Friday, 1 July 2016

Aristotle on Crime Fiction, according to Dorothy L Sayers

I came across this brilliant essay by Dorothy L Sayers (creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the best detectives of all time, imho), in a collection of critical essays on detective fiction edited by Robin Winks and published in 1980. It was actually a reprint from her collection of essays called Unpopular Opinions. She certainly knew how to coin a title.
Now, to anyone who reads the Poetics with an unbiased mind, it is evident that Aristotle was not so much a student of his own literature as a prophet of the future. He criticised the contemporary Greek theatre because it was, at that time, the most readily available, widespread and democratic form of popular entertainment presented for his attention. But what, in his heart of hearts, he desired was a good detective story; and it was not his fault, poor man, that he lived some twenty centuries too early to revel in the Peripeties of Trent's Last Case or the Discoveries of The Hound of the Baskervilles. (p. 178)
Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Sayers goes on to treat detective fiction as if it were tragedy, according to Aristotle's Poetics. His definition of tragedy, she suggests, is very fitting for detective fiction:
"The imitation" (or presentment, or representation - we will not quarrel over the word) "of an action that is serious" - it will be admitted that murder is an action of a tolerably serious nature - "and also complete in itself" - that is highly important since a detective story that leaves any loose ends is no proper detective story at all - "with incidents arousing pity and fear, where with to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions." (pp. 179-80)
When she puts it like that, it seems perfectly reasonable to put tragedy and detective fiction in the same bracket (a useful link to bring in Hamlet to the genre, which I will probably talk about at some length in a future post). She raises several terms from tragedy which are useful for talking about detective fiction. Peripety - a reversal of fortune - can come in any number of cases, but often in the case of the victim, who is frequently someone very wealthy or or very important, who is 'reduced to the status of a mere dead body' (p. 184). Hamartia - the characteristic or failing that brings about tragedy - is often applicable either to the victim or indeed to the villain. One of Aristotle's final concepts is that of Discovery - the denouement of the story. Aristotle, says Sayers, has several types of discovery, but she is most interested in the fifth type.
He calls it discovery through bad reasoning by the other party. The instance he adduces is obscure, the text being apparently mutilated and referring to a play unknown. But I think he really means to describe the discovery by bluff. Thus, the detective shows the suspect a weapon saying, "If you are not the murder, how do you come to be in possession of this weapon?" The suspect replied: "But that is not the weapon with which the crime was committed." "Indeed?" says the detective, "and how do you know?" (p. 185)
This strikes me as a very useful concept for considering elements of crime writing. The other forms of discovery, which are fairly self explanatory, are: 1) discoveries made by the author himself (rather scathingly noted by Sayers and which we might refer to as a deus ex machina); 2) the discovery by signs and tokens (e.g. the discovery that someone is left handed leads to his being revealed as the murderer); 3) discovery through memory, when a detective's memory is finally jogged and he remembers a similar case that reveals all (Miss Marple's uncanny memory of parallel occurrences in St Mary Mead that suddenly make the case crystal clear, if only to her); and 4) discovery through reasoning.

In passing Sayers makes a good point about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the set texts on Elements of Crime Writing (AQA B). 'Arguing from the particular to the general, we may be seduced into concluding that, because the original Dr. Watson was a good man, all Watsons are good in virtue of their Watsonity. But this is false reasoning, for moral worth and Watsonity are by no means inseparable' (p. 188). The narrator of TMofRA, the doctor, presents himself as playing Watson to Poirot's Holmes, and therefore we are led into not suspecting him.

A final quote, which delights me: 'few people can have been inspired to murder their uncles by the literary merits of Hamlet' (p. 180). It's the 'few' that gets me. Not none.

Sayers, D. L. (1946) 'Aristotle on Detective Fiction' in Unpopular Opinions (London: The Camelot Press), pp. 178–190.

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