GLEN COVE, NY — Once, detective stories were an essential element of popular fiction. That their golden age has long passed is a sad commentary on today’s educational and cultural environments.
Detective stories were often written by respected writers, such as G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Isaac Asimov wrote detective/science fiction stories that followed the classical pattern. The books usually came bound with a floor plan of a large country house next to the title page. The heroes of these stories were an eclectic group: a member of the House of Lords, a Jesuit priest, a Belgian detective, and a recovering drug addict who lived with his doctor in London. Whatever their differences, the common element these unlikely characters shared was that they were not police detectives conducting official investigations. This exclusion was, indeed, the subject of good-natured self-ridicule by the authors.
The classic detective story typically began with a murder in a country house large enough to have a dozen suspects on hand. The police detective assigned to the case always picked the wrong suspect. Readers were introduced to all the suspects, and along the way, were given well-disguised clues as to which one was actually guilty. At the end, the hero exposed the guilty party, usually in the presence of every character in the book. This would be a chance for readers to either congratulate themselves on getting it right or wonder how they had gotten it wrong.
Unfortunately, the detective story has been replaced by another kind of book. Janet Evanovich’s seventeenth novel about Stephanie Plum recently was in first place on the fiction best seller list. These books feature a heroine who is forced by the need for money to work as a bounty hunter for her cousin’s bail bond agency in New Jersey. Typically, she witnesses a murder while trying ineptly to arrest a person who has skipped bail. She is romantically involved with two people: a police officer who went to high school with her and a strange and powerful head of a security company who is known simply as Ranger. Her grandmother and her main coworker are eccentric. Her chief nemesis is a high school classmate who is a much better female bounty hunter. The books are amusing and well written, and while they resemble detective stories, they differ in substance. Ranger usually solves the murder by introducing a new character or organization not previously mentioned in the book, or by explaining a new motive of which there was never any hint. In other words, there is no hope of figuring out the end.
This difference is crucial. Once, popular crime fiction challenged us to use imagination and logic to solve mysteries. Today, crime fiction simply asks us to sit back and read about the adventures, clothes, and romantic life of the heroine until Ranger gives us the answers.
There are several reasons for this. In the past, the curricula of high schools typically included a rigorous course in logic. This is no longer true, and we can see the results in the decline of logical thinking and the substitution of slogans for arguments. Related to this is the rise of relativism that ultimately implies that the illogical answer and the logical answer to a question have equal validity.
Only slightly less important in explaining the decline of crime fiction is the destruction of imagination. A large part of our entertainment comes in large-screen, full-color images. This format does not challenge the imagination the way a book or a radio story does. Even more destructive of the imagination is the abandonment of virtually all restrictions on explicitness in our entertainment.
Our crime fiction today is written for people without logic or imagination — and not surprisingly, it is vastly inferior to a good Father Brown or Lord Peter Wimsey novel.