Fiction Fundamentals

In Defense of The Supernatural in Detective Fiction

15 October 2019

From Crime Reads:

Some months ago, I had dinner in New York with an old friend, one of the most senior figures in the American mystery community. We tend to differ on almost every subject under the sun, food and wine apart, but it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, and I like to think that we have both mastered that art, for the most part.

Toward the end of the evening, my friend suggested that I had made two errors in my career. One was the decision not to write exclusively in the mystery genre, but to explore other areas of writing. This, he felt, had damaged me commercially—although, as I pointed out to him, it had benefited me creatively. My second error, he believed, was to have mixed the mystery genre with the supernatural. Whatever its benefits or disadvantages to me, either commercially or creatively, he believed that this simply should not have been done. For him, the supernatural had no place in the mystery novel, and there are many in mystery community who share his opinion.

Naturally enough, I demurred. This perceived line of demarcation between the genres is largely a product of the early part of the last century. If we are to point the finger at a single culprit, we may choose Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, the British writer, critic, and theologian. Knox was a witty, urbane Catholic cleric, although a little too clever for some.

. . . .

Perhaps the most famous popular demonstration of Knox’s cleverness are his 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, a set of rules for crime writing published in 1929, of which the Second advises: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” Knox, one can’t help but feel, was probably writing with his tongue fixed ever-so-gently in his cheek (his Fifth Commandment declares that “No Chinaman must figure in the story,” a wag of the finger in the direction of purveyors of the so-called “Yellow Peril” school of crime writing.) Yet while some of Knox’s rules fell by the wayside, or were deliberately violated by storytellers . . . his injunction against the supernatural appeared to become engrained in the lore of genre, with only very occasional exceptions, William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel Falling Angel possibly being the most notable of them.

The crime novel is a product of rationalism, which predicates the value of reason over experience or, indeed, spiritual revelation. But as I tried to explain to my dinner companion, the relationship between crime writers and rationalism has always been more fraught, and more creatively interesting, than the purism of Knox—or, more correctly, his followers—allows. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868 and generally regarded as the first modern detective novel, is suffused with a fear of the supernatural. The theft of the titular Indian diamond by Colonel Herncastle during the Siege of Seringapatam seems to unleash all manner of misfortune on his niece, Rachel Verinder, and her family. Whether the Moonstone is actually cursed or not is beside the point. What matters is the belief that a curse may exist.

Or take Edgar Allan Poe, possibly one of the least rational men ever to have set foot on God’s earth.

. . . .

But the most interesting case of all is that of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the paragon of logical detection, Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle believed in the Cottingley Fairies, an infamous British photographic hoax perpetrated in 1917, and attended séances in the company of Harry Houdini in the hope that Houdini would help him to spot fake mediums—not because Conan Doyle was a skeptic, but quite the opposite: he wished to locate true mediums in order to communicate with his dead wife and child.

. . . .

Philosophically—and, indeed, creatively, given Conan Doyle’s own preference for his historical novels—Conan Doyle’s worldview seems entirely at odds with that of his own most successful creation, and I can’t help but wonder if the two happiest words he ever committed to print were those he wrote in his diary after sending the great detective over the Reichenbach Falls in 1893: “Killed Holmes.”

. . . .

My dinner guest was having none of it. One could not, he affirmed, view a writer’s art in the context of his life. Some degree of separation was required. As a writer, I considered that a writer’s life and his creative work remained inseparable. I fell back on the words of the poet W.B. Yeats (who was, along with Conan Doyle, a member of the paranormal research body known as the ‘Ghost Club’): “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Link to the rest at Crime Reads