, all ghosts are unicorns.

The seems to me true of many explanations in detective fiction, and is used to good (although I thought slightly wearing) effect in The Poisoned Chocolates Case.

So, make sure your ending really works, logically as well as dramatically.

It is to be noted that the dramatic quality of the climax is strictly dependent on the intellectual conviction which accompanies it. This is frequently overlooked, especially by general novelists who experiment in detective fiction. In their eagerness to surprise the reader, they forget that he has also to be convinced.

All told, as a set of instructions for the aspiring detective-story writer, this essay is pretty useful. As an advert for R. Austin Freeman, it’s even better.

1924-ClubThe Art of the Detective Story is my entry in The 1924 Club run by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.



About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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9 Responses to R. Austin Freeman: The Art of the Detective Story (2)

  1. Santosh Iyer says:

    I note that you have a new banner !


  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent! Love the line “the reader can always be trusted to mislead himself, no matter how plainly the data are given” – I do that all the time…. A great entry for the 1924 Club!


  3. JJ says:

    “And this is before he saw Transformers IV: Age of Extinction”

    I literally spat tea all over my computer when I read that. And the rest of your ctirque is excellent, too – I agree with a lot of what Freeman is saying, so maybe I shold get round to some of his books now. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John says:

    If you like inverted detective novels (and Freeman practically invented the subgenre) his book THE SHADOW OF THE WOLF is a superior example of that form. IMO, it’s his finest novel.


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