When your research project involves reading a representative sample of popular murder/detective novels written in (or translated into) English and published in the first half of the last century–well you aren\’t surprised to find yourself reading books that vary greatly in the quality of writing, the soundness of the plotting, the believability of the characterizations, the verisimilitude of the science and police procedures and the amount of overt, covert, passive and active misogyny, racism and classism.
As I have mentioned before in reviews published here and elsewhere, it is not uncommon for the protagonist/detective to (apparently) outwit the plodding, stodgy (and usually working class) policemen by the clever ruse of actually removing clues from the scene of the crime. When the protagonist/detective finally reveals his actions to the baffled police officers they never never respond by arresting him on the spot for obstructing justice. For example:
They were tightly, watchfully quiet, as if each had a deep personal stake in the least word being uttered by Mr. Queen. He glanced at his watch again.
\”I must now confess,\” he went on with a faint smile, \”to have engineered an unquestionably illegal suppression of important evidence. How important I leave you to judge. But I did suppress it when Mr. Rummell and I found it beneath the radiator of Room 1726 only a short time after the murderer of Ann Bloomer fled from it. In short, it was a companion-piece of the fountain-pen—an automatic pencil of the same hard black rubber composition, with similar gold trimming.\”
Inspector Queen glared at District Attorney Sampson, who glared back, then both glared at Mr. Queen.
The Inspector rose and roared: \”You found what?\”
\”I\’ll take my punishment later, please,\” said Mr. Queen.\”  (227)
But there was no punishment then or ever. Queen, Vance and their like are never punished for actions like this. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) rationale for their behaviour (and for their not being punished for this behaviour) is that the police would not be able to appreciate the full meaning of the clue or perhaps simply hat the police would get in the way of the detective investigating the crime as they wished. The behaviour of the detective/protagonist is not merely portrayed as justifiable it is often given a meritorious patina. On that basis they are justified in their minds, the minds of the authors and, presumably, the minds of most readers, for actively interfering with the police investigation.
No wonder the police are then unable to solve the crime.
Something else strikes me as I reread these books and that is how lacking in the basics of logic, deduction and common sense are many of these detective/protagonists. They are wont to expatiate at such length that the weary readers finds their eyes blurring as they skim over the words until they reach the end of the \”proof\” such as it. They aren\’t really presented well sourced arguments grounded in logic and accurate observations of places and people. They are just throwing loosing related pieces of information and random pieces of data in the eyes of the readers.
The only way these books work as \”mysteries\” and \”puzzles\” is that at least some (and all too often most) of the core participants do something stupid or overlook something obvious. So reader beware, don\’t focus on the inordinately complex set-ups of the crimes and don\’t get distracted by lengthy side-trips down avenues of knowledge that the author may find fascinating but which do not really move the story forward (for a good example of this read The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. \”Ah,\” one imagines the author thinks his readers will exclaim, \”anyone who knows so much about the breeding of that type of dog must indeed have the type of superior intellect that will allow him to solve arcane murder cases.\”)
There are quite a few books in which the reader can figure out what is really going on from the very beginning if only they set aside their presumptions that the detective knows best and instead reads the story as if everyone involved was no different than their family members, their co-workers or members of their local community group. Using the same deductive skills and knowledge as they use in everyday life most readers will suspect the true perpetrators of the crime long before the protagonist/detective has done so.
Thus, in The Virgin Heiresses by page 6 this reader was \”onto\” part of the plot that it would take the \”brilliant protagonist\” several hundred more pages of uncover (and not because of the rather rusty anvil which the author drops on the reader about bumping into door jambs.) Reading the rest of the book became nothing more than an exercise in boredom, frustration and annoyance as the reader is given page after page of evidence that contact with Hollywood did not improve the writing skills of the authors and that watching too many hard-boiled crime films did not improve their handling of dialogue. Rather than being what they had been—tolerably competent writers of the American let\’s-pretend-it-isn\’t-a-cozy-by-setting-it-in-a-big-city cozy with a protagonist who will only sound well-educated and upper-class to an audience that strives for both of those things but has achieved neither—they wrote several books that read as weak attempts at sounding like Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain.
The trouble with setting up your protagonist as a brilliant thinker is similar to the problem of setting up your protagonist as a brilliant reporter. Fred Clark addresses this frequently in his deconstruction of Left Behind. If the writer describes a character as a talented singer the reader can play along because the reader will never hear that person\’s voice. If the writer describes a character as a great dancer the reader can play along because the reader will never see that person dance. However when the writer describes a character as a brilliant thinker capable of unraveling the most deviously intricate of mysteries then the reader needs to both read of brilliant thoughts and dazzingly complex mysteries. Far too often writers demonstrate the characters brilliance by having them unravel a complex mystery which is only complex because the character is actually not that good a detective.
Tomorrow…..not so great moments in the lives of fictional detectives or \”they did WHAT?\”
 Queen, Ellery (1954:1939). The Virgin Heiresses, New York, NY: Pocket Books Inc. ↩